A Canadian-Israeli biotech startup has launched a platform to grow plant nutrients without actually growing any plants.
BioHarvest Sciences Inc., headquartered in Vancouver and Rehovot, Israel, is joining the global race to use cell-growth technology to create new solutions to climate change.
While growing plant cells in a lab is not new, the company says the process could be an important next step in producing nutrients for the planet’s population – or even for people exploring space.
This type of work goes back to the 1960s, though developments in the field have often come from within academic institutions. Now, biotechnology companies are attracting record levels of capital to create mass-market products touting health and environmental benefits.
BioHarvest has spent the past 10 years developing its BioFarming technology, which takes cells from a plant and grows them in a tank with a unique mix of nutrients. They are eventually dried to a powder, put in capsules and sold as health supplements. The company said the process reduces the physical space requirements of traditional farming techniques by 95 per cent and consumes much less water. The products are pesticide-free and genetically identical cells, making them ideal for pharmaceutical use.
Broadly, the technology can be compared to that of propagating a house plant. Chief executive Ilan Sobel’s team begins by isolating the desired cells from their original plants, then places them in a bioreactor – a metal tank – with a proprietary mixture of other nutrients suspended in a liquid.
Mr. Sobel claims the company’s products are unique in that they reproduce the entire full-spectrum plant cell or nutrient without modification, often of plant products that have been difficult to replicate.
The company headliner, Vinia, is a pill supplement of resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine thought to offer protection against heart disease. According to Mr. Sobel, the company was able to achieve high “bioavailability” – the extent to which something is absorbed into the bloodstream – and as a result one capsule contains as much resveratrol as an entire bottle of wine.
Mr. Sobel says the technology could be used to grow any number of plant cells for a variety of markets, including pharmaceuticals, plant protein and psychedelics. The company’s newest venture is cannabis, which has proved particularly difficult to grow in vitro. This month, BioHarvest claimed it had become the first to produce “a significant number” of cannabis trichomes, which carry the psychoactive components CBD and THC, without growing the plant itself.
The company claims its total addressable market could amount to more than $500-billion, based on its estimates for demand in each of those fields.
“At our core, we are a biotech company with a platform technology, not a cannabis or a ‘nutraceutical’ company,” Mr. Sobel said. “It just depends on how we apply our ingredients.”
The company, which is listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange, has 35 employees between its Canadian and Israeli offices and in the United States and Europe. It holds 14 patents for its various technologies and products and is currently selling its supplement products in the U.S.
While BioHarvest itself doesn’t use genetic modification in its processes, it is among a growing number of companies aiming to produce new products through cell technology.
According to SynbioBeta, an industry newsletter for cell engineering companies, biology startups have broken investment records this year. Synthetic biology companies raised more than US$4-billion in the second quarter of 2021, up from less than US$2-billion in 2020 and US$1.5-billion in 2019, according to SynbioBeta’s September, 2021, report outlining major venture capital deals.
Among them are Boston-based Motif FoodWorks Inc. and New York-based Atlas Foods Co., which raised US$226-million and US$40-million, respectively, to make plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. While this includes several fields, including gene editing, agriculture and energy production, food and nutrition was the second-most funded category after health and medicine.
BioHarvest has a market value of about $152-million and has raised about $57.3-million to date, according to the company.
Yet consumers should proceed with caution, according to Tariq Akhtar, associate professor of cellular biology at the University of Guelph. More research is necessary to understand the efficacy and safety of some products produced in this way.
When taken out of their natural habitat, he said, plant cells may react in unexpected ways or even become toxic. And while the concept has wide-ranging potential, it’s not a catch-all solution, as the technology may not work with every plant, and scaling up will be a challenge.
“Sometimes you can do better than nature by being clever about it. But other times, nature still has you cornered,” Prof. Akhtar said.
Nonetheless, BioHarvest’s green mission has attracted supporters. Among the company’s early backers is Alan Greenberg, co-founder of Toronto-based Greensoil Investments, which funds companies developing sustainable technologies in agriculture, food and real estate.
According to Mr. Greenberg, BioHarvest’s new cannabis products could be a significant economic driver for the company despite the already-saturated industry, with some producers forced to destroy stock because of oversupply.
Because they are grown without pesticides or heavy metals and are molecularly consistent, they are well-positioned for pharmaceutical use. Cannabis has been seen to improve symptoms such as pain, nausea and vomiting, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
“These are products that could help people around the world, and so we saw the sales opportunity to be huge,” Mr. Greenberg said. “I’m fully aware of what’s happening in the cannabis market, but this is different.”
The platform’s broad potential also attracted the attention of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who recently joined the company’s advisory board to help with its development of products for space.
According to Mr. Hadfield, while nutrition for astronauts may still be a small section of the market, widespread space travel is “coming faster than a lot of people think.” In recent months, companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX have made broad steps in what Mr. Hadfield calls a rapidly changing space environment.
“We’re going to have more people living in orbit, and in the not-very-distant future, a subset of humanity starting to live on the moon,” he said. “That opens up a host of new possibilities and problems. Everybody needs to eat every day. Where is their food going to come from? And what about all the little subtleties of food?”
Antioxidant supplements, for instance, could be useful for protecting astronauts from high levels of radiation, he said.
“What really excites me is the platform and the other applications that are going to come down the line,” he said. “To me, the short-term story is of interest, but the long-term story is the one that’s really going to count.”
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