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Neil Goldsmith and two colleagues started working on Evolva in 2001, moving its headquarters from Denmark to Reinach in Switzerland in 2004. The «Brewers of 21st Century» discover and provide ingredients produced with the help of biologically engineered yeast. CEO Neil Goldsmith explains in the i-net interview how this works and why, initially, they received their seed money for another business model.
You call yourselves the «Brewers of 21st Century». What does that mean?
Neil Goldsmith*: We make ingredients for food or cosmetics by genetically engineering baker’s yeast and brewing it. If we want to make Stevia for example, we take the genes the plant uses to make that molecule and put those genes into the yeast so the yeast can make the molecule. We then ferment the yeast by brewing, just like with beer. The yeast takes up the sugar, turns it into Stevia and pumps it out; we filter off the yeast and have Stevia in the «broth» which we can purify out.
Why should biosynthetically brewed Stevia be better than the grown one?
The Stevia plant makes a lot of sweet molecules. However most of these molecules start to taste bitter when you use a lot of them – that is why the current Stevia-based soft drinks only have about a one-third reduction in the level of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Now, the plant also makes some molecules that do not give a bitter taste, but it makes very small amounts of them. Therefore it’s not economic and sustainable to grow the plant to produce these molecules. But creating Stevia by brewing it is a very promising alternative.
So with yeast, you can make almost anything?
In principle, we can make anything that occurs in nature. The key is combinatorial genetics. For the yeast to turn sugar into Stevia it needs 32 genes that have to work together: Finding what those genes are and optimizing them so they all work well together is what we are founded around. It’s in principle more complex than making an antibody or an enzyme, because that’s just one gene or one protein. We were intrigued by the idea of taking the combinatorial thinking of chemistry and applying it to genetics. You can use our approach to make old molecules in better ways – which is what we do now – or you can use it to make new molecules, which was the original idea. You would get new structures that have never been seen before and they might cure diseases.
Evolva has pivoted from pharmaceuticals to the nutrition sector – how did this come about?
We pivoted because we weren’t finding interest from the pharma companies for our technology. Instead, food and cosmetic companies were approaching us. We initially agreed to work for some of these companies just to bring some money in. After a while, we started to understand that the business itself looked interesting. Then we had to persuade our investors, who invested in us because we were going to develop a new diabetes drug, that switching to food and other ingredients made sense.
A completely different market?
Yes and with lower margins. But also less risky, with lower development costs and much less competition compared to pharma. Today we’re actually a network business; our analogy is a railway company. Two molecules that might be very, very different – take vanillin and benzocaine, an anaesthetic – are actually on the same railway track from the yeast point of view. So we want to build and own this track and own that network. If we invest in making vanillin well, that also gets us towards benzocaine. It was interesting to realise that there are many different products by simply pursuing the same track. Maybe they’re not all so big in market terms, but they are built on the same research and can be produced with the same infrastructure: Everything is brewing. So you can produce one product this week and another one next week. Also it is possible to respond very quickly to market demand.
Pharma start-ups are mostly being exited through a trade sale. Will Evolva be a different story?
The food and personal care industries have seen very little transformative innovation. Companies typically spend only very little on R&D and that gives the opportunity to build something transformative. In pharmaceuticals you can’t do that because the big pharma companies will spot you and adapt pretty quickly. In a way it’s a problem for the biotech industry that it has stayed so reliant on pharmaceuticals and not innovated its business models for 30 years. In the ingredients business everyone collaborates with everyone, and by partnering and building a network you can get the resources you need. Using the railway analogy: If you want to build a track from Basel to Geneva and you want to fund this track, you fund it by selling off Yverdon-les-Bains to someone who wants this station, meaning this product. In pharma, this way of thinking is not possible. So I really believe we can grow our business organically and remain an independent company.
What is your business strategy with Evolva?
We want to make products where there is a clear benefit, not just that we can make it cheaper but also that we can make it better, like Stevia. We don’t want to compete with the big companies. Instead we are looking to develop products which have a new market or can open up a new market. In a nutshell, we focus on «high priced, small volume» in the health, wellness and nutrition industry. One of our latest products is Nootkatone, a grapefruit fragrance that turned out to be very good at killing and repelling the ticks that transmit Lyme disease. There is an unmet need for that and we have a product that is very safe, it smells nice and it’s very good at both repelling and killing the ticks.
Will you do the production yourself or enter into a partnership for the production?
At the moment, all we have is labs. In some cases we have a partner who does it, and in other cases we pay someone on a contract basis. But in the long term we want our own brewery, because it’s a business with constant improvement and ultimately, you need to have the bug and the brewery integrated. If you want to be flexible in manufacturing, it needs to be your facility. But this is a long-term plan that costs many tens of millions of dollars. We don’t want to do that too quickly and then find that we can’t sell enough products quickly enough to justify that.
Would you do that in Switzerland or somewhere else in the world?
I wouldn’t completely rule out Switzerland; it’s obviously a high-cost location for manufacture, but it’s possible to run these facilities pretty lean and there is a value in this market to being Swiss. If you’re selling a food ingredient and it’s a Swiss food ingredient you get a certain quality association. We don’t know the answer yet, but I think there will be something in the States and something in Europe.
Let’s talk more about the buzz around high-tech food, which is sustainable and healthier. There seems to be a lot of attention surrounding this issue that suggest you may be in the right place at the right time.
It’s clear that a lot of megatrends in society converge in the space we occupy at present. It started about four to five years ago, and it has taken a few years to build a momentum. But we don’t know how it will play out in reality. What’s going to be interesting is that food is fundamentally a very conservative culture, and innovation– by definition – is not. So how do you marry these cultures? If you look at the big food companies and if you take brewing beer, it’s a very conservative industry. But the rise of craft brewing is really challenging that. There are people experimenting with different flavours of beer made from different ingredients. The same could happen with synthetic biology: Innovation happens in small companies.
Is there a technological driver behind this trend?
I don’t see the development as technology driven; it’s rather about adapting technology to these needs because technology sort of arises for other purposes. Look at the smart farming movement: It’s just applying sensors; now you can image every single corn plant in the field and data mine. I think it’s more that various technologies have matured to the point where they can start to be used here, because they need to be robust and relatively affordable, and then you start to assemble them together. Now you can set up a biotech lab in your garage and start to do stuff – this is new for biotech. And it does raise important questions as to how we control it. There is no way you can track every single garage around the world.
What is the potential in this region; should there be more attention for this field?
I think it would be very good to try to widen everyone’s vision of what you can do with biology, because it’s not just cancer drugs. I think the limiting factor is investors, and that’s really why there are so few people in this space currently. Traditional biotech investors are investing in medical stuff – we only got our money because we started off doing that. We would never have got the money if we started off doing what we now do. I think you need new kinds of investors.
They are mostly likely to be found in Silicon Valley.
Yes, we need people that really think hard and deep about where trends will be and start playing there. Europe is not so good at doing that; it only follows. We need a different mindset. If you look at Silicon Valley, most of the people who are in the nutrition area come from the IT sector, whereas the biomedical guys find it very hard to get out of their way of thinking. The UK investment in food and agricultural research has declined, and you don’t have equivalents in Europe to the movement in the US of teaching farmer’s kids technology.
Next year will be a big year for you with Stevia hitting the market, will that be a booster? What do you expect?
We have a product we are very confident of in terms of taste and competiveness. Potentially, it’s very big. It’s clearly got the possibility of being a billion-dollar product in terms of revenue. But will it get there? We don’t know. It will take some years to get into the market. These products typically have 5 to 10 years to achieve peak sales, because we’re in a slow-moving industry. Unlike a pharmaceutical product that gets picked up immediately by the healthcare industry, market incumbents in the nutrition sector don’t change their flagship products and brands overnight. They normally extend their product lines gradually.
|*Neil Goldsmith is co-founder and CEO of Evolva SA in Reinach. He has a 25-year track record in building successful biotech companies, among them TopoTarget A/S and Personal Chemistry AB. Earlier in his career, he was Chief Executive Officer of Auda Pharmaceuticals, GX Biosystems and PNA Diagnostics.
He received a first-class BA Honours degree in Zoology from Balliol College, University of Oxford, and is a graduate of the New Enterprise Programme at the Scottish Enterprise Foundation, University of Stirling.