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Brightseed using AI to tap nature’s ‘dark matter’ — podcast

Audio-Brightseed using AI to tap nature’s ‘dark matter’ — podcast

At the intersection of sustainability, technology, and nutritional bioactives, Brightseed is exploring new ingredients to benefit human health.

Sustainability, technology, bioactives, targeted health issues—all of these areas are seeing incremental growth in interest from industry and consumers, and they are increasingly interconnected. Brightseed sits at this intersection—founded to address the world’s health challenges with a focus on the natural world, using artificial intelligence via its Forager platform to identify new bioactive compounds and commercialize them for human health application. Most recently, it announced a $68 million Series B funding round, complementing its extension from tech into supply—commercializing one of its own discoveries. In this Vitafoods Insights podcast, Sofia Elizondo, co-founder and COO, offered insights into the company’s journey and its emphasis on the power of the plant kingdom.

Tune in to hear more about:

  • New ways that artificial intelligence is powering exploration based on research.
  • The sustainability equation including opportunities for upcycling from current ingredients.
  • Synergy between industry partnerships and ingredient commercialization strategies.
  • Opportunities to increase diversity in the C-suite and its impact on business.


Speaker circled  (11).png Sofia Elizondo
Co-founder and COO, Brightseed

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Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast transcript:

Vitafoods Insights 00:05
Welcome to the Vitafoods Insights Sustainability Series podcast. From responsible sourcing to supply chain logistics, this dedicated podcast addresses some of the industry's greatest challenges, and champions the stories of sustainability success. Today's host is Heather Granato, Vice President of content.

Heather 00:27
Sustainability, technology, bioactives, targeted health support - all of these areas are seeing incremental growth in interest from industry and consumers. And they're increasingly interconnected. Identifying new bioactives from unique plant sources, which connect to greater biodiversity in the supply chain, and ultimately have targeted health benefits for consumers. What's the chance of all of this coming together? Well, that's the goal of Brightseed, founded to address the world's health challenges with a focus on the natural world using advanced tech to uncover plant bioactives at scale. It is bringing nature's intelligence to life and through the use of artificial intelligence powering its forger platform, the organisation has mapped 2 million plant compounds and built partnerships across the food, supplement and healthcare industries. Most recently, it announced a $68 million Series B funding round, complementing its extension from tech into supply, commercialising one of its own discoveries. It's an exciting time for the San Francisco based company and one the co founder and COO, Sofia Elizondo, characterised as buzzing.

Sofia 01:37
You know, that team is pumped, we're focused, we're growing. It's a great feeling to keep hitting our milestones. You know, we did start the company five years ago, and we built it for success to have impact on health. And as we hit our funding milestones, and our expansion milestones, and importantly, or commercialization milestones, it's very exciting.

Heather 01:58
There's a lot to dive into. And I'd love to get a little bit of background about the AI of technology then drives forward into this sustainability play.

Sofia 02:08
The AI platform we call foragers, are heart of Brightseed, but let me take a step back to put that into context. At Brightseed we seek to illuminate nature, so that we can restore human health. We think nature is brimming with solutions. And those solutions we call the natural bioactives. These are natural compounds that interact with human biology. And they are basically gold that is often hidden in supply chains. We've helped partners like Ocean Spray, find out what else cranberries can do for health. And we also have our own bioactive pipeline, where we're finding many 10s, and even hundreds of plant sources, each with bioactive set can be multifaceted in their health applications. And so it is the reason we founded Brightseed, it is because we believe that nature is brimming with solutions. And we've only really just begun to tap into them. And how we tap into them is with forger, our AI enabled platform. We know that the natural bioactives are critical for health, the longitudinal studies on health, the global burden of disease, the largest and most comprehensive study on the impact of diet and longevity, basically says that if you don't have plants in your diet, you're bound for a premature death. And it is one of the easiest things that we can do to change that. So we know that there's something in the plants that is powerful for longevity. And the pharmaceutical industry knows that it is these small natural compounds that are very powerful. Two thirds of small molecule drugs are derived from them. Aspirin, Metformin for diabetes, taxall for breast cancer - there's a lot of value in these small molecules, but the world doesn't know about them. And it's called the Dark Matter of the plant kingdom. And that's why we built foragers so that we can see them and then so that we can predict what they can do for health. So we speed up the search for solutions and into months instead of years. And we actually can de-risk the costly clinical validation that can you know, come with bringing science back to health claims to market.

Heather 04:17
So, it's interesting to talk about this dark matter but obviously there's got to be a prioritisation. Are certain types of plants more appealing? You know, do you look at past research, does that help connect you and and then how does that get into your focus around plant biodiversity and sustainable agriculture?

Sofia 04:35
That's a lot in there and we can unpack it. You know, Brightseed works with both our own products that we take to market and with partners, and we certainly prioritise the Brightseed's pipeline of bioactive ingredients to market. And I'll tell you more about that. And then I'll also share how we work with partners to because we prioritise based on what they find is powerful and interesting. Maybe because they are sitting on their own supply chain that they want to tap into to see what else they can do for health applications, or because they want to focus on a specific health benefit. So on these two tracks under a Brightseed patent protected bioactive ingredients, and our partnerships, we actually don't need anything exotic. And many, many, many plants that have a history of human use that are already in our supply chains are brimming with powerful solutions for health, but we just don't know about them. So we start there, what is it that is already in our fridges, in our distribution trucks? and that we don't know has powerful bioactives? and we're really excited about valorizing the plants that we already know. Indeed, that can lead to the valuing diverse crop production, and has a real impact for biodiversity as well.

Heather 05:55
This idea of fostering plant biodiversity and how that connects to sustainable agriculture, talk to me more about that aspect and why that's important to what you're doing.

Sofia 06:07
We all know that plant biodiversity is fundamental for a healthy ecosystem. And before starting Brightseed, I worked at the United Nations for some time. A big lesson of my time there, and in particular, working with the private sector, while I was at the UN, was that aligning corporate and environmental goals is really powerful. And when you can have that alignment, it's pretty unstoppable. And it is actually possible. So there are two ways in which Brightseed enables this. The first is we valorize plants so that we can increase the diversity of the crops that are grown. And we can add to that business case to protecting biodiversity. If there is yet one more reason why a certain crop can maintain or be certain acreage or is worthy of distribution, because customers are now valuing the bioactive content that it has, it kind of adds to that business case. There is also a broader business case on biodiversity, which is the dark matter, you know, back to what we don't know. And if we don't know what these crops are, or plants that may not be cultivated yet are giving us, we may be missing out on a lot of applications for health. And the other way in which, you know, Brightseed impact is this area is with agricultural practices, you know, the history of agriculture has focused on yield. And then on shelf life, you know, we want to make sure that that berry that gets to the shelf and survives the trip, and then can be in your fridge for a few days. And then we optimise it for sight, fruit looks beautiful and bright, then it's more likely to be purchased. But we haven't quite optimised for bioactive content. And it turns out that agricultural practices, and the quality of the soil actually have a really important impact on whatever the bioactives and those nutrients that plants then can provide us as we eat them. So there was a golden thread here, that what is good for the planet. And it's actually pretty good for human health. And it can be really good for business too.

Heather 08:15
I love that. I love how that's all connected together and really going back to supporting the plants themselves so that they can then support humans. It's that sort of virtuous cycle.

Sofia 08:25
Yeah, it's exactly, you know, we like to say a Brightseed that humans are a part of nature. And recognising that if we all live in balance and harmony, we can uncover really powerful ways to maintain both planetary health and human health.

Heather 08:40
So we have this emphasis, but then at the same time, there's this great use of technology, this forage or platform, the use of artificial intelligence. How do you see that this could even benefit other parts of our nutraceutical industry? You know, integration of omics data, for example, or different phytonutrients?

Sofia 08:59
Yes, I think this is a really great question and first level set on forage or you asked earlier, if we look at past research to dive deeper and foragers, actually informed by decades of biomedical literature. So in that sense, we learned from the very high standard of the pharmaceutical industry, and we look at those, we codify that those biological targets so that we can find solutions in nature that can modulate or create the benefits that we already know are possible through biomedical literature. So I think that's really important to state because forger is a breakthrough AI enabled technology that is enabling pharma grade level of visibility, and maybe even, I qualify that as it maybe, but, you know, for the first time in an industry that was not able to access pharma grade level visibility in which is the nutraceutical and functional, you know, food industry. So, if we take one example, you know, a forger can see from a single plant, or a single plant sample, which can even be like tissue of a plant 1000s of compounds, and this is the dark matter, you know, we go from 10s, to 1000s, hundreds or even 1000s of compounds. So we can first see that, and then we can see how each of those compounds connects to potential health benefits. So we end up with a web with essentially a branch of what a single plant tissue can do for health. And then it's not only that, but we can multiply that for all of the plants that we're bringing into the lab constantly. So I just wanted to give you like a moment to convey that it is really powerful visibility. It's like a Google map of how plants can impact human health. And so why does that matter for omics, and for additional information? With this kind of visibility, we can speed up innovation. It has taken us months instead of years compared to what medicinal high throughput chemistry approaches that pharma uses to find validated leads. So we can confidently say that we can be an order of magnitude 10 times faster. So speed of innovation is one; two, we can de risk what the validation that comes next. Because everyone in this space knows that validating and running clinical trials is long and expensive. And so if you can have a better shot at this illusion that you had, knowing that the outcomes of your trial are going to be what you would love, it's worth a lot. So the way that forger works actually predicts that down to the mechanism of action level. And that is really important when we design clinical trials. And when we select what samples to put through those clinical trials, so speed of innovation, de risking clinicals, because of the high quality, and resolution of prediction. And then really importantly, we bring novel findings to plants and crops that are already known. And so it is like realising that you're surrounded by gems without you even knowing. So new evidence around health claims and unmet health conditions are possible when you can speed up the innovation when you can de risk what happens later in development. And when you can already use what's around you. And that is something that with this massive visibility into the data that supports human health, we can actually bring forward and it's just the beginning.

Heather 12:29
So let's dive into one example then. Most recently, you have these bioactives from hemp whole, which seemed to have benefits for fatty liver disease, metabolic health, serious conditions that are really on the rise. So maybe a little bit of context about the discovery of these bioactives from the shell of the hemp feed, and this idea which you referred to this kind of upcycling of something that's already in our supply chain.

Sofia 12:55
Yes, so happy and really excited actually, Heather, to dive into this example, because we're finally getting to market with a product that can be in consumers hands that can impact their lives. And it's a really wonderful moment for bright seed. metabolic health is a very large concern for the US population and for the world. Over 90% of US adults are metabolically unhealthy. And it is 25% of the global population have or are at risk for a fatty liver. And that is so critical, because liver is the organ that detoxifies our blood basically. And when it gets compromised, when all of the fat kind of attaches to the liver, it's not able to do its job. So it starts getting associated with other conditions like, you know, heart failure, and obesity and kidney failure and liver failure. And we found a compound, actually two compounds, NFT and MCT, that can have a really important impact on the health of our livers, shown preclinically. And we're now in clinical trials. And beyond that, we also identified that these same compounds can have a really powerful impact on our gut. So we predicted over 80 plants that have NFT and MCT and we identified both blackpepper, which we've talked about before and hemp wholes as two of the very best sources of these compounds. And as you said with the hemp wholes, there is no new forming required to bring this to market. They're already here in our supply chains. We are gearing up to launch our first bioactive ingredient in a whole food high fibre version later this year for gut health, and early next year, an extract version as well. And the exciting question that we now ask ourselves is what else are we missing in our ag and food supply chains that we may be throwing away that it's just full of these powerful bioactive compounds that can have an impact on important health conditions like the ones we talked about?

Heather 15:00
This whole idea of taking what we're already using and finding more value will be so important to maximising our resources. So now you've got this go to market strategy very exciting for these Hemp whole bioactives. And going the grass route, so generally recognised as safe versus an NDI. So tell me about this path to market and how customers may be able to use the compounds in different applications and to make different types of claims.

Sofia 15:30
You know, we start with plants that have a history of human use, because we think it they're brimming with untapped solutions. And this is what drives our grass route to market generally regarded as safe versus our NDI route to market. Because most often, these ingredients are already here with us, and they're already consumed. We also believe as a company, the solution is not only in extracts or supplements, but also in functional foods and beverages. We want to meet consumers where they are in their everyday habits, and grass allows for that multiplicity of paths of product applications. We know that these bioactives are the foundation for functional ingredients. And because they're already here with us, we're happy to identify them as what makes food medicine and either maintain them in the raw form, incorporate them into food and beverage applications, or then enable extract so that we can make them applicable to for the types of products too.

Heather 16:30
Let food be thy medicine. So it's really getting back to it.

Sofia 16:34

Heather 16:35
You talked about your parallel path. So you have your extensive industry partnerships, you know, Ocean Spray or OFI, now you're coming to market with your own ingredient. How does that impact your strategy? Are they complementary in this idea of really bringing the entire industry forward?

Sofia 16:53
I love that you asked that question. And we see our partnerships and our products as very complimentary. At Brightseed, our North Star is restoring human health. And from day one, we've known that we cannot do this by ourselves, we have an entire ecosystem that enables health across the spectrum. So we work with partners to enable them. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation down known Ocean Spray form of ICT. And we allow and work with these partners to tap into foragers capabilities to accelerate their innovation so that they can go faster to market with health solutions that matter for their consumers. And we both do both these partnerships and are specific patent protected rights and bioactive products, because some partners in the ecosystem want to collaborate upstream. And they are invest in discovery, and they want to tap into foragers capabilities. And that is, you know, their bread and butter. But some in the industry also want a plug and play solution that is highly differentiated, that is new in this like menu of potential solutions, we finally have new ingredients with new scientific validation behind them that can provide natural and efficacious solutions for health. And we're really excited about enabling both upstream work with enjoying collaboration with partners, and the packaged plug and play solution so that partners can get to market faster with Brightseed have in put the research and time upfront to enable those ingredients.

Heather 18:23
Fantastic. So we talked about different aspects of sustainability. And one of the aspects that I'm pretty interested in is this idea of diversity across our industry. Now, you were named to the Inc female founders 100 list in 2021. And you commented there about how you were growing this company and raising funds and increasing the size of your family. And we hear a lot about challenges facing women in the C suite. But we know how important it is to have more diversity there. So I'd like a little bit of maybe your personal journey and thoughts for other women who might be looking to accelerate their career progression.

Sofia 18:59
Thanks for that question, Heather. You know, I have two young daughters who are a joy in my life. And I do want to validate for any women or any, you know, and any men who are also have young children, that it is very hard. It is a lot to juggle. And I think it takes commitment to seeing it through tenacity and resilience, because without the commitment that you're going to have a solve out of juggle, it would be even harder, I believe. And I think, you know, I have two thoughts here. Since speaking from personal experience, I think it's very important for women to believe in themselves. There are important narratives and identity narratives that may not be serving you or were not serving me, if I put myself in this. And it was very important to identify those and remove them and actually leaning into a growth mindset, because we all have, and especially women tend to have kind of some cultural or social baggage with career progression. It was certainly my case. The second The area that comes to mind is I, Heather, I'm surrounded by three amazing men: my husband, my two co founders, they are all very dedicated wonderful fathers who care a lot about their families. And it has been really important for me to surround myself with people. You know, in this example, men, not only women who believe in me and support me and create opportunities for me, and also give me tough feedback to keep learning and growing. So finding these folks in life and and in business has been very powerful for me too. And I think that's something that I can share in case helpful for others as well.

Heather 20:45
Those shared values, probably the people that you do align yourself with, but your your daughters are very fortunate to have an example of a strong woman in every area of their lives.

Sofia 20:55
That's very gracious. Thank you, Heather.

Heather 20:57
Any final thoughts you'd like to share with our listeners about what they can look for from Brightseed in the coming years?

Sofia 21:04
We're excited to bring your products to market. I think we won't have to wait a year later this year, in a few months, we'll have our first bioactive ingredient, the you know, the head pole example we talked about for gut health. And shortly thereafter, an extract version, and then we'll keep leading into metabolic health and other health conditions. So that's exciting for us in the future, and also for the industry. We have these bioactive patent protected ingredients coming to market and very excited to share those.

Heather 21:31
We'll certainly keep our eyes on you. And thank you so much for joining me, Sophia. It's just been a lovely and fascinating conversation.

Sofia 21:39
Great to be here. And thanks again, Heather.

Heather 21:41
And for our listening audience. You can find more information about Brightseed at So thank you for joining me for this Vitafoods Insights podcast.

Vitafoods Insights 21:52
Thank you for tuning in. And don't forget to check the show notes that will allow you to link to the information discussed in today's podcast, as well as any sponsorship opportunities. Be sure to stay tuned, subscribe and even suggest to a friend.


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