A sustainable and efficient method of plant protein extraction catapulted Associate Professor Huang Dejian from NUS Food Science and Technology onto a start-up journey.
His aim: To produce affordable food and biomedical products using his novel technology.
Together with Ms Florence Leong, an ex-pharmaceutical executive turned start-up entrepreneur, advisor and angel investor, Assoc Prof Huang co-founded KosmodeHealth Singapore.
The firm calls itself a “1, 2, 3 company” — one company impacting two industries with three different technologies. Its business model is primarily that of an enabler, working to expand access to health from nature through its work in the food and biomedical industries.
Affordable plant extracts
Food production and the biomedical sector may seem as different as chalk and cheese but both can benefit from Assoc Prof Huang’s technique of plant protein extraction.
In the food industry, this method reduces the high cost of authentic plant extracts and minimises waste in food production.
“The current method of extracting and enrichment of bioactive products from plants is through column chromatography. This is very complex and energy intensive practice that takes up a big land space and use large amount of organic solvents that generates environmental burdens. With the low amounts of bioactive material in plants, the process has low efficiency and can be very expensive,” said Assoc Prof Huang.
The current type of extraction can take days to complete, at a cost of hundreds of dollars per kilogram. In contrast, Assoc Prof Huang’s expertise enables extractions to be done in hours and at a fraction of the current cost. This is enabled through an unconventional approach that makes use of only food grade processing aids while eliminating the need for column separation — the bottle neck of traditional methods.
Additionally, when tested against current methods, KosmodeHealth’s technique has a higher purity and a higher solvent recovery rate, making it cheaper, more efficient and more sustainable.
Using this technique, KosmodeHealth has produced products such as high antioxidant gummies and tablets with 36mg cranberry proanthocyanidins — the bioactive ingredient that prevents bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract.
“Nature has endowed mankind with an abundance of botanicals. We aim to ensure that high purity, authentic plant health functional products are made accessible to everyone through our extraction expertise,” said Assoc Prof Huang.
Production of functional foods
The similar extraction approach has been adapted to rapidly recover plant proteins and fibres from the large amount of by-products stemming from food production. As such, KosmodeHealth also specialises in the production and conceptualisation of functional foods, built from these by-products.
“It’s about minimising waste and maximising value. For example, maize from corn, canola meal left after the oil is taken out, okara (soy pulp) from tofu...if you look at all of this, the protein content is actually very high. So what we do is we extract this good stuff out of it — the protein and the soluble fibre. Then we create product concepts of functional food.” explained Ms Leong, an instructor at the NUS Enterprise Lean Launchpad Singapore programme who had met Assoc Prof Huang when he sought advice at NUS Enterprise.
The company is currently providing this service to many commercial food companies, both local and overseas, who hope to make use of their food production side streams.
In the future, they hope to use this technology to assist the elderly in consuming the appropriate amount of protein, said Ms Leong. “With these extracted plant proteins, we can formulate Asian flavoured high-protein, high-fibre functional beverages or even puddings, custard and pancakes, giving them a variety of protein options.”
Novel biomedical products
Turning to the biomedical industry, KosmodeHealth looks specifically at disrupting the 3D cell culture market with the world’s only Plant Proteins Composite (PPC) bio-ink and customized 3D printed PPC scaffolds.
Cells are grown on 3D scaffolds to be used for multiple biomedical purposes, including drug testing, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.
Current scaffolds are made of animal protein composite bio-inks but animal proteins are associated with the issues of printability, high cost and risk of disease transmission, Ms Leong explained.
KosmodeHealth’s entry into this field was a serendipitous one. A conversation along the corridor between Assoc Prof Huang and NUS Engineering researcher Dr Sun Jie led to Dr Sun sharing an issue with finding the right ink for her 3D printing methodology.
Assoc Prof Huang helped her find a solution through experimentation with a new formulated bioink, which he blended with his extracted plant proteins. This new Plant Protein Composite (PPC) bio-ink, combined synthetic material with the plant proteins that resulted in proteins with new functionality.
The PPC ink is a world’s first. Together with the printing methodology, which the company now has licensed, Kosmode is able to produce made-to-order PPC scaffolds for 3D cell culturing use. These scaffolds are also a world’s first.
“Different cells require different environments to grow optimally,” explained Assoc Prof Huang. “the limited range of marketed scaffold are standardised and are unable to provide specific growth environment needed by different cells. With our printing methodology and our ink, we can tweak many factors, including the protein types and contents, the scaffold pattern, fibre diameter, surface porosity, and pore size.”
He added, “Additionally we can tag our ink with near-infrared fluorescent molecules, so after printing the scaffolds, all you need to do is shine a light at it and you will be able to see the degradation profile in vivo.” This tagging is particularly important for biomedical applications dealing with implants.
KosmodeHealth has been awarded an Enterprise Development Grant from Enterprise Singapore to set up the 3D scaffold printing facility in Singapore. They are actively looking for research collaborations to develop many applications for their PPC bio-ink and scaffolds.
“I would not have thought of developing bio-ink with plant proteins recovered from spent grains in my wildest dreams”, said Assoc Prof Huang. “The development of the world’s only PPC bio-ink and PPC scaffold customisation ability was possible only through close collaboration with Dr Sun.”
He added, “Technology is meaningful only if it makes a positive impact to mankind. It is my dream for KosmodeHealth to expand access to nature’s plants through continuous innovation made possible by collaborative efforts with fellow researchers and industry.”