Kulika Chomvong and Chaeyoung Shin want the world to eat more sugar.
“We make sugars that are healthier for you for healthier products,” said Chomvong. “We want to make sugars that are worth getting addicted to.”
The duo met at Cal’s Energy Biosciences institute, where they were working at separate ends of the same problem. Dr. Chomvong was engineering yeast suitable to the production of fuel from cellulose, while Dr. Shin was refining the biofuel fermentation process itself. But after graduating from their respective Ph.D. programs in 2016 — Chomvong in microbiology, Shin in chemical engineering — the two pivoted to the production of prebiotic sugars.
“There are a lot of different types of chemicals that are called sugars,” said Chomvong, sugars besides those naturally found in fruit and honey or the refined sugars that make candy sweet. In fact the prebiotic sugars that Chomvong and Shin culture at Sugarlogix are not sweet at all.
Many readers may be familiar with probiotics, that is, foods such as yogurt and kombucha that contain live cultures of “good” gut bacteria. Prebiotic sugars — also called “prebiotics” for short — are nondigestible compounds that promote the growth of intestinal microflora. Probiotics are living bacteria, whereas prebiotics are the nonliving chemical compounds on which intestinal flora feed. Prebiotics, in other words, are probiotic food.
“What we’re doing is recreating the food for good gut bacteria,” said Chomvong.
Prebiotics can have a positive impact on gut health by promoting the growth of good bacteria. While anyone could benefit from a healthier gut, Chomvong is optimistic that prebiotics could most benefit individuals with depleted levels of gut bacteria, such as those needing to repopulate their gut with good bacteria after a regimen of antibiotics. But also, and especially, infants.
Currently Sugarlogix is most concerned with culturing human milk oligosaccharides, or HMO. “We believe these are the best prebiotics out there because these already exist in human breast milk,” said Chomvong.
Compounds similar to HMO called galacto-oligosaccharides, or GOS, occur naturally in the milk of other mammals, and have been used as an additive in infant formula for years. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the National Institute of Health found that infants given formula supplemented with GOS showed gut health consistent with breast-fed infants. Chomvong and Shin believe they would see similar if not superior results for infant formula supplemented with HMO.
The idea is intuitive, that the best prebiotics for human health would be the ones the human body is most capable of creating and synthesizing. The trick though is to make breast-milk compounds without the breast.
“We use yeast fermentation to synthesize those oligosaccharides,” said Chomvong. “We genetically modify the yeast so that it redirects the compound to making these HMOs for us. When you see it in a tank it looks just like the process for brewing beer.”
Although Chomvong and Shin do business as Sugarlogix, they use the name Zimitech, from “ζυμη” (zymi) the Greek word for yeast, on all legal work, a nod to the fact that the pair are pioneers in technology that cultures prebiotic sugars from yeast.
Yeast fermentation is not the only way to culture HMO, but it may be the safest option out there. An alternative method involving modified E.coli bacteria comes with additional risks. Though E.coli are naturally found in the human gut, the bacteria secretes endotoxins that must be filtered out from the final product. If not removed, endotoxins can trigger hemorrhagic shock and diarrhea. Because yeast fermentation does not require the removal of toxins, the overall process involves fewer steps, reducing production costs and resulting in a more easily scaled product.
Not to mention, that while the E. coli technology may be further along, there is the potential poor optics of culturing breast milk compounds from a bacteria most associated with foodborne illness.
“Yeast fermentation is just a lot more food safe,” said Chomvong.
The process Chomvong and Shin use at Sugarlogix involves multiple steps, beginning with fermentation, followed by separating compounds in a centrifuge, then filtration, chromatography, and then evaporation. The final product is a powder, visually similar to table sugar but chemically indistinct from the HMO found in human breast milk.
To be clear, prebiotics can’t replace sweetener, even though many infant food products currently exceed the recommended amount of sodium and sugar for infants and toddlers. But as an additive to infant formula, prebiotics could lead to healthier babies. And as Sugarlogix develops prebiotics for a wider audience, it could lead to healthier adults as well for many of the same reasons: promoting healthy intestinal flora.
“We’re pretty confident that it will bring about a lot of positive effects in adults,” said Shin.
Adult prebiotics would take different forms than those created for infants, perhaps as daily supplements, or as a prescription for individuals who need to repopulate gut bacteria. Even possibly as a beverage shelved alongside kombucha.
However, the research is lacking on prebiotics suitable for adult consumption. “There are some studies that have been done on adults, but not very many,” said Shin.
The majority of the research has been conducted with infants, Shin explained. In part due to the fact that the most natural source for prebiotics suitable for human consumption is breast milk. But also because the technology has been too expensive to create HMOs in mass quantity. At least up until now.
Currently, Sugarlogix ferments yeast at a small scale, in half liter to ten liter batches, at the UC Berkeley Energy Bioscience Building 2151 University Way. Though Sugarlogix currently synthesizes only one form of prebiotic HMO, Shin is optimistic in the company’s ability to develop more.
“One of the challenges we’re figuring out is how do we translate this technology and move it to a factory setting,” said Shin. “There are over 180 different kinds of these sugars. We hope to produce this first prebiotic sugar in a large scale by the end of next year, our second line of sugars in 2019,” said Shin. “We’ll eventually make our way up to sugar 180.”
A “large scale” in this case means in tons. While Sugarlogix currently only has the technology to produce one form of HMO, that one could be an important supplement to infant formula, a $50 billion global industry, according to Chomvong. “Our goal is to eventually penetrate the adult supplement market,” said Shin “but we are targeting the baby formula market first. It’s a no-brainer.”
Sugarlogix is on hot desk with SkyDeck, with offices at Indie Bio in SF and lab facilities at the Energy Bioscience Institute. In September, the company will move operations to a Berkeley lab in the EBI full time.
SkyDeck was formed through a partnership between the Haas School of Business, the College of Engineering and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. The accelerator offers resources including office space, mentorship, technology and a network of researchers, advisors and investors to its cohort of 23 teams, with another 70 teams on hot desk. As part of the hot desk program, Sugarlogix qualifies for events, advisement and participation in Demo Day, a twice yearly event where over 600 venture capitalists and investors are invited to witness the products startups have been developing. More than 125 investors attended SkyDeck’s last Demo Day in May this year.
“There’s a lot of interest in food tech in Berkeley and in systems of getting food to people,” said Caroline Winnett, the executive director of SkyDeck. Many food startups have moved through the accelerator in recent years, including Hopsy, Copia, The Town Kitchen and Kiwi.
Winnett had nothing but praise for Sugarlogix. “We love the idea,” she said. “It’s a nice reflection of something very needed and a good example of good people trying to solve the world’s problems.”