Today most biotin (vitamin B7) is synthesised from crude oil. Danish biotech startup Biosyntia tells Vitafoods Insights why it believes its microbial fermentation-derived biotin is a more sustainable – and natural – form of the nutrient.
Biotin is an essential nutrient, and daily intake contributes to the body's energy-yielding metabolism. It also has benefits for hair and skin.
"Today, more or less, all biotin is made by chemical synthesis, and it is made almost exclusively in China," said Cecilie Oest-Jacobsen, head of business development at Biosyntia. "The problem with the chemical synthesis is, of course, that it's based on fossil fuel raw materials."
"There are small amounts of natural biotin extracted from a plant called Sesbania [Agati]," Oest-Jacobsen told Vitafoods Insights. "The problem is that plants' biotin is very low in abundance, so you can't extract it, and the purity is approximately 0.1% to 1%. So, for most nutraceutical applications – and also from a sustainability perspective – extracting it from plants is not the future. You cannot produce several tons yearly to give all supplements a natural source. Fermentation technology is a more efficient process, and it is the alternative."
Biosyntia claims that its first ingredient, vitamin B7 or biotin made by microbial fermentation, is the first natural source of high purity biotin on the market.
Can biotech be natural?
But can it be called natural if it doesn't come from the plant? While fermentation related to traditional products such as beer, yoghurt, and sourdough bread is natural, precision microbial fermentation is another question. The tech-driven process underpinning precision fermentation (also known as synthetic biology) often involves genetically modifying bacteria or yeast to instruct it to produce the molecule of interest.
Biosyntia uses both genetically modified bacteria and yeast, providing beet sugar as a feedstock, although the final ingredient is not considered GM as the microbe is removed during the purification process.
"[The way] we see it, the carbon source is natural because it is sugar; the process of microorganisms producing biotin is also a natural process because fermentation is used for things like wine, for example, and these organisms produce biotin by themselves. We just improve the process," she said. "Lastly, what we do for the purification process does not involve chemical steps or adding any problematic solvents. It's an immaculate purification process, so it's as close as you can get to nature in a scalable, feasible way."
According to Biosyntia, which has patents protecting its technology, many of these processes are not new to the nutraceutical industry, which has been harnessing them for years.
"[...] vitamin B2 is completely fermented today and has been for 30 years. So, in that sense, our process is not novel. What's novel is that we can do it for biotin," Oest-Jacobsen said.
The startup, which was spun off from a research project at the Technical University of Denmark's Centre for Bio-sustainability, has so far raised €10 million, of which €4m was from grants. It is based in Copenhagen, where it has offices and a laboratory, and works with a food-approved contract manufacturer in France but plans to have its factory further down the line. It also plans to produce cosmetic-grade samples by September 2022 and to launch full-scale food production at the beginning of 2023.
Food or supplement? Category barriers are becoming blurred
When asked whether Biosyntia requires novel food approval to commercialise its ingredients in Europe, Oest-Jacobsen said it depends on the ingredient. They are currently working on some flavonoids, new to Europe, which will require approval.
"We have regulatory experts to review our data. For some, we are still discussing the best route to market," she said.
In any case, the startup sees potential for many of its ingredients – particularly the flavonoids – beyond the supplement format.
"We generally work with active ingredients that have health benefits, so, within the food sector, all our ingredients have interesting applications for the fortified or optimised food areas.”
"We see the barriers between supplements and food getting blurred a lot. For most people, taking a supplement each day is just not nice. As we understand the market, people are looking for these alternative applications, such as enriched waters, enriched snacks [...] without having to take a pill."
'We need an alternative to petrochemical-derived supplements'
Biosyntia is convinced that synthetic biology is the solution to providing sustainably produced, healthy bioactives to a growing (and ageing) global population.
According to a life cycle analysis conducted by Biosyntia and cited by Oest-Jacobsen, producing biotin via its fermentation platform rather than conventional methods leads to 95% reductions in chemical waste and reduces dependency on fossil fuel-based raw materials by 75%. She added that it also cuts down on water pollution, air pollution and CO2 emissions.
"If we want to eliminate our dependency on petrochemicals and fossil fuels, we need an alternative. Fermentation is the clear alternative because you can produce at least as well or even better with optimisation. You can be competitive [although] it takes time and effort because chemical synthesis has also been optimised for 70 years," Oest-Jacobsen told us.
"The same argument goes for plants and plant extracts. It's lovely that there are so many plants with health benefits, but [...] this is not something we can harvest and give to everyone in the world, and it would not be sustainable to grow rare plants in huge amounts.
"It would be unfair if only [people] here in the Western world can have access to this. If it makes a difference to [health], why shouldn't everyone have access to it? That makes it an opportunity where fermentation can create that access. It's not that we shouldn't have plant extracts or that we should only have fermentation; it's just that we should try to complement these different technologies for the future so that [we have] sustainable and scalable ingredients."