XTC is all about startups and their Founders; helping get them visibility, validation, traction and, ultimately, investment. All of this then helps them to scale-up their ventures globally using responsible innovation for a better society and environment.
In a new blog series, we will spotlight our Finalists and Winners and share their fascinating stories, ground-breaking technologies, and why they love being part of the XTC community!
First up is our 2022 Global Winner – Amai Proteins!
Six Questions for Dr. Ilan Samish, CEO and Founder, Amai Proteins of Israel
Ilan graduated from the Adi Lautman Interdisciplinary Program for Fostering Excellence at Tel Aviv University. He then went on to the Weizmann Institute of Science to get a Masters and Doctorate in Biochemistry followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. He spent nearly 20 years as a protein researcher while also writing a textbook and founding
a major science conference on Computational Protein Design (CPD).
In 2016, Dr. Samish launched Amai Proteins (‘Amai’ is ‘sweet’ in Japanese) to develop designer proteins starting with a healthy sugar substitute. He has raised $17M through a Series A. Ilan and Amai were Finalists in XTC 2020 and returned to take the Grand Winner crown in XTC 2022.
1. What problem is Amai Proteins solving and how?
Amai Proteins’ first product, Sweelin™, is focused on impact – it is the first healthy, tasty, product-fit, cost-effective and sustainable sweetener which disrupts sugar, which is the world’s leading non-communicable health threat.
In addition to the health threat, sugar is also unhealthy to our little blue planet as it uses large amounts of water and land, requires contaminating fertilizers and pesticides not to mention annual transportation of 180 million tons of sugar with a significant carbon footprint. Last and not least, both the health and environmental impact most affect the lower socioeconomic classes.
So, Amai has developed one in a class of ‘sweet proteins’ that activate our taste receptors for sweetness without triggering insulin and other adverse reactions. As the sweetest protein in the world (on average 3,000 times sweeter than sugar) and the most stable one, it is even cheaper than sugar (in equivalent sweetness units).
2. What is your background that led you to founding Amai?
I guess I have always suffered from insatiable curiosity and was fortunate to be able to go through a very open-structured undergraduate program that fed that curiosity – it was designed to emphasize “learning outside the box”, setting your own curricula which could vary each semester. I studied Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science and Business. But I also became an amateur flamenco dancer.
From that broader perspective on biology and physiology, it got planted in my mind that – while all the ‘buzz’ was on genes – really it is proteins that rule our world. I had gotten intrigued by computational and experimental biology, and had the good fortune to latch on to a great professor – Avigdor Scherz – and got to watch him develop a drug from lab to patient, and work on proteins similar to those that are the targets for many pharmaceuticals. During my postdoc at U-Pennsylvania with Bill DeGrado, the founder of protein design, I came to see the power of Computational Protein Design (CPD) but also how very few people have actually applied it to real-life applications.
I have always believed in preventative medicine and saw how difficult was drug development. Having become an expert in CPD, I knew about the class of ‘sweet proteins’ and thought that computational design was ideally fit for a more complex domain where things like human taste evaluation would be concerned. Plus of course there is always the personal angle, as a kid, I could never enjoy ice cream because my twin sister was on a restricted diet. So, I guess we’re always addressing our childhood problems in some way, no?
I always felt very “entrepreneurial” and even that great interdisciplinary DIY undergraduate program meant you had to be somewhat the entrepreneur of your education. And in my required military service, I was in the External Relationships Division and so was actually doing bizdev for our Israeli Defense Forces. I also always worked side hustles as a journalist and launching that biology conference. It’s really true what they say about the spirit of “Startup Nation” – the open interdisciplinary education combined with the practical grounding of the military experience, and being constantly surrounded by other entrepreneurs. Plus, we have the great Israel Innovation Authority Incubator which has supported Amai’s development and growth.
3. What is unique about your technology and what is its validation status?
The main thing about Sweelin™, is that these proteins activate our taste receptors for sweetness without triggering insulin and other adverse reactions. But as a natural protein and not an industrial chemical is does not have problematic manufacturing and health impacts. We use a natural fermentation process, with of course a lot of proprietary tuning and refinements.
Sweelin™, has already been extensively tested and proven to be fully digestible, hypoallergenic, with no permeability and no genotoxicity, and we are expecting a GRAS or Generally Recognized As Safe certification during 2023.
4. What are your Go-To-Market ideas and traction received so far?
First, we are NOT going after a consumer launch with sachets or boxes in the grocery store. For us the more efficient and bigger impact is B2B, to target the $90 Billion commercial sweetener market. Really not so many people have sugar bowls at home anymore, but there are absolutely unbelievable amounts that are included in so many products, things you would not even imagine like soups and bagels. So, especially as a frugal capital-efficient startup within the fragmented food value chain, linking with producers of food products, we can, with a limited number of bizdev cycles, remove the maximum amount of sugar from the market at the fastest pace. That’s growth for us and that’s the impact the world needs to be saved from the crippling disaster of over-sugared nutrition.
5. What’s next?
GRAS certification is a major milestone and logic gate. So when we receive that we are ramping so that we can launch Sweelin™ in Q2.23 beginning with the USA and then Singapore, Latin America and other countries. And fortunately, Amai is not a one-trick pony. We have been working on a pipeline of other carefully designed hypersweet proteins. In addition, we’re using our CPD and fermentation platform to work on other non-sweet designed proteins for meat, milk and plant applications. At the end of the day, production of tasty, market-fit and cost-effective proteins by sustainable precision fermentation is the only way to feed our growing population while safeguarding the limited resources of our little blue planet.
6. Tell us about your experience with XTC and what were the benefits/takeaways?
If in some fantasy we had received a Billion dollar grant to develop Sweelin™, I would have loved to stay in stealth mode. But in the real world, it’s a noisy, crowded market, so these global challenges are a way to grab attention of potential customers and investors, and we participated in many.
And I must say — XTC is overshadowing all the competitions we have attended (…and won) as it is the most prestigious and globally recognized disruptive startup competition. Also, I have not seen another that is as well-organized, punctual and well-planned for the startup Founder as XTC, it was a very effective and efficient experience.
For Amai, as I noted, sugar has big adverse impacts on so much — the environment, nutrition, healthcare and social equity. Taken together, when Amai built the impact plan our main dilemma was which among the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) NOT to focus on quantitatively.
So being selected as Grand Winner in a multi-domain, several-rounds competition from among 2,000 startups is an amazing vote of confidence in our product and purpose, which we are actively leveraging in our business development and current round of fundraising.
Interviewed and edited by John Martin
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