Green Bioactives CEO David McElroy.
David McElroy, Green Bioactives CEO [Stewart Attwood]
Green Bioactives, a startup that sustainably biomanufactures plant-derived bioactives, has raised £2.6 million ($3.1 million) in seed financing. Their platform can identify, isolate, and cultivate plant vascular stem cells—which can differentiate into distinct plant tissues—for different purposes, allowing the production of bioactives used in pharmaceuticals in a more sustainable and cost-effective way.

Eos Advisory LLP led the funding round, which included investments from Regenerate Ventures’ Agtech Fund in London, Milltrust International Group (offices in London and Singapore), and Scottish Enterprise, which also gave the company advice. The financing will enable the company to grow its management, production, and research team capabilities, allowing the company to demonstrate its biomanufacturing approach at a larger scale.

“Our vision is to become the world’s leading supplier of plant cell culture-derived natural products,” said CEO David McElroy.

Manufacturing plant-based bioactive ingredients

The plant kingdom is a treasure trove of different molecules that could be separated and used for various commercial purposes. But suitable plants are often growing in remote locations. The supply chains to get them are often unstable either because of climate effects or political instability. For example, the chemotherapy medication paclitaxel is isolated from a slow-growing yew tree, so sourcing it is an ongoing sustainability concern. Also, the biochemistry of how these products are synthesized in the native plant isn’t always clear, so they can’t be easily moved into a yeast system or Escherichia coli.

Using its platform, Green Bioactives can make paclitaxel with a much higher yield than the way it is currently purified. “What we are doing is taking the cells responsible for making these valuable molecules and growing them up in large bioreactors, and then isolating the target molecule from the cells, similar to brewing in yeast,” said McElroy.

The molecules are frequently produced in the plant in response to an attack or stress. While the plants are different depending on which one makes the target molecule, the cells that Green Bioactives isolate, primary meristem cells, are similar.

The trick, McElroy says, is to expose them to a molecule that mimics the stress they would normally feel to produce the target molecule, to induce them to make the molecule in culture. “For example, we have a customer we’re working with on an insecticide molecule that comes out of cells of the bark of a Colombian rainforest tree in response to insect predation. We’ve isolated cells from that plant and subjected them to mimics of the stress from insect gradation, and then they make the molecule on demand for us to purify.”

Full-scale ahead

This seed funding is an essential step for Green Bioactives to scale up. “We are a startup out of the University of Edinburgh, and we are culturing cells at less than 50 liters—so, on a small scale,” McElroy explained.

“This funding allows us to do three different things: focus the company on addressing opportunities in specific markets; innovate and protect our IP through various patent applications; but the most important thing that future investors see is us scaling the technology beyond lab scale and getting into 200,000-liter production. We’re not going to get there with the first round of funding, but it allows us to get to a place where future investors can see there’s a chance that we’re going to be able to scale with attractive economics.”

The funding will also allow Green Bioactives to focus on the most accessible high-value opportunities rather than the highest-value opportunities. “The company really got started because customers were coming to the founder, Professor Gary Loake, and asking him to do work for them, because they couldn’t find someone that looked like us to do this work,” said McElroy. “So, absent any business development, we’ve managed to secure some world-leading customers that are currently working with us, and we hope to expand our relationships with them going forward.”

According to McElroy, there is a huge market because people are interested in naturally sustainable products. For example, molecules used in cosmetics are currently made from petroleum, and customers want to get these types of functional molecules from more sustainable sources than petroleum. “We have the capability of developing sustainable plant-derived natural products for various applications,” McElroy said. “And although we haven’t been actively out there sourcing customers today, we’re open for business.”

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