Today, people with food allergies and intolerances have to navigate their diets and social situations using a careful blend of avoidance, strict attention to details, substitutions and emergency plans in case they come into contact with the wrong thing.
But Anat Binur and Yanay Ofran, co-founders of Ukko, see a different future. Their company, which has been operating behind the scenes since its founding, just finished a $40 million funding round. The money will be used to help them get artificial-intelligence designed products for two specific food allergies on the market: gluten-neutralized ingredients and baked goods and a safe peanut allergy treatment.
The lead investor was Leaps by Bayer, the pharmaceutical company's venture arm. It was joined by Continental Grain Company, PeakBridge Ventures, SkyViews Life Science and Fall Line Capital. Existing investors Khosla Ventures, Innovation Endeavors and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff's investment fund TIME Ventures also participated.
Ofran, who is a computational biophysicist and a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel, researched biomolecular recognition, which is the study of how proteins tend to bind to one another. He and his team discovered AI tools that can predict when this will occur, and can even design proteins to bind with one another.
In the case of food allergies, Ofran said, the immune system recognizes some of the nooks and crannies in allergenic proteins and starts binding with them.
"That initiates a cascade of molecular and cellular events that culminates in what we see as an allergy," Ofran said. "And what we're doing is to apply our tools in order to minimally change these proteins, such that they maintain all of their characteristics. But we make them transparent to the immune system. [The protein] no longer has the nooks and crannies that it can recognize and bind."
When Ofran discovered the possibility of biomolecular recognition for combating food allergies, he called his longtime friend Binur and suggested they start a company dedicated to using the technology. Neither Ofran, who is the company's chairman, or Binur, its CEO, has any deep personal experience with food allergies, but they know how devastating they can be. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, 32 million Americans have food allergies — roughly one in 10 adults and one in 13 children.
"Ukko really has the holistic food-to-therapy approach to solving food allergy and sensitivities," Binur said. "The core part of our approach is really our AI-driven platform ... which we use to look at proteins and really precisely engineer them in a way where we can keep the good and get rid of the bad."
She said the same approach could probably be used for all common food allergies, but they are starting with gluten and peanuts because of their prevalence and seriousness. A person with gluten allergy or intolerance has a host of products that he or she cannot eat. And while gluten-free options are getting more plentiful and tasting better, they still aren't quite the same as their conventional flour counterparts.
Peanuts, on the other hand, with their commonality and potentially dangerous allergic reactions, are what Ofran described as the "holy grail" of allergens.
"Going straight to the jugular and trying to solve the hardest problem would be a proof of concept for everything else," Ofran said. "Of course, when you have a question like this, you want to solve the hardest problem."
While the technology Ukko is using for both allergens is similar, the approach is completely different.
For gluten allergies, the company is working on making a safe gluten protein that can be used in different applications. Binur said they are hoping to make the non-allergenic gluten protein into flour and other ingredients that can be used by manufacturers and consumers. But Ukko also plans to make a bread using its flour. The hope, she said, is manufacturers can choose Ukko flour for their manufacturing, and people who cannot have gluten can eat the products without worrying.
For peanuts, Ukko wants to create a safer therapeutic approach for allergic people undergoing desensitization treatment, similar to the approach from Nestlé-owned Aimmune Therapeutics. This style of therapy gives the allergic person small amounts of peanut protein over time, helping them to build up their resistance to it so they can tolerate the legume. Ukko plans to do the same thing with a non-allergenic version of peanut protein, and will be designing its own peanut allergen treatment.
"The process [already in use] is very toxic because you expose the patient to the allergen," Ofran said. "Our engineering allows us to maintain all the elements in the routine that can tolerize the patient without exposing them to the risk of an allergic reaction because our proteins are not allergens."
Binur said the new funds they raised will be spent going through the process to gain FDA approval for the non-allergenic flour and the peanut allergy treatment. They are already working with the regulatory agency, she noted, and preliminary patient data has shown strong and promising results.
With the funding round, which includes several partners in the pharmaceutical and food tech realms, Ukko also announced a new advisory board with members from the medical and CPG communities who have experience in food allergies. They include Bernhard Van Lengerich, former General Mills chief science officer, former USDA Secretary Ann Veneman, and executive dean for the University of North Carolina School of Medicine Dr. Wesley Burks.
Binur said there's a lot of excitement for Ukko in the food industry.
"You talk to CEOs and [vice president's] in food companies and they say that this issue is a struggle," she said. "This world, in which you worry about cross-contamination. Your cafes and your bakeries are limited in access. It's something that they've been trying to solve for a very, very long time. There's always a trade off. ... This will both be saving lives and also shifting and improving the way that people eat."