Companies to Watch

By Sean Moloughney | June 1, 2010

Introducing five companies poised to make a lasting impression on the world of dietary supplements and functional foods.

Provexis: Proven Technologies for the Global Market

Focused on the discovery, development and licensing of functional food, medical food and dietary supplement technologies, U.K.-based Provexis plc has positioned its business to repeat the success of its Fruitflow tomato extract with several projects currently in its pipeline.
Following the discovery of novel bioactives in tomato by Professor Asim Dutta Roy at the Rowett Institute in 1999, Provexis was founded to commercialize the technology. In 2005 Provexis merged with Nutrinnovator plc, founded by the company’s current CEO, Stephen Moon, resulting in the existing AIM-listed Provexis plc entity.

Backed by 10 clinical trials with consistent endpoints and results confirming Fruitflow’s health impact, last year Provexis achieved a major milestone, attaining approval under article 13.5, which authorized the claim that the product helps reduce platelet aggregation and “contributes to a healthy blood flow.”

“We found that process quite hard work, but also transparent and simple to work through,” said Mr. Moon. “And it made an immediate impact on the business. We had a lot of interest from potential commercial partners and the financial market. Overall, for us it’s been a pretty positive outcome.” The company also has eyes on the U.S. market, where it obtained Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) status for use of Fruitflow in foods and supplements.
In February of this year the company signed a letter of intent giving DSM Nutritional Products exclusive global rights to Fruitflow. Separately, DSM Venturing BV became the majority shareholder of Provexis in 2008.

While Fruitflow set the stage, the company’s activities have evolved beyond this patented extract. “The way the pipeline develops over the next few months will demonstrate that,” Mr. Moon said. “We’ve learned a lot and now have about four new technologies in the pipeline that we’re bringing through more rapidly. We can see ourselves doing several Fruitflow-type projects in the next two to three years.”

In April this year Provexis entered a long-term research and development collaboration agreement with the Institute of Food Research (IFR) and Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL), the technology transfer company for IFR. As part of the agreement, Provexis received exclusive access to a portfolio of potentially high-value intellectual property related to the treatment and reduction of systemic inflammation, from which it intends to develop commercial products.

Professor Richard Mithen of IFR has developed a substantial body of work over 20 years in the area of isothiocyanates for the reduction of risk of certain major cancers. More recent work, some in collaboration with Provexis, has led to the discovery of a broader effect in other areas of systemic inflammation, including cardiovascular inflammation. As a result, patents for a novel extract were filed jointly in 2008. The partners will collaborate to develop the science, with major areas including clinical trials, extract development, further IP development, regulatory clearances and commercialization.
The company is also the majority shareholder in a joint venture with the University of Liverpool, which owns a plantain extract (NSP#3G) that shows promise in treating inflammatory bowel disease. Current work is focused on increasing the remission time in Crohn’s Disease patients.
As Provexis moves forward and actively pursues cutting-edge technologies, Mr. Moon said the food and supplement industry offers many opportunities to leave a lasting impact on public health.
“We think that functional foods are obviously in strong growth in an increasingly stringent regulatory environment,” said Mr. Moon. “But we think our skill set can play to that area, and we’ve demonstrated that recently. We’re quite interested in the strong growth of medical foods and quite interested to see people like Nestle and Danone involved in that. So we think we can probably bring more focus to medical food areas.”

Committed to the discovery of the most significant technological advances in health, Provexis is uniquely positioned to extend its expertise to a wide range of applications. As the company’s pipeline progresses, Fruitflow might seem just the beginning of a much broader story.

NutraBella: A Menu of Products for Big Bellies

Developing quickly since its founding in 2005, San Mateo, CA-based NutraBella has grown up beyond its signature Bellybar brand nutrition bar for pregnant women, offering a full menu of products designed to support the unique nutritional needs of women before, during and after pregnancy.
Company founders Leslie Barber and Meredith Lincoln started the business after hearing stories from pregnant women about their struggles to swallow, and keep down, prenatal vitamins. Also recognizing how hungry pregnant women get, they decided to develop a product that could satisfy hunger while also fulfilling nutritional needs.

Working with researchers to include efficacious amounts of vital nutrients, as well as culinary experts to develop a product that could also deliver on taste, ironically, Bellybar took about nine months to develop and launch, according to Ms. Barber. The all-natural nutrition bar contains DHA (from algae), protein, folate, vitamins A, C, E, B6 and B12, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc.

The brand has become popular among a loyal customer base of pregnant women, who often tell their friends about their experiences with Bellybar products. “When women are pregnant they are seeking information and communicating with other pregnant women at a rate that I don’t think happens when they’re not pregnant,” said Ms. Barber, who is a new mom herself. “When you’re pregnant it’s a maternal instinct to do everything you can to be as healthy as possible and to help this little life growing inside of you.” Therefore, quality is a top priority for the company, she added. “Our consumers are pushing us to that standard. If a [pregnant] woman isn’t sure about a product, she’s not going to take it.”

The company has established a strong relationship with its customers, who offer feedback on an ongoing basis, Ms. Barber noted. “I find it very empowering for the company but also empowering for the consumer because they have such an impact on what we do.”

Inspired by consumers, who requested some variety and diversity from the Bellybar brand, in April this year NutraBella revamped and expanded its product offerings to better meet the needs of pregnant and nursing women. The company now offers Bellybar Prenatal Chewable vitamins, a daily supplement that provides a comprehensive dose of OB-recommended nutrients, such as folic acid, calcium, iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D and more. The brand also includes DHA chews to accompany its Bellybar Boost Bars and Shakes.
Recognizing that it has become more than just a nutrition bar company, Nutrabella still believes the Bellybar name fits with its overall philosophy, proactively repositioning itself. “We are trying to expand the concept more as a menu of options for women while they’re pregnant,” Ms. Barber noted. “When you think of that concept—a menu of options, a family of options for women—Bellybar is more than just a nutrition bar.”

Feedback from consumers continues to drive the company forward. “It is such an amazing joy to hear from customers who have discovered our products and have found they make a meaningful and positive difference in their lives,” said Ms. Lincoln. “With Bellybar we are fortunate to have a very passionate consumer, and we are committed to listening to her needs and making sure we deliver the products that she really wants and will enjoy.”

Engaging with current and potential customers is paramount for the company, which has a window of about one year to communicate with women during their pregnancy, and while nursing. “We need to go out and find the new women becoming pregnant,” said Ms. Barber. “That’s a very exciting process because we’re always meeting new consumers and inviting them to try our products. But it means the doctors, healthcare providers and retailers all become extremely important to us, because we don’t necessarily have the opportunity to sell to the same consumer, until she goes on to her next pregnancy.”

In attempt to “expand its conversation with women,” NutraBella has recently acquired a new brand called Relaxity, an all-natural, whole food-based supplement designed to relieve stress and anxiety without causing drowsiness. Available in capsules and an effervescent formula, Relaxity contains a proprietary blend of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
“We started NutraBella to improve the well-being of women with healthy functional foods and drinks,” said Ms. Lincoln. “With the addition of Relaxity, we are expanding our solutions for women—providing them with all-natural stress-relief options in a high stress world.”

As an engaged, proactive company in a largely reactive world, NutraBella has found a sustainable place in today’s market. Equipped with appealing brands targeted toward a highly motivated consumer base, the company is sure to make a lasting impression.

Fluxome: Ingredients for Life

Founded in 2002 as a spin-off company from a research group at the Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen-based Fluxome A/S is poised to become a leading global company within development, production and marketing of nutraceutical ingredients through the use of novel bioprocesses.
“The level of all of the activities in a living cell is known as the fluxome,” according to the company. “Inside any organism, we find thousands of enzymatic activities that are part of or responsible for a certain function inside a living cell. Detailed knowledge and analysis of the fluxome allows us to work with the microorganisms for the production of nutraceutical ingredients.”

Fluxome’s technological innovation begins with a strain of Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and a unique fermentation process involving proprietary microbial engineering that yields efficient cell factories for the production of health ingredients.
Herbert Woolf, president and CEO of Fluxome Inc., the company’s commercial U.S. subsidiary in Parsippany, NJ, said the original goal was to utilize the company’s unique technology and know-how to develop innovative and cost-effective bioprocesses in a controlled, transparent environment. “The feeling was that as the market has become globalized, the supply and quality control of many nutrients has become tenuous,” he said. Sami Sassi, business development manager, reiterated that notion, saying, “There are still some issues of quality in this industry, as some companies are only worried about next week’s sales.”

“Here at Fluxome we have a process that produces a pure nutrient domestically under controlled conditions, with a great deal of transparency,” Mr. Woolf added.

Backed by significant venture capital from several European firms, Fluxome launched its natural trans-resveratrol product in the form of a white, crystalline powder. Fluxome Resveratrol has applications for supplements, functional foods, cosmetics and cosmeceuticals, and has gained significant interest within the industry, said Mr. Woolf.

“We see resveratrol as a very nice example of a nutrient that has been overlooked and has a role for almost everyone in society, for a variety of reasons,” said Mr. Woolf. “Time will tell if this nutrient will have the added benefits that it may have had when we had shorter lifespans. But polyphenols are a category of nutrients we are definitely not consuming enough of.”

Recognizing the potential health benefits of resveratrol as a product category, and the need for further scientific understanding, Fluxome has helped organize an international scientific conference on resveratrol and health, which will take place in Denmark September 13-16. Resveratrol 2010 will bring leading scientists together on the global stage for an intensive meeting on the latest scientific work in this field.

Mr. Sassi said he expects the conference to yield a series of reports that include a summary of the latest global research alongside recommendations for future directions of clinical evaluation. These reports will be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, he said. About 10 clinical trials involving resveratrol are currently taking place in the Western world, he added. “We need the science, the hard facts. Positive headlines are nice, but to grow the category we need more scientific evaluation.”

In addition to resveratrol, utilizing the same Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast strain, Fluxome has developed a safe and secure source of vegetarian polyunsaturated fatty acids. The company hopes its Fluxome EPA product will be commercially available in about six months, according to Mr. Woolf. With the popularity of omega 3s at an all-time high, a vegetarian source of EPA that bypasses issues like contamination and sustainability could look very attractive in a highly scrutinized market.
Adding to its product offering, Fluxome also partnered with GlycaNova Norway on a beta-glucan product that is backed by clinical evidence to support immune function in humans. The product fits well with the company’s general philosophy of delivering efficacious products free of contaminants, also ensuring sustainable, environmentally friendly standards.
As the company moves forward, these commitments, alongside a business model centered on the safe, secure, effective delivery of nutrients, Fluxome has answered many of the critical questions asked in today’s nutraceuticals landscape, positioning itself to lead the industry forward.

Smart Balance: A Balanced Food Plan

Striking that often-elusive balance between health, taste and affordability has been a pitfall for many functional food companies in their efforts to reach mainstream consumers. But Smart Balance Inc., Paramus, NJ, has established itself as a worthy competitor in today’s market thanks to its unique blend of balanced oils.

Smart Balance offers a range of products, including margarine, buttery spreads, sour cream, milk, peanut butter and popcorn. The company is committed to providing superior tasting, heart healthy alternatives to unhealthy foods by avoiding industrialized, or interesterified, trans fats and adding beneficial ingredients like omega 3s and plant sterols.
“We’re all about bad stuff out, good stuff in,” said Steve Hughes, the company’s CEO. “We’re using spreads as a base to deliver highly efficacious nutrients. Everybody has to have oils in their diet. It’s just about coming up with the optimal balance. You have to have some saturated fat, but not all saturated fats are created equal. So we looked for a blend of oils that gives you all the positive benefits you want from having balanced fats while not relying on potentially harmful oils.”

While health benefits alone will reach a highly motivated niche consumer base, according to Mr. Hughes, superior taste will drive repeat purchasing. “You can get anybody to buy something once, but it’s the taste that will make the difference. And we have always designed our products to be at or above the gold standard. Our spreads continue to perform very favorably to butter, which is the gold standard. Taste is really where you’re going to get your repeat purchase.”

For example, Smart Balance Buttery Spread has won three consecutive Best Taste Awards from the American Culinary Institute, and the product continues to perform well at retail. While spreads and cooking oils/sprays have been the company’s mainstays since its founding in the 1990s—when Brandeis University scientists developed a blend of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats that could help improve cholesterol through dietary means—Smart Balance has entered many other product categories as well.
Smart Balance Milk with Omega 3s and Vitamin E is an “excellent source” of EPA/DHA and also contains calcium and protein. The company offers Fat-Free, 1% Lowfat and Lactose-Free varieties, alongside a Lowfat Milk with HeartRight, which contains plant sterols.
Interestingly, Mr. Hughes noted, “Fifty percent of the people buying our milk have never bought our spreads. Where spreads is a product category you buy maybe eight times a year, milk is a product you buy four to eight times a month. It’s a high frequency, high engagement product.” That sort of engagement, Mr. Hughes believes, will lead to long-term success and make the company’s brand appealing for a wide spectrum of consumers.

And who has a wider audience than Oprah Winfrey? Recently Smart Balance partnered with Oprah’s fitness trainer and nutrition expert Bob Greene, launching the BestLife line of buttery spreads, which according to Mr. Hughes, is “designed to go right up against those Country Crock users and give them a healthy alternative that is at a price point ($2.29) they’re used to paying.”
Following the company’s “three tier strategy” for broad distribution and market reach, Mr. Hughes sees BestLife as a “value brand,” to complement its Smart Balance spread, which prices at $3.29 “in the middle of the category.” Its Earth Balance organic, all-natural product averages about $4.29 at retail.

At a time when trans fats are under increasing scrutiny, and with knowledge of “good fats” on the rise, Smart Balance is positioned within an important category. As it works to expand its brand and increase market share, the company has an attentive audience—and a sizeable marketing budget at its disposal.

Medisyn Technologies: Forward Engineering & Future Applications

On the cutting-edge of innovation and development, Medisyn Technologies, Minnetonka, MN, has leveraged mathematics as a means of discovering novel bioactive compounds and health applications that could change the way the nutraceuticals industry operates.
The company’s Forward Engineering technology utilizes complex mathematical models and patterns to analyze the interconnectivity of bioactive compounds, predicting new functionalities and applications. The technology can identify molecules that possess desired properties—such as efficacy in treating a disease—and accurately assess the characteristics of novel compounds, such as safety, efficacy, absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, toxicity and potency. The in silico methodology has the potential to greatly reduce costs and lead times for companies looking to bring new products to market, according to David Land, president of Medisyn Technologies.
“We’re basically an IP (intellectual property) engine for our customers,” said Mr. Land. “We generate either novel compounds or novel uses for existing compounds. In the food space it’s all about trying to look at nature differently, because everyone is confined, essentially, to the same set of compounds. But if you can look at those compounds with a different perspective, which you can with our Forward Engineering technology, it allows you to discern properties that nobody realized those compounds had.”

Founded in 1999, the company began commercial operations in December 2004, and originally began work in the pharmaceutical industry. As the technology developed recognition and the company gained traction, opportunities in the food industry opened up naturally.
In early 2009 the company formalized a research and licensing collaboration with Kraft Foods to discover effective bioactive ingredients suitable for food use. That partnership has gone “exceedingly well,” said Mr. Land. Recently the companies expanded the scope of their collaboration from opportunities in health and wellness to those in food quality, food safety and product performance.

“The challenge for every food company these days is how do you come up with something novel when everyone’s looking at the same stuff,” he added. “If you can look at it with a new pair of eyes—such as with this technology—and find certain functions that people don’t otherwise see, then you have a competitive edge.”

The company also continues to work in the pharmaceutical industry, partnering with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York on new chemical classes of preclinical compounds that may eventually lead to the first effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Medisyn has leveraged research conducted by Giulio Pasinetti, MD, PhD, who is professor and director at the Center of Excellence for Research in Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Alzheimer’s Disease, Department of Psychiatry, at Mount Sinai.
“We’re very excited about the stage we’re at now,” Mr. Land said of that partnership, “because we do have novel compounds that we’ve discovered under the program. These compounds that we’ve selected have been intentionally screened by Medisyn’s platform to have a safe, drug-like profile.”

In a pharmaceutical industry that spends about $40 billion a year in the U.S. but only yields about 12-18 new chemical entities, according to Mr. Land, Medisyn’s predictive technology offers greatly needed efficiencies. “It’s a very accurate tool that offers a very rich pipeline. It’s broad and deep for the function of interest. Where in other approaches you may end up with one or two lead compounds, here you’ll have a much richer selection of diverse compounds in different chemical classes.”

Meanwhile, the company intends to further develop its research and discovery platform in the nutraceuticals and functional food space. “One of the industry challenges is to find breakthrough ways to innovate, rather than incremental innovations. How do you take quantum leaps rather than just incremental ones? Here we are covering the entire natural compound universe with every project we take. For the food industry, we would like to bring permanent change to the way research and discovery is done.”

With broad application of its technology in the future, Medisyn could also potentially identify natural substitutes for synthetic compounds currently in the food chain, contribute to food safety initiatives, and has even partnered with the U.S. Department of Defense to discover new non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Those quantum leaps could be coming.