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Startup Innovation Challenge

Innovative enzyme technology set for sweet success [Interview]

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AMBROSIA BIO, one of the finalists of the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge 2021, is applying novel enzyme engineering technology that could help to address a critical societal and health concern – the global obesity pandemic.
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We spoke with co-founder Dr. Ziv Zwighaft about the company’s proprietary technology, and how this technology can help manufacturers meet growing consumer demand for healthier food and beverage products.

Israeli startup AMBROSIA BIO was a finalist in the Fi Global Startup Innovation Challenge’s Most Innovative Service or Technology Supporting F&B category. The sixth edition of the Challenge, held at Fi Europe 2021, co-located with Hi Europe, in Frankfurt, gave startups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives.

Since its establishment a couple of years ago, AMBROSIA BIO has sought to be a bridge between industry and science. Dr. Zwighaft, who holds a PhD in biochemistry from the Weizmann Institute of Science as well as an MBA from Reichman University, had identified a specific challenge that he felt enzyme engineering could address.

“A hugely global societal problem is obesity,” he says. “Our diets are literally killing us, and a major cause of obesity and its associated pathologies is the overconsumption of sugar.”

Dr. Zwighaft points out that not all sugars are born the same. One of the worst types is fructose, one of the most heavily used sugar in the F&B sector. A key reason for this is, that fructose can only be metabolised by the liver, and thus has a long-term adverse effect on our health.

“Nature also provides us with healthier rarer sugars, such as allulose, tagatose and allose,” Dr. Zwighaft continues. “However, you don’t find these rare sugars in significant quantities in nature, and therefore, prices are often high. Adding to that, commercial production of these rare sugars is not very efficient, preventing key F&B players from replacing industrial sugars with rare sugars in its leading global brands.”

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Pioneering enzyme technology

AMBROSIA BIO set about developing a novel enzyme technology platform capable of converting high-calorie, obesity-promoting sugars into rare, practically no-calorie sugars, such as allulose. Dr. Zwighaft and his team have particularly been working on generating a new class of superior enzymes that work more efficiently in turning commodity sugars, such as fructose, into allulose. A key health benefit of allulose is a negligible effect on blood glucose levels and insulin spikes.

“What we are thriving to do is to commercially produce healthier natural sugars,” explains Dr. Zwighaft. “Replacing sugar in established F&B brands remains a formidable challenge. Sweeteners currently on the market cannot fully replace the array of taste, texture, colour, scent, bulking and browning qualities of sugar. This is why rare sugar remains the holy grail for many F&B sectors.”

The company is also working on making these enzymes acid-stable, something that is critical for many beverage applications such as natural fruit juices. Enzymes used to convert rare sugars tend to have zero activity in acidic conditions. Dr. Zwighaft points out that the fruit and vegetable juice industry is rapidly declining — marked by a staggering 36% drop in US market size over the past 15 years.

This massive downturn can be linked to growing awareness of the health and obesity consequences of excess sugar consumption. Addressing these consumer concerns, while maintaining the taste of products, could give manufacturers a huge lift.

Acid-stable enzymes

AMBROSIA BIO is currently finalising the pilot stage of development and is looking to enter into commercial agreements towards late 2022. The business concept is to partner with manufacturers, who can use AMBROSIA BIO’s proprietary technology and enzymes within their own factories and production lines. This means that potential AMBROSIA B2B customers are starch / sugar / high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) manufacturers in Asia, Europe, or the US, anywhere in the world, in fact.

“We will also continue our R&D work on achieving improved acid-stable enzymes,” says Dr. Zwighaft. “We expect to obtain a substantial success with juices like mango and pineapple, where our first version of enzymes is working in-vitro. To have a really big impact though, we need to be able to apply enzymes to market leaders like apple juice and orange juice. The trials so far have been looking promising.”

In the future, AMBROSIA BIO is also keen to explore opportunities with manufacturers to produce allulose-based F&B brands. Dr. Zwighaft believes there is a huge potential also in the B2C market, for new better-for-you brands, for instance, ice cream, protein bar, and juice categories.

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