Synthetic biology has the potential to change the world — it can create cleaner and more sustainable products, feed a growing population, and cure disease. As a community, we’ve been talking about the incredible promise of synthetic biology for years. We’ve applauded the brilliant innovation being developed in laboratories across the globe. We explain to regulatory agencies, investors, and the general public why we need synthetic biology to ensure our future.
And yet, for all that, most of the groundbreaking innovations enabled by synthetic biology haven’t made it to market where they can transform the promise of our industry to reality. That’s why I’m particularly excited about the release of a new functional flavor and fragrance ingredient that has been distributed to customers by global aroma ingredients manufacturer and distributor Axxence Aromatic GmbH since the beginning of this year.
The ingredient, alpha-ionone, a raspberry flavor, is made by the German biotech company Insempra using a proprietary microbial fermentation chassis. Incredibly, the company was founded only two years ago by, in my opinion, one of the most proactive minds in our industry.
Delivering synthetic biology innovation by identifying market needs
I’ve known Jens Klein for years. He’s a self-ascribed serial entrepreneur, having founded several companies over the years. His previous entrepreneurial venture, AMSilk, has been covered in Forbes and continues to develop spider silk-inspired fibers for a range of applications, from lightweight jetliners to watch straps. But Insempra is different. The company was born from a shared sentiment that the two of us have discussed deeply many times.
“One of my drivers was to create a company that is really market driven,” says Klein. “We identify innovations and the technologies that will transform them into market-driven products. Much of the time, when someone asks a synthetic biology company what their product is, the answer is something like, ‘We have a very cool strain which we plan to engineer and in a few years from now will bring something to market.’ Many innovators would benefit from having someone sitting next to them, getting them to critically think about how to create something from their innovation that the rest of the world needs right now and that can actually be made right now with existing technology. That’s exactly what we do at Insempra.”
Collaborating with nature to deliver products people can feel good about
The rapid turn-around from founding Insempra to delivering the company’s first functional product is exactly the type of timeline our industry needs as a whole. The partnership between Insempra and Axxence Aromatic GmbH is proof that the right combination of innovation and technology can deliver much needed products quickly.
The market need addressed by this partnership is one I’ve written about several times before. Flavors and fragrances are a huge market for the synthetic biology industry, as we strive to develop more sustainable and scalable ways to make the scents, flavors, and colors that comprise our most beloved food ingredients and cosmetics. Alpha-ionone is an aroma compound found in a variety of essential oils that is naturally derived from numerous sources, including raspberries, almonds, and blackberries.
Extracting alpha-ionone from its natural sources is a significant, unsustainable agricultural burden due to the sheer amount of land, water, and other resources required. But as a concerned public grows less and less interested in synthetic alternatives, it’s increasingly important for food and cosmetics producers to shorten their ingredients lists. It seems like a catch-22: but that’s exactly where synthetic biology comes in.
Leveraging biology instead of chemistry, alpha-ionone can be produced at scale by microbes in fermentation tanks, producing a non-synthetic version of the compound while using far less land and doing less damage to the Earth’s already fragile ecosystems than farming football fields-worth of raspberries does.
“The real power of biology can be so much broader,” says Klein. “In general, biology should be stronger than what we’ve seen from evolution so far; there are so many more possibilities and potentially a lot of shortcuts that can be achieved when you utilize strain development in the most efficient way.”
It’s an elegant collaboration with nature — using synthetic biology to iterate faster than nature can on its own, extracting nature’s full potential to create a high-quality aroma that is far superior to existing alternatives. Consumers are not only pleased with the quality of the products made using alpha-ionone produced this way, but they can feel good knowing they aren’t using a synthetic ingredient and they’re supporting sustainable practices when buying their favorite products. I am speaking in absolutes on purpose: Axxence has been distributing the product to customers since the beginning of the year.
Gathering the right people and technology around the right mission
The fermentation-based alpha-ionone was originally developed by Phytowelt Green Technologies GmbH — but applying Insempra’s platform achieved the consistently high product quality required for market distribution. This is a brilliant example of Insempra’s modus operandi in action: identify market needs, identify the technology that can fulfill those needs, and bring them together to make products. And this is just the beginning — more products are in the works, says Klein.
“By producing products and delivering them sooner rather than later we can really make a change by impacting the supply chain, delivering to people products that are good for them and the planet,” says Klein. “When I started Insempra, I thought deeply about how I could make the most impact, and this is what I landed on: gathering the right people and technology around the right mission.”
Our industry has already produced numerous innovations and numerous technologies that can bring those innovations to market. We don’t need to keep talking about the promise of synthetic biology and the future it can enable. Instead, let’s use Insempra’s example and start bringing those innovations and technologies together and effect the change our planet needs.
Thank you to Embriette Hyde for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta and some of the companies I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest.