EnCoate is developing a unique family of biopolymers which stabilise microbes so that they can survive for long periods at room temperature. The company hopes that further research in this technique could help probiotics make their way into non-refrigerated foods, opening up the potential for scores of other applications. Probiotics are increasingly receiving more and more scientific backing as to their positive effects on gut health, but current technology has limited their uses and does not allow them to be mixed with moist or non-chilled ingredients, which considerably limits their scope. Most foods containing probiotic bacteria are found in the refrigerated section of supermarkets as the bacteria is destroyed by heat and other processing conditions. This has given the dairy sector, already used to handling live bacteria for the manufacture of yoghurt, a major advantage in probiotic foods - probiotic drinking yoghurts are currently the fastest growing dairy product in Europe. But increasing research has focused on expanding protecting probiotics during processing and expanding the food categories available to prebiotics. Such an avenue of research has led companies like Cell Biotech from Korea using a dual-coating to protect probiotics against oxygen, acid, moisture and high temperatures for use in emerging new product categories such as breakfast cereals and smoothies. Other approaches are also being explored, with scientists looking at improving probiotic viability by using whey protein gel particles, or prebiotic fibres. Indeed, scientists from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) investigated the capabilities of various prebiotic fibres to protect the stability and viability of probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains during freeze-drying, storage in freeze-dried form and after formulation into apple juice and chocolate-coated breakfast cereals. EnCoate has already released BioShield on the market which allows beneficial microbes to survive when used in field applications to control grass grub. But the EnCoate biopolymer has much wider applications, the firm said yesterday, and this cash injection will finance the development of a revolutionary line of probiotic formulations that will enhance food products. The goal in mind for EnCoate is to develop probiotics and to extend the shelf life to two years at room temperature and humidity. EnCoate has developed a technology that can stabilise these microbes so they can be used to enhance foods such as breakfast cereals, infant milk-powders and dog-biscuits. Acting EnCoate chief executive Bridgit Hawkins said this investment opens a potentially huge global market for probiotic ingredients. She said: "The market for EnCoate's probiotic ingredients will be global manufacturers and marketers of non-chilled foods that are seeking to differentiate their products in the perceptions of health-conscious consumers." The probiotic ingredient market is worth more than €437m ($600m), and is growing at a rate of 10 - 20% per annum, she said. AgResearch, which owns half of EnCoate, said the deal had the potential to double the market uses, enabling food manufacturers to extend the probiotics category from refrigerated foods to non-refrigerated products. AgResearch commercial services manager Dr Ian Boddy added: "What's more, EnCoate has potential beyond extending the shelf life of probiotics, with the core technology behind EnCoate being the biopolymer, which has applications in agricultural biology, food, seed coatings, and vaccines." The cash will come from BioPacificVentures, a €73m ($100m) fund which invests in life sciences, managed by Auckland firm Direct Capital in collaboration with the global Inventages group.