Protera CEO talks AI-developed proteins, closing €5m Series A, and relocating to France
26 ekaina 2020
Biotech start-up Protera Biosciences has announced the closure of its Series A financing round, led by European life sciences venture capital firm Sofinnova Partners.
Tech venture capital firm SOSV also contributed to the $5.5m investment, which aims to support the commercialisation of Protera’s protein portfolio.
At the same time, the Santiago-born biotech has revealed plans to relocate to Paris, after a three-year stint in San Francisco.
The decision to cross the Atlantic was strategic, Protera CEO Leonardo Álvarez told FoodNavigator, adding that there would also be a benefit in being geographically closer to Sofinnova, ‘to maximize the support they can provide’.
Protera taps ‘protein design machine’
Protera designs and develops new proteins using ‘MADI’ – a proprietary deep learning platform that predicts protein functions. It does this by first predicting their 3D structure and then by inferring their function from the structure.
In an interview with FoodNavigator-LATAM last year, Álvarez described MADI as a ‘protein design engine’.
“Proteins are chains of amino acids that are bound together forming long strings, like a pearl collar, and this strings folds in particular 3D shapes.
“The shape determines its function and how efficient it is at performing it. The problem that getting to know that structure is challenging and requires expensive facilities to do X-ray crystallography and may take years.”
MADI uses protein data published within the last 40 years by scientists to predict the 3D shape and to function ‘incredibly fast’ and with ‘high accuracy’, the CEO explained. This capacity allows Protera to design new functional proteins that can ‘transform food ingredients’ by changing properties, such as texture, flavour, and shelf-life.
“We can analyse billions of protein combinations per day, a task [that would] take several months using alternative technologies. That speed is critical when you have a complex optimization problem to solve, like protein folding.”
The Protera portfolio
Protera’s portfolio supports a growing trend for natural, clean-label, and functional food ingredients.
One of the biotech’s first prototype products, Protera Sense, for example, is designed to improve texture in food without adding palm oil or trans-fatty acids.
But it is another protein, Protera Guard, that the company is currently prioritising. The clean-label protein is designed to extend food shelf-life and replace chemical preservatives.
“We throw away one-third of the food we produce every year worldwide, and one of the main reasons is microbial contamination,” explained Álvarez. This latest $5.5m investment will enable Protera to scale up Protera Guard, and ultimately provide people will food that lasts longer, he continued.
Indeed, the company is currently preparing to begin Protera Guard pilot trials with food manufacturers.
When asked why Protera was prioritising Protera Guard over other prototype products, the CEO explained the biotech prioritises products based on the interest it receives from clients, and how long it envisages it will take its team to move a product to market.
“We had originally intended to progress each of these applications in parallel, including new emulsifying and antioxidant proteins; however, the pandemic has impacted our schedule.”
The reasons behind Protera’s decision to relocate to France were at least two-fold: the CEO believes it will help the company scale, while benefiting from the capital’s start-up ecosystem.
“Europe is well known for its vast expertise in and facilities for producing enzymes and proteins at industrial scale. The world’s largest enzyme producers are actually based in Europe. Having immediate access to this equipment and local industrial knowledge is critical for our next strategic focus – scaling up our production.
“Another contributing factor is the tremendous government effort to incentivize start-ups in France. It’s fantastic to be a part of this growing ecosystem in Paris,” he told this publication.
Concerning its geographical commercialisation strategy, however, the biotech is kicking off the regulatory process outside of the European Union.
“We are starting our regulatory processes in the US and Latin America,” the CEO explained. “The GRAS process is an important component for us because this aligns with our vision of complete consumer transparency regarding how we produce our products and what they contain.”
FDA timelines are becoming a bit slower as more companies decide to take the GRAS path, he continued. “Today, it can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months to get a final answer from the FDA. In Latin America, the situation is similar but it varies from country to country. Depending on the product, it could take between 4 to 18 months.”
Both markets have a growing interest in new functional and clean-label ingredients, which is attractive to Protera. Further, in terms of their regulatory landscapes, Protera has already observed products – which have a similar manufacturing approach to Protera – in these regions exceed. “Having a clear regulatory path helps us to de-risk our go-to-market strategy,” we were told.
At this stage, Álvarez was unable to provide an accurate commercialisation timeline for its Protera Guard product, due to ‘uncertainty still remaining around the pandemic-related lockdown and travel restrictions’.
“However, we have already started working with clients, and are forging ahead to scale up the production of Protera Guard. We anticipate launching the product in the second half of next year.”