For hundreds of years, humans have used gelatin to create consumer goods: as a cooking agent, in medicines and cosmetics, and as an essential element of candies like marshmallow and gummy bears.
Trouble is, making gelatin basically involves dropping the skin, bone, and connective tissue of animals into acid or alkaline baths—a process that doesn’t exactly line up with today’s rising standards for cleaner eating.
But don’t give up on those Haribo frog candies yet. Geltor is currently at work engineering a solution for those with a sweet tooth who prefer not to eat acid-dipped horse bones. The company programs microbes so they produce produce collagen—from which gelatin is made—via a fermentation process, leaving out the animal parts altogether.
Geltor grows the microbes in large fermentation tanks in its San Leandro, Calif. facility. The microbes, which naturally produce protein, are given instructions in the form of DNA sequences to create the collagen.
“Recombinant proteins are critical to the post-animal economy,” Geltor CEO and founder Alex Lorestani said in an interview last year. “They are also difficult and expensive to manufacture.” Lorestani believes his company’s platform can help build the necessary proteins for animal-free gelatin at a lower cost than was previously possible. Food manufacturers might then be able to seriously consider gelatin alternatives in their foods that can mimic the form and consistency of the real thing without having to include animal parts in the process.
The gelatin market is right now close to $3 billion. At the same time, however, there’s rising demand for alternative forms of gelatin that don’t rely on animal proteins to produce. It’s not just vegans causing this demand. Those with religious restrictions around food have to steer clear of some gelatins (namely, pork-derived gelatin, which is neither halal nor kosher). And there are concerns about animal diseases making their way into gelatin-based candies (BSE, for example).
While there are some substitutes already available on the market—pectin, agar, guar gum—anyone who’s ever tasted a “vegan gummy bear” knows it’s notoriously difficult to replicate the real deal.
Geltor’s platform addresses this very issue. The big question is whether it can do so at scale.
Lorestani and Co. say they are about five years from producing their gelatin in commercial-sized quantities for food industry buyers, though they reportedly already have a long wait list of potential buyers. The company also has to consider regulatory issues—namely, proving their product is a safe alternative.
Right now there’s not much in the way of competition. That will undoubtedly change over the next five years, since it’s more than just the candy makers need gelatin to make their products. Once the pharmaceutical and personal care companies get onboard, expect to hear lots of noise coming from this corner of the biotech world.