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? 

Christian: Biofect Innovations is on a mission to sustainably bring high-value B2B protein ingredients to the food system, to support the creation of eco-conscious plant-based products.

By combining synthetic biology with fermentation technology, Biofect creates unique microbes capable of efficiently producing proteins that are structurally and functionally equivalent to those found in nature. With our technology, we create animal-free analogs of animal ingredients and functional plant ingredients such as high-intensity protein sweeteners.

Where did the idea for your company come from? 

John: As a biotech company that is harnessing the power of microbes, we were inspired by the triumph of insulin in revolutionising medicine. Only 40 years ago, this widely used 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, by combining biotechnology and the traditional ‘beer-brewing’ fermentation processes, bacteria could be ‘taught’ to produce insulin  – without killing a single animal and at a far lower cost.

With this approach, insulin production was reimagined in a kinder, more sustainable, and more cost-effective manner. We’re using this same technology to sustainably recreate some of nature’s most resource-demanding ingredients, such as animal proteins. We’re committed to using our technology to make a positive impact, and we’re always looking for new ways to achieve this goal!

Tell us about your team.

John: 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) is a scientist with more than 10 years’ experience in industry and academia and a proven track record of success in developing new technologies. In addition, he has a deep understanding of the biotech industry and is well-connected with other leaders in the field.

Christian: We’re also fortunate to have John Abousawan leading our business-development. John is a serial entrepreneur who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. He previously launched an online vegan e-commerce platform, so he knows a thing or two about building a successful business. But more importantly, he has the drive and determination to make our startup a success.

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

Teshager is our CTO. He brings more than 10 years of synthetic-biology experience, which is exactly what we need to build our product. Tesh has the right mindset for the job and is always looking for ways to improve our products and bring them to life.

John: Louis Lo (CSO) is an experienced molecular biologist who has been with our startup from the beginning. He plays an essential role in developing our innovative products and brings a wealth of technical knowledge to the team. He ensures that we have a strategy in place to protect our intellectual property and keep us at the forefront of the new food technology revolution.

Why are you the right people for the project? 

Christian: 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 has instilled in us the skill of continuous learning, 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. We are open to learning new things and taking risks when necessary to achieve our vision!

What are your favourite parts about building your business?

John: Building a successful company is all about solving tough problems. That’s why we love what we do. We’re constantly pushing ourselves and learning new skills along the way.

We also know that the solutions we create have the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. That’s an incredible motivator, and it keeps us going when the going gets tough. It’s exciting, it’s demanding, and it’s always changing. It’s never easy, but it’s always worth it.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced? 

Christian: Starting a biotech company is no easy feat under normal circumstances. But doing so during a pandemic presents a unique set of challenges. The pandemic taught us to become creative in the ways we approach problems.

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

For example, at the onset of COVID, our laboratories shut down, leaving us with nowhere to do work. But we were determined to move forward. We picked up the phone and called as many potential labs who would have us. Fortunately, we convinced the dean of an academic institution to let us work in their lab, helping us continue developing our ingredient products.

Additionally, funding is always top of mind for us. This has forced us to be really conscientious with budgeting, considering our bootstrapped approach. Fortunately, we have leveraged government grants, startup pitch competitions, and consulting opportunities to keep 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, we have no doubt that we will achieve this goal!

What is it that makes your company unique? 

John: Our company leverages the power of microbes to produce valuable protein ingredients via fermentation – more specifically, ‘precision fermentation‘. Several companies currently exploit precision fermentation to produce various ingredient products using different microbial strains. Our company is different from others in a few key ways.

Firstly, we use our proprietary microbes to produce high quantities of our target product. This means that we can be more efficient and effective in our production. Secondly, we use industry side streams such as starches as fuel for our proprietary microbes, which they convert into high-value ingredients. This not only saves money, but also promotes a circular economy and helps to reduce environmental waste. These two factors, combined with our passion for sustainability, is what we believe makes our company uniquely positioned to help create a more sustainable future.

Protein Ingredients from Biofect

Why did you decide to join the ProVeg Incubator? 

Christian: We started our business with very little money and no formal advisors, relying instead on our resourcefulness and networks. Our academic training taught us how to learn, which has been extremely helpful. So far, we have been able to get by without much outside help. However, we are starting to realise that we need more than just resourcefulness and determination to succeed.

We need experienced mentors who can give us advice and help connect us to the right people. That’s why joining the ProVeg Incubator was an easy decision for us.

As the leading plant-based Incubator globally, ProVeg offers an exclusive curriculum, as well as access to the latest research and best practices in product development. The Incubator programme provides us with market credibility and exclusive access to experts, investors, and partners in the industry who can help us take our company to the next level.

This is a winning strategy for us, and we look forward to continued success as we work together to make the world a healthier, more sustainable place.

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

John: As any entrepreneur knows, starting a new business is a risky proposition. There are so many unknowns, from the feasibility of the product to the size of the market. And yet, despite the risks, startups continue to thrive. This is partly because founders have learned to embrace failure as an essential part of the process.

As Eric Ries famously said, “a startup is a new company that develops innovative products in an environment of complete uncertainty”. In other words, founders build startups on experimentation and trial-and-error. And while not every experiment will be successful, each failure brings the startup one step closer to success.

As difficult as it may be, founders must learn to embrace failure. They need to see it as an integral part of the startup journey. It is easier said than done, but failure is the only way forward, cliched as it may sound.

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

Christian: In 12 months’ time, we want food-and-beverage brands to be using our protein ingredients, developing new and innovative products that are better not only for our environment but also for our health. Onwards and upwards!

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