This Canadian biotech makes novel protein ingredients using precision fermentation

Biofect Innovations is a Canadian biotech company that is leveraging microbial fermentation to develop novel plant-based ingredients. Christian Delos Santos, John Abousawan, Teshager Kefale, and Louis Lo founded the startup, which is part of our 8th cohort. This is their story.

What does your startup do and what is your mission? 

Biofect Innovations is on a mission to sustainably bring high-value protein ingredients to the food system in order to support the creation of smart and eco-conscious products.

By combining synthetic biology with fermentation technology, we create unique microbes capable of sustainably producing resource-demanding proteins. These proteins are structurally and functionally equivalent to those found in nature.

With our technology, we create animal-free analogues of protein ingredients such as casein and whey, as well as other functional plant proteins. We do this in order to support the continuous development of healthy and delicious plant-based food products.

Where did the idea for your company come from? 

As a biotech company that is harnessing the power of microbes, we were inspired by the story of insulin. Only 40 years ago, this product came from the animal-agriculture industry.

Until the 1980s, around twenty thousand animals had to be killed in order to make less than half a kilogram of insulin. But then, it was discovered that bacteria could be ‘taught’ to produce insulin by combining biotechnology and traditional ‘beer-brewing’ fermentation processes – without killing a single animal and at a far lower cost.

With this approach, insulin production was reimagined in a kinder, more sustainable, and cost-effective manner. This same technology can be applied to sustainably recreating nature’s most resource-demanding ingredient products. This is a core part of Biofect Innovations’ vision.

protein ingredients
Casein gives dairy cheese its color, nutrients, and functionality (such as mozzarella's melt and stretch).

Tell us about your team. Why are you the right people for the project? 

We are a diverse team of four PhD founders specialising in biotechnology, who are skilled in taking our scientific ideas from theory to practice. Dr Christian Delos Santos (CEO) brings more than 10 years of management experience from academia and industry.

Meanwhile, our business-development front is led by John Abousawan (CBDO). John is a serial entrepreneur who previously launched an online vegan e-commerce platform. Teshager Kefale (CTO) and Louis Lo (CSO) combine 20 years of scientific experience in applied biotechnology, which they leverage in developing our novel-ingredient products.

We are the right team to execute this project, not only because of our technical expertise, but also because of our rigorous PhD training. This instilled in us the skill of continuous learning, thus enabling us to navigate the unknowns in our business.

So far, we have relied on our resourcefulness in bootstrapping funds and have leveraged our networks for industry knowledge. Importantly, we are an open-minded team that is not afraid to ask for help in order to fill gaps in our expertise.

What are your favourite parts about building your business?

Our favourite part is the satisfaction gained from solving challenging problems. There is nothing more satisfying than solving a critical issue in the startup, thus allowing us to move forward.

By solving tough problems, we instil lifelong skills that are highly applicable to our personal journeys and career development. Additionally, knowing that what we’re building has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world fuels us when the going gets tough.

Biofect is one of 8 impact-driven startups to join our latest cohort
The founding team of Biofect Innovations

Finally, meeting other founders and fostering relationships with like-minded entrepreneurs has also been a source of energy and highly invaluable to the success of our business.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced? 

The pandemic taught us to become creative in the ways we approach problems. At the onset of COVID, our laboratories had to be shut down, leaving us with nowhere to conduct our work.

With our gritty attitude, we managed to cold call and convince the dean of an academic institution to allow us to work in their facilities, thus enabling us to continue progressing with R&D work. Biofect would have likely taken a different turn without a laboratory, becoming another failed startup statistic.

Most importantly, funding has been a continuous challenge for us, considering our bootstrapped approach. Fortunately, we have been privileged to be able to leverage government grants, competitions, and consulting opportunities that have kept the company afloat.

We are now at a point of promising traction and are looking to raise our first round of investment. With ProVeg’s help, there is no doubt in our minds that this goal will be achieved!

What is it that makes your company unique? 

Our company leverages the power of microbes to produce valuable protein ingredients via fermentation – more specifically, ‘precision fermentation‘. Several companies exploit precision fermentation to produce various ingredient products using different microbial strains. Biofect Innovations however is unique in that our microbial strains are custom engineered to produce a high yield of target ingredients.

Protein Ingredients from Biofect

Our microbial strains also serve as a platform which can be adapted to produce a broad array of ingredients, allowing us to diversify our offerings. Notably, the fuel we use to power our microbes come from various industrial-waste streams, which our proprietary microbes convert into high-value ingredients – thus promoting a circular economy.

Why did you decide to join the ProVeg Incubator? 

So far, we have operated our startups independently, without formal advisors or an external board. We have relied on our resourcefulness in bootstrapping funds and leveraging our networks for industry knowledge. Throughout our academic training, we essentially learnt ‘how to learn’, helping us along the way.

Although we are all technical founders who are capable of executing and developing our foundational IP, we acknowledge our lack of expertise in the areas of operations, scale-up, HR, sales, and marketing, which we will solve by bringing in experts — investors/advisors, strategic partners, new hires, and accelerators such as Proveg.

ProVeg is renowned as the number-one plant-based incubator, globally. Joining this community offers us exclusive access to a winning strategy via the Incubator curriculum and its impressive network. In addition, joining the Incubator will give our company market credibility and help us to expand our network and connect with experts, investors, and partners in the industry.

In your opinion, what do you think it takes for a startup to be successful? 

Eric Ries defines a startup as “a new company that develops innovative products in an environment of complete uncertainty”. Given the uncertainties associated with startups, founders must embrace failure as an inevitable part of the process. It is easier said than done, but, cliched as it may sound, failure is the only way forward.

Failure is critical to ruling out bad business models, wasteful product development strategies, and misaligned marketing campaigns. As Edison so eloquently put it, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. As founders, we need to fail quickly in order to uncover the right path forward. Don’t be afraid to swing for the fences  but, at the same time, don’t forget to set realistic expectations.

What do you hope to achieve with your company in the next 12 months?

In a year’s time, we hope to have a product optimised, with samples developed and ready to distribute to customers. During this time, we aim to achieve good financial standing, with impact investors supporting our cause.

We also want to be operating sustainably, with the founders adequately compensated in their full-time roles. During this period, we aim to have secondary products in the R&D pipeline, so that we can diversify our market potential.

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