Gelzen Inc. – Making sustainable, animal-free gelatin

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Alexander Lorestani and Nikolay Ouzounov are the co-founders of Gelzen, Inc. situated at San Francisco, CA.  Alexander is the CEO of Gelzen, Inc. and an MD/PhD candidate in the Rutgers University-Princeton University MD/PhD program. He studied medicine at Rutgers University and bacterial pathogenesis at Princeton University. 

Nikolay  is the CTO of Gelzen, Inc. He earned a PhD in Molecular Biology from Princeton University. As a graduate student, he worked at the interface of molecular biology, biophysics and genetic engineering to better understand how bacteria regulate their shape and size. 

Their startup, Gelzen, Inc. is part of the second IndieBio class in San Francisco, CA, USA and was incorporated in August 2015. I, Laxmi Iyer, had a chat with them about how they are making gelatin at the bench instead of the slaughterhouse!

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Nikolay Ouzounov and Alexander Lorestani, co-founders of Gelzen, Inc.

What do you do at Gelzen, Inc?

Gelzen makes safe, sustainable, and animal-free gelatin for use in food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.

Many of the foods we love, the medicines we need, and the cosmetics we use daily rely on a single ingredient – gelatin. For hundreds of years, humans have scavenged animal scraps to obtain gelatin. At Gelzen, we make real gelatin, without the animal.

Our made-from-scratch gelatin is:

Cost-competitive – Gelzen is bending the cost curve of recombinant protein production by increasing the protein yield five-fold and decreasing the cost of the feedstock.

Customizable – Gelzen gelatin has fully tunable mechanical properties. This permits precision engineering of features, e.g. stiffness, to match the unique requirements of each application.

Safe – Gelzen gelatin is free of all animal-derived pathogens.

Sustainable – Gelzen gelatin is made with a smaller carbon footprint than scavenged gelatin.

Animal-free – Gelzen gelatin is made by microbes, without any animal cruelty.

Why did you start it?

Gelatin is used in tonnes of consumer goods- food (it’s a very common food additive), cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products (gel capsules and as a vaccine stabilizing agent). Currently, gelatin is being produced from animal scraps like hydes and bones, and the extraction and production process takes an extremely long time- from weeks to months.

There is a huge demand right now and even though there are substitutes like agar and carageenan, they falls short on the key properties which only gelatin can offer. Also, the existing gelatin substitutes are much more expensive than animal-derived gelatin. Our protein production platform will allow us to compete with animal-derived gelatin on price alone.

Another reason we ventured into this was, there are lots of people out there who for personal, religious or ethical reasons don’t want to use products that are derived from animals so there is a demand out there for gelatin that is not made from animals.

So, we decided to make gelatin that is safe and sustainable and completely animal-free.

What is the present market size for Gelatin?

Worldwide, the gelatin market is approximately 1.8 billion USD and by 2020, it is expected to be 3 billion USD. Within the market, there is a clear demand for alternatives to gelatin but everything that exists today is inferior.

How do you produce gelatin in Gelzen Inc. ?

We are developing a proprietary protein production platform that uses bacteria and yeast to produce gelatin. This allows us to control parameters such as the type of  the collagen and the hydroxylases which are required for the proper formation of the typical triple-helix structure of collagen. Based on the modifications it gets, the collagen gets different properties. Since we are doing it recombinantly, we can alter a lot of properties like the stiffness of the gel.

Our method of producing gelatin opens another exciting possibility. Collagen, the building block of gelatin, is the most abundant protein in animals. The amino acid sequences of collagens from many animals – including extinct ones – are available. This means that we are not limited to the narrow range of species currently used to produce animal-derived gelatin. We are taking advantage of this feature by de-extincting mastodon collagen to produce mastodon gelatin. We will use this gelatin to make animal-free gummy mastodon candies.

Is there anyone who is doing something similar to what you are attempting to do?

We are the only team producing animal-free gelatin for consumer products. There are other companies exploring the use of recombinant gelatin derived from human collagen for biomedical applications.

How is it comparable to the product in the market right now?

We are currently building it and we’ll have a proper comparison with the gelatin available in the market very soon. We expect that we should be able to actually reproduce the full structural, chemical and mechanical properties of the currently marketed gelatin has with our recombinant technology.

Do you think there will be any acceptance issues for your product, especially because it is genetically engineered?

We don’t foresee any issue with acceptance from the consumer end because its a food additive that is being used for its mechanical and chemical properties primarily and I think from the consumer end, its viewed as just that.

Are you happy with the way its shaping up?

Yes, we are. In NJ there are a lot of people who are vegetarians and this is a real problem for them. Some of the vegetarians we spoke to were so excited about the prospect of being able to eat a gummy bear or having a marshmallow that is free from animal-derived gelatin.

We are excited about it. There are lot of problems which science can solve which scientists appreciate, but this is something that everyone can appreciate. There is a growing interest in how can we remove animals from the food chain, from the sustainability perspective and even from the food safety perspective. Making gelatin recombinantly means that you can achieve all that and more.

What is your advice to youngsters who wish to do a biotech startup?

Starting a biotech company used to be very expensive. This barrier to entry has been minimized by the plummeting cost of the technologies that drive innovation (gene synthesis, sequencing, etc.) and rise of scientific infrastructure outside of academia (i.e. rentable lab space). If you’re a young scientist, turning your idea into a company has never been more accessible.

About Indie.Bio

Indie.Bio is a startup accelerator which focuses on entrepreneurs building technologies in or around the field of Biotech. It offers seed funding, lab space as well as mentorship to help take an idea to a product.