“More than gut feeling”: Microbiota modulation technology scores at HiE 2018

By FoodIngredientsFirst 28 Nov 2018 — GNUBiotics (Switzerland) has won the Ingredients category in the Startup Innovation Challenge at HiE 2018 in Frankfurt. The company is developing a novel platform for selective microbiota modulation, with an initial market focus on the pet food arena. A subsequent entrance is foreseen into the infant nutrition market.

In human nutrition, potential can be seen in areas where you see the benefits of countering a deflated microbiota the most. With one-third of births in
developed markets coming through Caesarean section, increasing data shows that these infants already have a deflated microbiota. This type of technology could close the gap.

Now in its third year, the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge 2018 gave start-ups the opportunity to pitch their idea to the whole host of food & beverage industry players that make up the show’s 500+ exhibitors and 10,000+ attendees. The quality of this year’s event was strong, with an initial long list of 35 entries trimmed to a shortlist of 13, who were given the opportunity to pitch at this year’s event.

This year’s categories were:

  • Most Innovative Healthy Food or Beverage Ingredient
  • Most Innovative Plant-Based Finished Product
  • Most Innovative Technology or Service Supporting F&B.

The three winners will get individual advice from one of the judges. In addition, the successful nominees can choose from various special prizes – from a fully equipped stand at Hi Europe or Fi Europe; a marketing campaign within the Ingredients Network; access to the “Conciergerie” innovation platform from Presans; or intensive consultation with Wageningen University & Research. In addition to the three category winners, one start-up was selected by Naturex Ingenium as their special prize winner. This startup won €10,000 plus a three-month business mentorship with the Naturex Ingenium Open Innovation team. Magellan Life Sciences scooped this award for their brazzein sweetener production technology.

Ingredients A Swiss biotech created in September 2016, GNUbiotics Sciences is a privately funded company active in R&D to reproduce the natural diversity and complexity of unique structures found in mothers’ milk that are beneficial in preventing infections and the onset of diet-induced obesity. Building on exclusive rights from patents issued to Stanford University and their intellectual property (IP), the company is developing a novel platform for selective microbiota modulation via natural mechanism of action with nextgeneration Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) mimic composed of up to 130 diverse Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates (MACs) structures. The company has a rich pipeline in nutrition (pet and infant) and later for medical food solutions.

The short-term goal is to address the pet food market and hit the commercialization with a health ingredient in Europe in 2019. The initial focus will be on the US$100 billion pet food market [40 percent of which is in the US], which has a lot of similarities to the infant nutrition market because the buyer of the product is not the same as the consumer i.e., a parent will buy it for an infant, while an owner will buy it for a pet.

GNU 100, the company’s first pipeline candidate is an oligosaccharides and glycopeptides mix that will be applied to the pet food market. It serves as a dense protective barrier on gut cell surfaces and help restore compromised gut microbiota to improve gut health. It is also claimed to offer protection from diet induced obesity by promoting short chain fatty acid (SCFA) production causing microbiota diversity increase which are often depleted during weight gain and the selective enhancement of a microbiota that is advantageous to calorie harvest. GNU100 is a natural derivative, manufactured using a unique and patented purification process (no enzyme, no GMO).

Jean-Philippe Kunz, CEO at Gnubiotics Sciences SA explained in his presentation: “The microbiome’s main function is to turn food into energy. They play a major role in our digestive tract today. A well-balanced microbiota will help you absorb nutrition, provide immunity and may help counter obesity later in life. The microbiome is mainly given at birth. It is equally important for humans and animals.”

Gnubiotics is working on nourishing and rebalancing the microbiota. “We are developing a complex sugar that selectively modulate your microbiota. Initial technologies are based on an exclusive Stanford patent. This complex sugar can go intact through the stomach and then you will reach the lower part of your digestive tract. There it serves first on a layer protecting the mucosa from pathogens and it will also feed the microbiota,” he says.

Part of the reason for the award win was the jury’s strong belief in the experience of the team behind the technology, a clarity in business strategy and a clear value-added proposition as a whole. The Gnubiotics team consists of executives from the nutrition and pharma industries, including Kunz himself, who has a consumer marketing background.

“The business model is built so that we can build the whole value chain. We have already qualified the starting material from an animal source. We are now starting to sell and promote the ingredient. We are keen to maintain customer proximity. Even before we created the company we spoke to leading manufacturers in both pet food and infant nutrition to make sure that market traction was real. We are focusing on the premium segment of the pet food market and we should be aiming at turnover of US$100 million by year five. This market is highly concentrated with five brands holding more than half of the market.”

Time to market and regulatory approval spawned the initial focus on pet food. He noted that if the pet food part of the business is successful it could be spun off. “The human side has tremendous potential, in the infant nutrition side but in many areas. The exit would be more about creating value on the human side. Most of our investors came to us for the human side. But the risk of manufacturing, regulatory and short-term revenue for biotech made pet food a good short-term goal,” Kunz explained.

When asked by FoodIngredientsFirst, Kunz noted a clear gap in the market for digestive health products for pets, while weight management products may also hold potential in this area. “Today there are two widely used products in pet food. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) is a simple ingredient coming from chicory and GOS. There are some benefits from L-Carnitine, which is another ingredient that could support gut health in animal nutrition. But today, the need is clearly there as one-third of pets have digestive health problems due to the use of dried foods that is not natural for pets. As a consequence of that lifestyle, they are now facing an obesity type of issues,” says Kunz.

The company is now moving into manufacturing and scaling up. “We are running two FDA clinical trials to validate in cats and dogs in terms of dosage and we are going to register the product in the coming months and are looking at companies to take over the product distribution,” he explains.

The human nutrition pathway is further down the line. “We have proven efficacy of the compound in selectively modulated microbiota and know how to measure this. Because we provide a game changer in terms of diversity, we believe that we will be offering the next generation of HMOs. Lastly, what we are producing is a natural source and will remain on the safe side,” Kunz says.

The company has a lot of data in vitro, have some early data in mice and rats and now need to transfer this into humans. “But the logic for our business model will remain the same. We must maintain a high-quality sourcing on the raw material side and transfer our technology to a leading producer who can manufacture in very large quantities and then we will be able to work with distributors, to sell large quantities to manufacturers,” he explains.

The focus will be on areas across human nutrition where the benefits of countering a deflated microbiota is most clear cut. While he stresses that breastfeeding should always be seen as best, there is clear potential in the infant formula space for mothers for whom this is not/not always possible.

“The initial target market will be starter formula of 0-6 months, which is where you will benefit the most, if not breastfed. But moving forward, prebiotics are already used in formula for above 12 months. Moving to an older age, when used together with vitamins it can play a role in immunity too. When children go to school or kindergarten they are exposed to more pathogens and this could be more useful. But in reality, when we are moving to older ages in will be more about treating gut inflammation and meeting a medical need,” Kunz notes.