To solve some of the biggest problems in the food system today, a new set of tools are needed, Elo Life Systems CEO Todd Rands said.
The molecular farming company just closed its $24.5 million Series A funding round, which will help it develop a new natural sweetener developed in plants bioengineered with genetic information taken from the monk fruit.
The round was led by existing investors, including AccelR8, Novo Holdings and DCVC Bio. The funds will go toward moving forward with U.S. regulatory approval, building pilot-scale processing capabilities and market-testing the sweetener.
Elo’s molecular farming process takes advantage of a plant’s ability to be a “biofactory” that naturally mass produces different substances, Rands said. The company uses bioengineering to modify the genes of a plant in order for it to produce something useful. Elo is working on two projects now: the monk fruit sweetener and a project with Dole to make Cavendish bananas that can resist a fungus that threatens the crop.
Elo was spun out of biotech pharmaceutical company Precision BioSciences in 2021 to concentrate on using gene technology to work in the food and agriculture space. Rands describes the spin-off this way: Elo started as a top-of-the-line engine, and through funding, research and partnerships, the company is working to build the car around it.
“We’ve grown by about 60% this past year,” Rands said. “We're doubling our lab and office space. We've signed a lease. So there's a lot of capacity and growth that's happening with our team and with our facilities here that enable us to do more and to go faster.”
When Elo was looking at the problems that could be solved in the food system through science, Rands said the need to replace sugar with a healthier and natural substitute loomed large.
While consumers love sweet food, sugar is high in calories and its overconsumption has been linked to several chronic diseases, including obesity, cardiovascular issues and cancer. But today’s shoppers are not looking for artificial sweeteners, and would prefer something natural.
The natural sweetener in monk fruit also has gained prominence. Monk fruit is native to China and is intensely sweet. Monk fruit sweeteners are 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so much less is needed, according to the International Food Information Council. It also has zero calories, does not promote tooth decay and is safe for people with diabetes to consume.
“Monk fruit’s been kind of stuck because it's hard to produce,” Rands said. “It comes from really remote areas in China and it's super expensive, and so food companies can't use it very broadly. But everyone to the person wants more of it for their products. So we are designing it so that we can produce a stable and affordable supply.”
Elo has been adding the genetic information that makes monk fruits so sweet into a variety of common and easily cultivated plants in the United States. At first, they were concentrating on incorporating the super-sweet genetic information in watermelons. Rands said Elo was working with a large beverage company at the time, and the business was intrigued by the idea of a juice that was intensely sweet and had few calories.
“Monk fruit’s been kind of stuck because it's hard to produce. It comes from really remote areas in China and it's super expensive, and so food companies can't use it very broadly. ...We are designing it so that we can produce a stable and affordable supply.”
CEO, Elo Life Systems
Elo has since expanded the plants it’s trialing for sweetener production. Rands said it’s worked on making the sweetener in more than 20 different crops, ranging from sorghum to sugar beets to leafy greens to tomatoes.
Along with growing it in different plants, they’re creating different formats and intensities of the sweetener. And they’re working with ingredient companies on processing it into different forms. Elo’s goal is to launch the sweetener by 2025, Rands said.
Elo also is working on the regulatory pathway for its sweetener ingredient. Because the plants are genetically modified, they must be cleared by the USDA before they go into the ground. And the ingredient itself needs to get generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Rands said they are fortunate because a wide variety of monk fruit-derived sweeteners already have GRAS status.
A project that is bananas
Elo’s other big initiative has everything to do with bioengineering to solve a problem in the food system, but nothing to do with ingredients. In 2020, the company announced its partnership with Dole to create a variety of Cavendish bananas that can resist a fungus that kills the plant.
Cavendish bananas represent the majority of what consumers worldwide find at their grocery stores. In 2019, a fungal disease known as Fusarium wilt was discovered in Panama, but the fungus had been known of as far back as 1967, according to Earth.com. This fungus lives in the soil and slowly infects and kills banana trees. No effective antifungal treatments have been found.
Elo brought its unique approach to the problem, looking at genetic factors that could help plants withstand the fungus, Rands said. The company is working toward field trials in Central American banana-growing regions.
Rands said he is confident they have created plants that can withstand the fungus, but the tests will show how well these varieties will be able to withstand other normal conditions of a banana-growing season in Central and South America.
When a solution is found, Rands said Dole will work with those plants. If the varieties Elo has developed are successful, Rands said consumers could be eating bananas from the resistant plants in five years.
While this solution means consumers would be eating fruit that is genetically engineered, Rands said the magnitude of the problem justifies using science to do everything possible to keep fruit exports going. After all, he said, similar GMO technology saved the papaya from extinction.
“When you're dealing with extinction events ... there's a different view towards technology and its applications in food,” he said.