In 2016, Ph.D. Gerit Tolborg made a breakthrough. During her studies, she had come across a fungus that naturally produced a variety of red colors on a plate in her lab. She studied the colors and found many different pigments. By designing a fermentation process in lab-scale bioreactors, she managed to single out one molecule per pigment. A novel process that opened up for the application of the red color in consumer products.
In February 2020, she and her team, co-founder and Ph.D. Anders Ødum and Fermentation Scientist, Louise Bakke Jørgensen joined the Business Acceleration Academy to build a solid, initial business plan for the company.
We met with Gerit Tolborg to talk about the potential of her discovery.
Why did you see a business opportunity in colors?
I have always liked to cook and bake and was fascinated by how color can influence our opinion on food. Lately, the food industry has seen a paradigm shift from synthetic colorants towards natural solutions in the past decade, but there is a lack of natural food colorants that satisfy both the industrial needs and the consumers’ demands. Traditionally, natural colorants are extracted directly from their natural sources, e.g. betanin from beetroot, but the extraction processes are dependent on the supply of raw materials. That results in volatile prices, inconsistent quality, and sustainability challenges. On one hand, the industry is looking for extraordinary performance, price competitiveness and quality consistency and on the other hand, the consumers demand sustainable, natural solutions that are ethically defendable and suitable for most dietary requirements.
How do you meet the needs and demands?
We have developed a fungal biotech platform to produce natural colorants in a more sustainable way. It is based on the wild type organism filamentous fungi, which means that no genetic engineering has been involved. The first colorant we are going to commercialize is ChromoRed, and our process design is easily scalable and compliant with the standards within food manufacturing. Today, carmine is a very popular red food colorant, but more and more customers refuse to buy products containing carmine because it is extracted from insects.
We also have proof of concept for orange on lab scale, and we are working on expanding the portfolio even further with yellow and purple colors.
How have you worked on developing the business idea?
The first thing we did was to patent the process and then we started to think about how to build a business. We applied for an Exploratory Pre-seed from the Novo Nordisk Foundation and was granted DKK 500.000M in December 2016 to establish proof of concept. Our work was further supported by a follow-up pre-seed and grant and an Innobooster from Innovation Fund Denmark. However, we were still missing an in-depth commercial perspective of our business case and thought the BAA was an excellent crash course in business. Most accelerators work within many different fields, but we were looking for one with a strong network within our field and with a team that understands what we do.
What are your next steps after BAA?
A big advantage of the BAA program is that we work with very well-connected people and that will hopefully lead to the investment we need to continue our work.
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