Biodesigned Human Collagen Protein
For our first Customer Spotlight interview, we spoke with the Co-Founder and CEO of Geltor, Alex Lorestani.
Culture: Congrats on the recent launch of HumaColl21TM, the first biodesigned vegan human collagen for skin care! Can you share with us the story behind the development of this new product?
Alex: We’re developing a portfolio of bioactive ingredients, each specifically designed for an optimal end-user experience. The traditional synthetic biotech model is to make a straight drop-in replacement for a current product component. In our case, a classic approach would have been to look at the market and say “most collagen proteins are made from fish, so let’s figure out how to brew up some fish collagen.” But we didn’t want to just replace, we wanted to improve-- to find the best material for the given purpose without being beholden to what is most abundant in nature.
We and our initial customers thought it was fairly intuitive that fish waste products were not designed for superior skin care benefit. So we said, “Let’s search through different collagen proteins” and found that the best one for anti-aging skin care in humans was type 21 human collagen (one of the 28 different types of collagen found in the human body). Research showed that this collagen is both bioactive and biocompatible with human skin and has proven clinical benefits, so we decided to produce it through our biodesign platform.
Culture: Your collagen proteins are purchased by other companies to be incorporated into their consumer products. Early stage synthetic biology companies often grapple with the question of whether to adopt a B2B or B2C model. How did Geltor navigate this decision?
Alex: I like to think about it in reference to Newton’s classic experiments with prisms. He put in white light on one end through the first prism, and it unveiled all the colors within the white light. Then, when the colored light went through the second prism, he got white light back out again. I think of a product’s core value proposition as the white light the consumer will see at the end, even if a bunch of complicated stuff happens in the middle with the enterprise.
In the earliest stages of product-market fit, we set out to build the best collagen for the end-consumer shopping in retail or online, full stop. Thinking about who the right enterprise customers would be for bringing these new products to consumers followed. In the case of HumaColl21TM, we found a buyer that really values transparency and performance in their products, which aligned with what we were making and what consumers wanted.
While we are selling B2B, we’ve positioned our collagens not just as “add-ins” for the sake of having on the label, but as products built to perform. We think of them as “hero ingredients” in the consumer products.
Culture: In terms of designing a consumer biology product, there could conceivably be some hesitancy with certain people to use biodesigned proteins. Have you encountered this at all with biomanufacturing human collagen protein?
Alex: Consumers in the cosmetic industry are exquisitely sophisticated and biotechnology has been used to make ingredients in this market for a long time. Makers of cosmetics have historically embraced new technologies to improve their products, so we haven’t really found this to be an issue.
The key for us is capturing a wonderfully complex scientific story into something that can be appreciated by the average consumer in a matter of seconds; to emphasize the benefits of a biodesigned product while also having those benefits be readily intelligible. We think we’ve done that-- reviews show that consumers intuitively “get it” that biodesign is the key to the desired benefit of biocompatibility.
"When you’re developing a new protein technology and the production process for it, having access to lab-scale fermenters is-- you really can’t overestimate the importance of it."
Culture: As a company doing fermentation, what role have bench-scale bioreactors played in the development of your production process?
Alex: When you’re developing a new protein technology and the production process for it, having access to lab-scale fermenters is-- you really can’t overestimate the importance of it. We invested in this early, doing some contracted manufacturing locally at first and then buying some lab scale reactors when we developed our own space. But it takes so much time to get these operational.
When we learned about Culture, the idea of being able to just “turn on” fermentation sounded too good to be true. We were acutely aware at that point that “fermenter hours” were a major limiting factor in how fast we could move, so having access to fermentation data on-demand has been really crucial.
Culture: Thanks so much for taking the time to share, Alex. Before we wrap-up, do you have any advice to share for early stage Synbio companies?
Alex: I’m really glad that we focused on our go-to-market strategy and distribution logistics early on, because this helped us to build the business around the right value proposition. I would encourage other companies to spend at least as much time on these considerations as on early tech development. The implications of the choices you might make early on from a tech perspective are going to stay around in ways you might not ultimately expect, like from a regulatory or compliance perspective for example. So having a clear picture of your go-to-market strategy will help you make the right choices in tech development.