'A new class of ingredients...' Precision fermentation-fueled startup Helaina to expand protein offerings beyond babies

By Danielle Masterson

- Last updated on GMT

Image courtesy of Helaina
Image courtesy of Helaina

Related tags Fermentation synbio Breast milk Infant formula Yeast Infant nutrition glycoprotein Protein

Utilizing precision fermentation to produce immune-system-supporting glycoproteins found in breast milk, Helaina is bridging the gap between traditional formula and breastfeeding. Now the company has its sights set on bringing its technology to a wider audience.

Helaina is the company behind the advanced infant formula with proteins identical to those found in breast milk. The New York City-based company was founded in 2019 by food scientist Laura Katz​, who wanted to advance nutrition for infants by recreating the functional components of breast milk. Now Katz is ready to expand the use case of its technology to all ages.

Immunity for all

“When these proteins are consumed through breast milk and when they're in our secretions and our tears and our sweat, they provide a first line of defense for our immune system and they know how to actually interact with and talk to the cells in our body–and that is so powerful.

"It's one of the reasons why we look to breast milk as being such a critical source of nutrition, because it has these proteins in it and as we've been building out the company and the technology to make these, we have done a lot of intentional and internal business development to understand how we can bring this technology to the masses,”​ Katz told FoodNavigator-USA.

Katz added that the idea has piqued the interest of quite a few companies to whom Helaina could sell its proteins in addition to making its own consumer products that would service early life to end of life nutrition.

“It's expanding the technology that we've built into so many different categories where we could be having a real impact on people's immune health,”​ Katz said.

'Options are endless'

Katz said that the company is interested in developing offerings that serve nutrition first.

“[Helaina is looking at] where nutrition is the core driver of why somebody would eat or a consumer would purchase that product. So anything within the world of meal replacements, beverages, powders, bars, supplements, things that people are looking towards to be a proactive way to take care of their health,”​ said Katz. “The options and the opportunities are endless.”

A new class of ingredients

In order to make these glycoproteins, Katz explained that Helaina takes yeast and effectively programs it to create a special class of glycoproteins via synthetic biology.

“So a lot of the engineering and the work that we do in our lab is to take the yeast and and get them to figure out how to make these proteins look and have the structure that they have when they come out. To be able to make this at scale, we take this yeast, we ferment it, we give it all the nutrients it needs to grow, thrive and produce these proteins.

"And then we capture the proteins that get made out of our little yeast cell factories. And that's exactly what becomes the ingredients. So it is a purified glycoprotein, but it's manufactured through yeast cells.”

The future of food

Katz said she expects that down the road, the proteins Helaina is developing will be in all foods.

“Twenty years from now, they're going to be in all foods, ubiquitous like calcium or vitamin C, so for us as a business, we want to be very intentional about how we start introducing this new class of ingredients to consumers. The power of what they can do for our health is really great and we see that through evidence of breast milk with babies.

"So we want to make sure that as we go through this process, which is going to require a lot of education and teaching to the people who are going to eat this, that we're going through channels that make sense and that also align to our core values as a business. We really care about advancing nutrition and health for the everyday person, whether that be a baby, whether that be elderly or anybody in between.”

Helaina is in the midst of collecting batch records from manufacturing, safety data and other data needed for the GRAS regulatory processes. “It's kind of hard to predict timing, but we're hoping sooner rather than later of course.”

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