What does a grapefruit have in common with a deer tick? Tom Martin found out in talking with Neil Goldsmith, co-founder of Evolva, a Swiss-based biotechnology firm with a significant relationship with Lexington and the University of Kentucky.
Q: What does your company do?
A: We think of ourselves as a specialist brewer. We’re taking baker’s yeast, the same yeast you’d use to make bread, and giving it the ability to make a range of different ingredients, flavors, fragrances, nutritional compounds. And then we’re making those by brewing up the yeast just like you make beer and then harvesting those ingredients out of the yeast.
Q: And what brought you to yeast and to fermentation?
A: I’ve done quite a bit of work on looking at plant cell culture and what plants you’ll get drugs from, a whole range of interesting pharmaceuticals. Plants can make them, but they grow very slowly. But if you can make yeast to make them, then you can make them much more affordably.
Q: You have offices in Switzerland, and India, San Francisco and Lexington. Why Lexington?
A: We came here because we acquired Allylix, which had its labs in Lexington. Allylix was here really because of the relationship with the University of Kentucky. There’s a lot of work in genetics and flavor and fragrance in Kentucky. There’s a strong obvious tradition in brewing here. And there’s a strong knowledge of animal health. So, all of this makes it quite a logical place to be for this sort of company. And we very much wanted to access the R&D that was going on in Allylix.
There are so many things in nature that are inaccessible because nature doesn’t make enough of it.
Q: And so, what does the Evolva footprint look like in Lexington?
A: We’re about 15-20 people doing research. One of our key products, nootkatone, is developed here in Lexington. Nootkatone is what makes a grapefruit smell like a grapefruit, but there’s actually very little of it in a grapefruit. So, if you want to take a bathroom product and make it smell of grapefruit, you’re limited in how much you can actually get from just extracting from grapefruits. So, the guys here have designed the yeast to make this product and then we can brew it up. We’re actually most interested in nootkatone not so much because it’s a grapefruit ingredient, but because it’s really good at killing and repelling ticks, the ticks that give you Lyme disease. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in Fort Collins, Colo. has shown it’s really effective in this. So, we’re in the process of going through the EPA to get it approved so you can put it on your skin to stop yourself from getting bitten by ticks.
Q: Is Evolva’s target market strictly business-to-business or do you also market anything, perhaps the nootkatone, directly to the consumers?
A: No, we’re strictly business to business.
Q: So, you would find a producer out there who would come out with a spray, let’s say …
A: Exactly. Our business is to provide them the ingredient and it’s their job to formulate it, package it, sell it in different ways.
Q: Evolva has a number of partnerships and some of those brands are well known. One of them, Cargill, is talking with Evolva about commercializing something called EverSweet.
Q: What is that?
A: EverSweet is a product in the Stevia family. Stevia is this zero calorie natural sweetener. Comes from a plant. If you want to take sugar and calories out of your diet, it’s a very good product, except it has one current flaw: as you put more of the Stevia in your cola for example, it gradually becomes more and more bitter. So, with current Stevias you can’t go to a zero-calorie cola. You can’t get the equivalent of a Coke Zero, for example. Now, the plant makes a number of molecules, which don’t have this problem, that don’t become bitter. But the plant makes very small amounts of them. So, it’s not economical. It’s not very sustainable. You have to plant a very large area. You have to harvest it and the cost just becomes prohibitive. So again, we’ve taken the genes that determine how plants use it, put them into yeast. Now, the yeast can make these ingredients, and we can now offer a Stevia product that doesn’t have this bitter taste and allow you to go to a zero-calorie drink. We think that then opens up the use of this sweetener for many, many more people.
Q: What can you tell us about any current innovation that’s going on at Evolva? And in particular, is there anything along those lines happening here in Lexington?
A: There are so many things in nature that are inaccessible because nature doesn’t make enough of it. So, we don’t see the business as making just one or two ingredients. It’s about making many, many ingredients. So, behind nootkatone, we have several other ingredients in development here in Lexington.
Q: I noticed on your website a discussion about the relationship between biotechnology and sustainability. Can you elaborate?
A: Yes. We see biotech as having a major role to play in improving sustainability of many ingredients. There are products, of course, that won’t benefit from biotechnology, but most— if you think of it, most plants and animals are small or rare and you can’t really farm them. You can’t cultivate them and get a sensible amount of ingredient from them. So, that makes the ingredient either inaccessible or it means the animal or plant becomes over-harvested. If we can make that ingredient by simply brewing it in yeast, then we can change that paradigm. We can make the ingredient using a lot less land, a lot less water, relieve the pressure on the environment. So, in its place, it has a great potential to improve the environmental impact.
Q: There are some concerns, perhaps some controversy revolving around the fusion of nature and technology. And I noticed that your company has chosen transparency on the issue.
A: It really comes from a fundamental view that if I’m going to ask you to eat something I’ve made, I’m asking you to really trust us. And that means I need to tell you how we’re making it so you can judge for yourself. Do you feel comfortable with that? So, we’re using genetic engineering. We’re very open about that because we want people to be making an informed choice. Our view is the way the world is going, you’re going to have more and more transparency actually whether you like it or not. But if you want to have the trust of the individual consumer, then you need to be open.
Q: And can you give us any examples of resistance to an innovation that you’ve dealt with in this way?
A: I mean, we make (the flavoring agent) vanillin as one of our products. We’ve had pressure groups argue that this is an inappropriate thing to be doing. We’ve engaged with those groups to explain what we’ve done. We’ve explained the logic. We don’t expect that we win everyone, but I would say that’s got to a point where at least the debate is much more balanced and based on real issues than it would be otherwise. I could actually say we’ve also learned from some of the pressure groups that in some areas maybe we weren’t thinking enough about, for example, social impacts of what we were doing. So, we’ve tried to take some of that onboard.
Q: What’s your view on social responsibility from a corporate perspective?
A: We think we have to be engaged. We have a policy that 1 percent of our revenues we’re donating to support science education in the emerging world and the conservation of biological diversity. That really comes from the fact that we are using natural resources, natural genes to build up products. And in many countries, there are conventions that you need to give back, but we think even without those conventions it’s important to be doing that.
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.