Startup Spotlight

Q&A: One Bio CEO on going back to nature to pioneer next-generation nutrients

By Asia Sherman

- Last updated on GMT

© Irina Shilnikova / Getty Images
© Irina Shilnikova / Getty Images

Related tags Fiber microbiome modulation food system Startup company

One Bio entered the market last month on a mission to end inflammatory disease and decimate food waste by making odorless, colorless and tasteless fiber from salvaged agricultural byproducts.

The biotechnology startup—a spinout of research at UC Davis—has already characterized fiber structures from over 2,500 plants, foods, algae and bacteria based on the understanding that specific fibers can nourish specific bacteria in the human gut to beneficially modulate the microbiome and immune function. This fiber catalogue is paired with a novel depolymerization technology​ developed by One Bio's founding scientists that breaks down fibers from polysaccharides into small chains of carbohydrates called oligosaccharides to provide a better substrate for the gut bacteria to feed on.

One Bio Co-founder and CEO Matt Barnard—who also co-founded indoor vertical farming startup Plenty a decade ago to optimize growing conditions and nutrition—discusses how this latest venture is working to restore functionality to a broken food system through these novel bioactive fibers.

NIU: How did One Bio get its start? How was it informed by your work at Plenty?

MB: At Plenty I learned how, with plants and people, the more you understand and control what exactly is being eaten, the more control you have over your own health. Most importantly, I learned how teams of people determined to solve important problems while applying their curiosity over years can develop profoundly different and better choices for us all.

The founding scientists at One Bio include Matt Amicucci, Carlito Lebrilla, Bruce German and David Mills—a beautifully creative group due to their collective mastery of food science, organic chemistry and microbiology. They initially came together to understand nutrition from birth. This knowledge opened up their field of vision and led them to realize that they could solve for healthspan and longevity across all phases of life.  In other words, their work could help us live better for longer.

The initial discovery happened at UC Davis, and we at One Bio have vastly expanded that knowledge, platform and scale ever since as we build understanding month over month these last four years.

NIU: What motivated you to launch One Bio? What need did you identify in the market/driving mission for radical change?

Matt Barnard_co-founder_CEO, One Bio copy
Matt Barnard, Co-founder and CEO at One Bio

MB: We set out to create a product that would enable us to live better for longer. We wanted to address the challenge that our food is making us sick, and we knew that active fibers have a fundamental role to play in making us healthy. Until then these fibers had been too hard to formulate. We wanted to change all of that. The field of longevity and the microbiome has revealed that the modern inflammatory diet has produced an inflammatory microbiome and delivered modern diseases of all sorts from metabolic to cardiovascular to autoimmunities and more.

For me, this is the public health crisis of today—accounting for 85% of all healthcare spending. It is actually causing life expectancy to decline for the first time in a century. And so I set about meeting with researchers to understand the fastest and most powerful ways to bring to market solutions for this crisis.  We set out to extend and enhance our healthspan by putting active fibers back into our diets, our drinks and our bodies. One Bio’s solution is our way out of endemic chronic disease, and it’s not an expensive pill or complex behavior change; it’s simply going back to nature to pioneer next-generation nutrients.

NIU: What went into building and launching One Bio? 

MB: This company and team have been built with great care over years. That involved everything from scaling our process more than 10 times a year for five years running to building a great data science team to pair with our world class chemistry and microbiology teams to, more recently, attracting the best commercial partners.

NIU: What do people not know (but should know) about fibers?

MB: Active fibers are the key fuel for a healthy microbiome and longevity. We’re consuming about 10% of the fiber we took in before industrial food, so we’re running a huge fiber gap and failing to give our gut what it needs to nourish us. 

The tens of trillions of microbes that make up our microbiome consume active fibers as their primary fuel to do their jobs, from acting as the communication network for our immune system to signaling we’re full and providing all the systems of our bodies with fuels and signals they need to maximize our healthspan. 

NIU: Could you share more about the proprietary technology? What is a glycopedia and how does it work to match structures with functions/create novel oligosaccharides?

MB: First, our co-founders characterized what active fibers are—what are their fundamental structures. Because until the world had that, we didn’t have the ability to understand these fibers’ function in our bodies or exactly how to solve for and prevent dozens of chronic diseases from metabolic disease to cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, autoimmunity and cancers. 

Our glycopedia is that—a fancy word for a simple idea—a catalog of what matters to our health.  It is an encyclopedia of active fibers from thousands of edible plants. It can be compared to the work done a century ago to understand the diversity of vitamins and minerals and what purpose each serves for our health. Before that there was no recognition that Vitamin B12 had one set of functions and Magnesium another, for example. Fibers, too, have diverse structures and functions.

We then developed a proprietary process to extract, purify and break down those active fibers into smaller active fibers so that they can be seamlessly integrated into the foods, drinks, supplements and health & beauty products we eat, drink and use everyday—invisibly and tastelessly.

NIU: Have we optimized our way out of nutrition and now need to optimize our way back in?

MB: In a way, yes. The food chain first solved for the acute problems of life at the scale of eight billion people—cheap, shelf-stable energy, food safety and metabolic function from vitamins and minerals, for example. But that did mean replacing necessary active fibers with toxic, energy-rich simple sugars. And it's that previously necessary trade-off that we aim to eradicate for both industry and people. So, instead of being alive, but chronically sick, we intend to enable us all to thrive to the end. 

NIU: How is One Bio minimizing food waste? 

MB: From apple peels and cranberry skins to seeds rich in nutrition and the meat of soybeans, wheat, peas and almonds, today the active fiber is stripped out and wasted. One Bio’s groundbreaking process harvests these active fibers before they become waste and then makes them invisible and tasteless.

NIU: How do you view the future of fiber?

MB: We see active fibers having an exciting moment.  We are coming to understand their power and they are becoming a powerful part of people’s daily lives. 

We see the future of active fibers as being invisibly and tastelessly integrated into peoples’ daily lives—ubiquitous and purposeful. People will consume five to ten times more per day than they do now and be profoundly healthier as a result. It’s back to the future: the anti-inflammatory, health-powering nutrients of the past integrated into our modern diet in a way that is convenient and delicious. Meanwhile, the only reason we’ll know it is there is because we feel better. 

NIU: What advice would you offer to other startups looking to innovate in this space?

MB: I’m happy to talk to any entrepreneur working on hard problems. My main advice: Be clear on the customer problem you’re solving. It has to be THEIR perceived problem and be certain that they’re willing to pay for it.

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