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The Bright Side of BiotechThe Bright Side of Biotech

Q&A with Robert Connelly, Pronutria

October 24, 2013

7 Min Read
The Bright Side of Biotech

nbj: How did you land on protein nutrients?

Robert Connelly: This company was founded on two premises— the human diet is a vast, largely unexplored reservoir of protein nutrients with health benefits, and there's a significant need for new, efficient sources of food protein. Like many startups, we narrowed our focus with data and now we are totally focused on the protein nutrient opportunity. What we’ve really done here is map out the human food proteome. I mean that literally. Our scientists went across the street to Whole Foods and then analyzed every type of pure food they could get their hands on—identifying every protein, every amino acid. Alongside that, we’ve developed tools that allow us to search these libraries for specific protein nutrients that have a particular pharmacologic activity, such as maintaining healthy glucose level or increasing muscle mass or triggering satiety. We’re taking the tools from the biotechnology world and applying them to the human diet, in most cases for the first time.

There’s a validated class of products called pharmaconutrients, nutrients in the human diet that can be marketed as food ingredients, supplements, medical foods, and in more potent forms as drugs. Think of products like Lovaza and Niaspan that started as supplements until more potent versions came to market as Rx. That’s the approach we are taking—to select certain protein nutrients, which we call ProNutreins, from the human diet and develop them.

nbj: Are you agnostic about the delivery format?

RC: Not necessarily. We could compete as a replacement to whey or collagen in the more commodity-oriented markets, but we feel this technology is best applied for pharmacological benefit. We’re looking to use protein nutrients to help a specific at-risk population. That could be diabetics. It could be people trying to manage their weight. It could be an older, frail population that is losing lean muscle mass every year, or it could even be people that are chronically ill with Crohn’s or kidney disease or cystic fibrosis— conditions where taking in nutrition and absorbing it can be a significant problem. We’re leveraging amino acid science and tailoring specific products to these populations. I guess we are probably agnostic to the form of the product, as long as it’s clearly delivering a unique function to a population that is desperately in need of it.

nbj: Sounds like medical foods are a fit as well.

RC: Yes, I think so. We also think of this in terms of protein nutrients in a line of foods that are aimed at a particular population. What drove this company in its earliest days was the idea that a steak or chicken or fish, while loaded with protein nutrients, these are actually poor delivery vehicles for all of those nutrients. The effects are muted by other nutrients, or by the fats in the food, or by dosage levels too small to produce any real benefit. We want to liberate these amino acids and deliver them for their specific purpose, but also make sure they are delivered in a form that people can take and in a dose where it has the effect you want.

nbj: Would you ever consider branded, finished products?

RC: I think we’ll stick with ingredients for now. Think of it in terms of drugs, medical foods, even dietary supplements where the active component is our ProNutrein. In a food, we’ll be an ingredient. We are pretty heavily engaged in negotiations and discussions with partners in all of those different applications. I would say that there is probably a second stage of our life where we would be opportunistic and look to bring to market ourselves. It definitely wouldn’t be in the food space. It would probably be something where we can identify a population with a medical food or Rx.

nbj: I first heard of Pronutria back when it was called Essentient and looking to tweak photosynthesis for dramatic advances in food production. Tell us a bit of the history.

RC: Pronutria was started by a VC firm called Flagship Ventures. Within Flagship Ventures, there is a group called Venture Labs that works closely with local universities and academics—it’s like a foundry with lots of ‘what if ’ conversations in the air. They bring together some of the best minds in the world on a given question— often folks from MIT or Harvard or the medical community here in Boston—to come up with an approach to answering that question, and then incubate it for a couple years. That’s what happened here with the essential proteins, and Flagship funded it with a $10 million Series A back in the spring of 2011. In the early days, there was that dual emphasis on trying to develop a non-animal, non-plant, sustainable way of producing proteins at incredibly low prices, but now we are much more focused on this pharmaconutrient approach using existing technologies. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to produce these.

nbj: Biotechnology can be a scary proposition these days. Anything transgenic here?

RC: Nothing transgenic at all. We select proteins that are in the food that we eat everyday. You could almost look at this and say, we picked the tools from biotechnology but the basis of what we are doing is still the human diet. It’s very far removed from GMO.

nbj: Can you give a specific example of ProNutreins at work?

RC: Sure. Think of all the data from the last 40 years in human trials where pure amino acid mixtures were administered and demonstrated potent efficacy in many different indications. We’re leveraging that data to select protein nutrients out of our libraries, and hopefully get around all the associated taste issue.

We’re about to start human trials in an elderly population to demonstrate the impact of one of our ProNutreins on muscle anabolism. We selected from the human diet an amino acid profile that is ideal for that population, but we are delivering it in a pure, soluble form, in a protein. This is how we use the tools of biotechnology—which are largely computational, with billions of database components—to identify the elements of the human diet that have both pharmacologic benefit and the right solubility profile. We can’t ask somebody who’s 70 years old to drink two liters of a beverage everyday to reach their benefit level. There’s both here in the algorithm—the physiologic and physiochemical selection criteria to unleash the power of amino acids.

nbj: It’s a big data play then too.

RC: Sure, meta data. We start with the world leaders in a particular indication, say muscle anabolism, to develop an ideal amino acid profile for a healthy but frail population. From there, we look at the market and ask, What does the product have to look like physically? What does it have to taste like? How does it need to be delivered? This gives us a detailed product profile, and then we can use that for the big data work. The database might spit out a fairly large number of potential candidates, and we can refine the search quite rapidly, reiterate, and land on ten to validate in analytical studies. It’s an amazingly fast process with far fewer unknowns than you’d encounter in drug discovery. You can very quickly get to something to test in humans.

nbj: What’s next? Tell us more about those negotiations.

RC: We are pretty deep into discussions with pharmaceutical companies right now, ones with nutritional lines and ones without. They’re looking at us for our ability to develop novel drug and medical food applications. But we’re also actively negotiating with the large food ingredient companies looking to bring high-value capabilities to their customers. There’s a third audience as well—pure play nutrition companies in search of science- driven, differentiated approaches to OTC and dietary supplements. If you look at the strategic moves by Page23Chart.JPGcompanies like Nestlé and DuPont, you’ll see them moving more and more towards science-based approaches to healthier living.


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