Alex Lorestani thought he’d be spending his career in a lab fighting infectious disease. He changed paths to co-found Gelzen with Nick Ouzounov and is taking applying his molecular biology degree to engineer animal-free gelatin. The hope is that this compound will reduce our reliance on animal-derived gelatins and maybe even the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant disease.
Gelzen will join other foodtech innovators next month at our Food Loves Tech event. There, you’ll be able to see, taste and touch the very near food future while feasting on dishes and drinks from some of the city’s best restaurants and makers. Tickets are only $35 for Edible readers! Be sure to get yours before they’re gone.
We caught up with Lorestani to learn why they chose to make gelatin, how they create it and how soon it might hit the market.
Edible Manhattan: Let’s start with the basics. Why gelatin?
Alex Lorestani: It’s a long story that started while I was pursuing my MD/PhD at Rutgers. I was on the path to become an infectious diseases physician-scientist because of my fascination with how humans and microbes interact. So I was spending a lot of time studying how bacteria work, specifically certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria that plague hospitals. My long-term goal at the time was to run a hospital where no one develops an infection or illness because of an infection they acquired during their stay in that hospital. The number of people who lose their lives because of healthcare-associated infections is equivalent to a commercial airline crashing every day.
EM: Wow—so how does gelatin relate to this?
AL: Well, the more I studied antibiotic resistance, the more I learned about the contributing factors, all of which start with our food system and the overuse of antibiotics. Seventy percent of antibiotics used in the country are used on animals to promote growth and reduce frequency of disease. There’s emerging literature that strongly suggests antibiotic-resistant organisms emerge on farms and then spread into communities. The vast majority of gelatin on the market today is derived from animals housed on factory farms where this abuse of antibiotics takes place.
EM: So you decided to focus on making gelatin?
AL: Nick, our co-founder, and I met while at Princeton. We starting kicking around the idea of leveraging technology and microbial biology to make consumer products. One of the ideas we had and ultimately moved forward with was that we could build microbial factories to build food products.
In particular, we were interested in gelatin—it’s a beautiful, simple and well understood molecularly. Scientists have been studying collagen and collagen-like molecules for a long time, so we could reap these benefits and focus on making food with it.
That’s the science-centric version of why we got into reshaping gelatin. Another reason is that Nick is a vegetarian, so he’s always grappled with lackluster gelatin substitutes or simply searching for food that doesn’t contain it at all. Ultimately we’re a couple of science-driven founders who also had personal reasons for taking this on.
EM: Where are you at in the process of rebuilding gelatin’s biology?
AL: This past summer, we were accepted into an accelerator in San Francisco. We came in with our concept and needs, which at that time was lab space to test our hypothesis that you could generate non-animal-derived gelatin. So we left our families and friends on the East Coast and moved to San Francisco. We’re in the early stages of scaling our process, developing our product, and most importantly, learning from prospective customers. Currently, we’re building our own fermenter farm in the Bay Area and preparing tanks in which we will produce the gelatin.
EM: What is the business plan? Is Gelzen going to be sitting on shelves next to other gelatin products?
AL: Not exactly. There are other businesses who use gelatin in their product formulations. We are producing a bio-identical product that can be plugged in where animal-derived gelatin is used. So, instead of using product extracted from a pig that has been pumped full of antibiotics, you can substitute with our product.
Consumers may not ever interact with it directly but it will ultimately affect how they interact with their food overall.
EM: Products like this are often intimidating because they typically come at a high price point. How will you combat that notion?
AL: We would not be going down this road if we didn’t have the intention of making this cost competitive with animal-derived gelatin. To have an impact on a larger food supply, we’ll have to be. We have no intention of being a boutique gelatin producer, but rather we plan to make a product that can replace a commodity good.
But we don’t believe the largest problem is the price of gelatin substitutes and more the quality because they’re missing the mechanical and chemical properties of gelatin. That being said, there’s many people making products targeted toward vegetarians and vegans who are feeling the pain of not finding quality gelatin substitutes at a reasonable price. Right now, gelatin substitutes are $30 a kilo instead of the $7 gelatin costs and the quality is low.
EM: It’s clear you’ve done your research. Are there already businesses interested in your product?
AL: Yes! If you think about whose excited about gelatin, you should talk to the people who want to buy it from us. These are people and companies who have been working in the food industry for decades and thinking about this very problem. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response we’ve received.
One thing that’s very powerful in our approach is that we are programming cells to build gelatin for us, so we can program them with any properties companies are interested it. If someone wants to make a gummy bear with a specific stiffness or a beer clarifying agents with a particular property, we can do that.
EM: Back to your earlier comment, how does all of this achieve your larger goal of eliminating hospital-born and antibiotic-resistant disease?
AL: There are lots of companies interested in building food through biology. We all need to be working together to build an ecosystem of companies making these products that combat disease as well as improve quality of taste, texture and usability. No one company can tackle this goal alone. What I’ve most enjoyed about this is working with other companies to essentially grow a new and good system.