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Jellatech CSO on scaling up bio-identical, cell-cultured human collagen

Article-Jellatech CSO on scaling up bio-identical, cell-cultured human collagen

© Jellatech Jellatech CSO on scaling up bio-identical, cell-cultured human collagen
On the back of an oversubscribed $3.5 million seed round, cell-cultured collagen startup Jellatech plans to serve the high-value, low-volume biomedical market with its bio-identical human collagen before entering the food and drink space, says its chief scientific officer (CSO), Rob Schutte.

In 2022, US company Jellatech showcased its bio-identical cell-based bovine collagen and, in March this year, followed up with a full-length, triple-helical functional human collagen made from its own proprietary cell line. In the future, it also plans to produce gelatine.

Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body’s extra-cellular matrix and is associated with various health benefits, including skin health and elasticity, joint health and mobility, and muscle strength. 

Human collagen has biomedical and clinical applications in tissue engineering, arthritis treatment, regenerative medicine, dermal fillers, and 3D bioprinting.

Scaling up after successful $3.5m seed round

The startup recently closed an oversubscribed seed funding round in which it raised $3.5 million, led by Nordic-based byFounders, with additional investment from Milano Investment Partners, Joyful VC, Siddhi Capital, Blustein, and more.

It will use these funds to begin pilot production and hopes to reach commercial scale in around two years, said Schutte, who will be taking part in a panel discussion on fundraising and financing mechanisms for alternative protein startups at the Future of Protein Production in Amsterdam on 11 and 12 October.

“For us, the biggest challenge that we've had to face is like a lot of other companies in this space: it's scale. How do we take a cell culture, process, and develop it in a way that is highly scalable and that is highly reliable [so] that you can go in with a known set of conditions and your outputs are always the same?

“There are a number of challenges that go into figuring out how to [...] go from R&D to pilot scale to commercial scale. That's the biggest challenge that we have and it's ongoing,” he said, adding: “It's biology, it's very complicated!”

Serving the biomedical, food, and cosmetic markets

The startup, which is based in Raleigh, North Carolina’s research triangle – a hotbed for companies in bioprocessing, gene therapy, and pharmaceuticals, according to Schutte – uses growth medium supplements that are free from foetal bovine serum.

While its timeline to market may be behind other cell-cultured protein companies that are already commercialising small volumes of their products, mostly in food service – UPSIDE Foods and GOOD Meat in the US, for instance – Schutte said Jellatech has the strategic advantage of being able to supply the diverse applications that make up the collagen market.

While it will not initially have the manufacturing capacity to supply the high-volume food and drink sector with cultured bovine or porcine collagen, it plans to serve the low-volume, high-value biomedical market, while continuing to develop scale for food and drink, as well as cosmetics and personal care.

“[That] gives us a little bit more runway to get [...] our products out to market and then have a follow-on product that would be targeted for food and beverage,” Schutte added. “That’s one of the unique things for us working in collagen: it has a wide range of applications and that can let us get started a little bit more quickly than we may have been able to otherwise.”

Until now, the startup has channelled most of its efforts into developing the science behind the ingredients, Schutte said. But as it gets closer to being able to launch a product, it is starting to focus efforts on securing regulatory approval.

It is currently putting together the documentation and data required to have Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) status to commercialise its products in the US. It also has its sights set on serving the European and Asian markets but has not begun compiling a novel food dossier yet. 

Bio-identical is better

According to Schutte, Jellatech’s product offers several advantages over competitor products, such as extracted collagen peptides.

“[CEO and founder] Stephanie's approach in creating the company and building this technology has really been to create an identical product. Collagen is a complex protein and there are other complex proteins similar to it, but it's very difficult – if not impossible – to recreate in other manufacturing systems, whether that be fermentation or plant-based.

“Our process has been designed intentionally to use mammalian cells that already have all of the machinery to be able to make an identical collagen protein. [Our work] has been, how do we maximise the output from those cells? But what sets us apart is that we are making a bio-identical product. [...]

“With some of our competitors, it’s more likely that they're able to make peptides rather than full-length functional protein collagen,” Schutte said, adding that it was a very big market and there was plenty of room for multiple players.

© AdobeStock/Yulia LisitsaJellatech CSO on scaling up bio-identical, cell-cultured human collagen

Given that its ingredients are bio-identical to animal-derived collagen, Jellatech expects parameters such as bioavailability and stability of its ingredients to be the same as well, Schutte said, adding that it would seek to confirm this with analytical testing.

Improving natural collagen

Asked whether the startup would consider trying to improve the functionality and characteristics of natural bovine, porcine, or human collagen, Schutte said: “We think about that all the time.”

He added that the specific aspects that it would seek to improve would depend on specific customer needs. These might be related to mechanical properties, for instance.

“There are things that we could do to tailor the collagen protein we're making to be able to do that. [...] There are ways that we could genetically modify or maybe [target] a specific combination of collagen products,” he said.

Israeli startup Aleph Farms is also making cell-cultured collagen and is aiming for a 2024 commercial launch.

To benefit from a 20% delegate discount to attend the Future of Protein Production, use this code when making your booking: FIGI20