Vitafoods Insights caught up with Helaina’s founder and CEO, Laura Katz, to find out more about the startup’s ambitions to disrupt not just the infant formula sector with its ingredients – the first will be lactoferrin – but the functional food space in general.
Laura Katz will be speaking at Vitafoods Europe’s Future of Nutrition Summit in Geneva in May.
What health benefits do glycoproteins have and why did Helaina decide to focus on these?
“Most of the proteins found in human milk are proteins that have special sugars attached, which are called glycans and that's what identifies a glycoprotein. [...] The way that these proteins form and come together in human milk allows for their bioactivity or their role in helping to provide health properties
“Beyond [...] just providing calories for babies who drink breast milk, glycoproteins are responsible for helping to develop the immune system. So, as we started Helaina, we were looking at human milk and [asking] how we can try to bring the properties of human milk to formula fed babies – and not just formula fed babies but, hopefully, all kinds of populations.
“We decided that these were a really great target for us to develop because they have a very targeted potency in terms of how they develop and support baby's immune health from day one.”
What are the benefits of using synthetic biology to manufacture these kinds of ingredients for infant formula?
“Until today, the only source of bioactive proteins like the ones in breast milk come from cows, and there is a finite amount of cows’ milk in the world. To extract these proteins from cows’ milk, you need a lot of milk and you are purifying out a relatively small quantity of protein – 0.01% or 0.1%. It's quite wasteful, unsustainable, and it leads to a really expensive ingredient.
“Precision fermentation allows us to [...] democratise access to these valuable ingredients. We don't need to rely on [ingredients from] conventional agriculture like dairy milk. We can use big fermentation tanks to produce a lot of protein from yeast and we'll be able to do that at scale at a fraction of the cost of cows’ milk.
“At the end of the day, we're also making human proteins that, compared to cows’, are easier to absorb and for the body to utilise.”
Do you see these glycoproteins produced via precision fermentation as being superior to dairy-based versions from a nutritional point of view?
“Exactly. The proteins that we make are, from the data we've collected so far, functioning identically to what's found in breast milk, and they outperform what's found in cows’ milk in terms of the benefits and the familiarity to the body.
“From a nutrition perspective, it could unlock this whole world [...] where we take these proteins into other types of foods, not just infant formula. We can look at breast milk as this gold standard of nutrition that everybody knows the value of. And if we can bring those values, that have never been accessible before, to the functional food industry and the nutrition world, it's very exciting.”
The global adult population is obviously much greater than the baby and infant population. Do you see functional food and drink products aimed at adults as a potentially more interesting category for Helaina in the long run?
“Absolutely, we are focused on nutrition from early life to end-of-life and there are a lot of different [stages] in our life where we need nutritional support and enhanced food products.
“We're excited about different types of use cases, [particularly] elderly nutrition. The ageing population is growing, and they need food products that are specially formulated for their changing health needs. At Helaina, we want to create the future of nutrition and that is throughout the entire life cycle.”
The US infant formula supply chain has been experiencing huge disruptions in recent years. Do you think biotech could bring it a degree of stability by diversifying ingredient supplies?
“Yes, it’s about diversifying supply and innovating generally. We need disruption to the industry and that can happen through so many different channels [such as] innovation on ingredients, innovation on finished goods, and alternative ways of manufacturing.
“The proteins that we make through precision fermentation are one option to change or introduce something new that can hopefully be stabilising. In the US, the reason why the supply chain has been so altered [is] due to contamination at the manufacturing level, which can completely take down a plant.
“The way that [...] precision fermentation ingredients are made by Helaina and others is very similar to insulin and other types of pharmaceuticals. The manufacturing conditions are sanitary, for lack of a better word, and pharma-like. For infant formula, that's a good thing; it’s the standard that we want to hold onto.
“Using this technology to advance the industry is, in our eyes, one of the most important ways that we can bring a safer, more stable, and more plentiful supply of product to parents.”