The food world is just mad about saffron.
Created from the dried stamens of a high-maintenance crocus flower, saffron is treasured for the vibrant yellow color and delicate flavor and aroma it brings to food. Saffron crocus threads are meticulously hand-harvested, dried and packaged, and then sold for prices up to around $50 per ounce.
But, Frank Jaksch points out, there are significant health and wellness benefits to consuming saffron as well. However, extracting them and making them available on a commercial scale is difficult.
“How are you supposed to take a incredibly high-value botanical like that and translate it into something that is a health and wellness solution to be used as an ingredient of those types of products?” he asked. “The answer is it's impossible.”
Jaksch, who co-founded botanical-based supplement company ChromaDex in 1999, is ready to make it possible. He’s just been named the first CEO of Ayana Bio, a company spun off of Ginkgo Bioworks last year. Ayana Bio, which has been operating under the radar since its September 2021 creation, will use plant cell culturing techniques to produce biological components from ingredients like saffron, ginger, blueberries and cacao for use as food ingredients and supplements, and in nutritional beverages.
Jaksch said he co-founded ChromaDex to apply chemistry to the natural products space and become a provider of ingredients for food and supplements. ChromaDex perfected the creation of a form of vitamin B3 that has anti-aging properties, known by the brand name Niagen, and focused on producing it as a supplement.
But, Jaksch said, with Ayana Bio he wants to get back to his roots: using science and technology to develop novel ingredients from the plant kingdom in a way that they are most impactful to human health, and make them readily available for use in consumer products. By taking the helm of Ayana Bio, Jaksch said, he has the unique opportunity to do that.
“The plant cell technology platform that Ayana Bio has is, to me, a game changer in being able to bring novel ingredients — and basically sustainable ingredients — to the market,” he said.
Growing nutrition in a bioreactor
Ginkgo Bioworks, the publicly traded cell-programming biotech giant, announced the spinoff and funding of Ayana Bio last September. Ayana was started with the intention of using Ginkgo’s well-known cell programing technology and infrastructure “to bring to market high purity, clean and reliable medicinal bioactives in convenient forms.” Its creation was funded by a $30 million Series A round from Viking Global Investors and Cascade Investment.
The best way to take advantage of these bioactives, creating them at large scale in a consistent way, is through plant cell culture, Jaksch said. This is a method that grows individual plant cells in a bioreactor. Although these cells are grown using technology, they are identical to ones found in nature, according to the company. Ayana Bio plans to utilize the cells on their own, not combine them or use them to engineer plants or plant-based products outside of their natural habitats.
While plant cell culture has been researched for years, few companies have advanced R&D to take advantage of it. Many are using precision fermentation to produce single compounds that work well in food products, but Jaksch said that approach doesn’t do enough to create the types of nutritional compounds in plants.
“Plant cells don't have to be engineered to produce these compounds because the plant cells were designed by nature to produce not only one compound, but multiple compounds,” he said.
“The plant cell technology platform that Ayana Bio has is, to me, a game changer in being able to bring novel ingredients — and basically sustainable ingredients — to the market.”
CEO, Ayana Bio
Using cell culture, Ayana Bio can harness that power of plant cells and focus on perfecting production of those compounds. Some of these compounds are difficult to obtain today. Price can be an issue. Sometimes, taking a wild plant and transitioning it to mass cultivation makes its nutrient levels shift, Jaksch said.
By using cell culturing technology, Ayana Bio can grow identical cells consistently. And with climate change threatening many food crops, a non-agricultural solution to produce them could ensure their survival for future generations.
“Extraction from agriculture is the past; ingredient cultivation is the future,” Effendi Leonard, Ayana Bio’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said in a statement. “We rely on plant-derived molecules for many things in our daily lives, and Ayana Bio’s mission to democratize plant bioactives without agriculture limitation is not an easy feat.” Leonard said Ayana Bio is “uniquely positioned” to leverage life science technology, computation and cellular cultivation.
A health-centered platform
Ayana Bio’s product pipeline includes bioactive compounds from ginseng, berries, cocoa, ginger and other high-value botanicals, according to a company statement. The company can use Ginkgo Bioworks’ cell library and analytical capabilities to seek out the best cell lines to produce.
Using this technology, Jaksch said Ayana Bio can create ingredients that take the beneficial health and wellness-related aspects of plants so they could be added to supplements, beverages, protein bars or drinks or CPG products. The goal is to optimize the ingredients’ healthfulness and make them accessible enough to be used widely in products. For example, while blueberries are rich in vitamins and antioxidants, Jaksch said the average person cannot eat enough of them to take full advantage of their benefits.
Jaksch would not say how close Ayana Bio is to actually developing any potential ingredients, but he said there is a wide target group that could do business with the company. Beverage mix companies could use its ingredients to amp up nutritional benefits in their products, but CPG companies, desiring to serve consumers something more nutritious, may want to use them as well.
Jaksch said the COVID-19 pandemic “threw fuel on” the trend toward better-for-you options, and he believes Ayana Bio can meet CPG companies’ need for ingredient solutions.
“I was actively involved in those conversations with some very large CPG food and beverage companies that were having tons of internal meetings, all the way up to the CEO and the board levels, where they were looking at, ‘How do we bring health and wellness to the table,’ right?,” Jaksch said. “‘I don't want to sell just chips and snacks anymore. We need to find a way to sell chips and snacks and things like this that are healthier versions.’”
Jaksch said he’s always been excited about the possibility of optimizing what’s available in nature and making it available to companies to improve health and wellness. Ayana Bio, he said, gives him the opportunity to offer manufacturers and consumers something that is both new and familiar — and that they already recognize as healthy.
“Now we're just trying to say, ‘Hey, we found a better way of making this stuff and delivering upon the promise and all the clinical studies and all the data that's already out there,’” he said.