Start-up in focus: Amai Proteins

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7 min read
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Amai Proteins is an Israeli start-up that produces a sugar substitute in the form of sweet proteins. These proteins are already found in nature. A type of plant native to the equatorial belt produce very sweet fruits that don’t actually contain sugar. However, the sweet protein found in these fruits aren’t stable and difficult to use in food preparations. Amai Proteins harnesses their sweetness to produce sugary-tasting alternatives by applying Agile-Integrative Computational Protein Design to mimic proteins that live in harsh conditions such as the Dead Sea, hot springs or acidic swamps. We catch up with Amai Proteins CEO and Founder Ilan Samish to find out how an idea turned into a business.

Agile Integrative Computational Protein Design (AI-CPD) allows to fit proteins to the mass food market as proteins in the wild are intrinsically unstable and not always tasty or hypoallergenic”, says Ilan Samish, PhD. “AI-CPD mimics proteins that live in harsh conditions whether it is life in the Dead Sea, acidic swamps or hot springs. Thus, the resulting proteins are fit for the harsh conditions of the mass food market. Moreover, unlike pharmaceutical R&D, the only way to screen our proteins is by tasting them and thus we can’t make billions of variants but only few. At Amai we have a professional sensory panel of supertasters to assess our hypersweet proteins and their fit to different mass food market conditions and products.

Amai (which means ‘sweet’ in Japanese) products are produced using sustainable precision fermentation.” adds Ilan, “In precision fermentation we add a layer of harvesting to get a pure and GMO-free product which is a potent sweetener which is so potent that it is cheaper than sugar in sweetness units. At the end of the day, we are in the business of selling a white powder that makes people happy as for the first time one can combine the words sweet with healthy, tasty, sustainable and cost-efficient.

Amai Proteins is shortlisted for Food Matters Live prestigious Future Ingredients 2021 Competition.

Ilan, what inspired you to launch Amai Proteins?

As a kid, my twin sister ate less than me and weighed more than me. I always felt guilty when eating ice cream or (drinking) sugary beverages. As the founder of co-chair of what became the world’s leading structural computational biology conference 3Dsig, I knew about many kinds of proteins including sweet proteins. Yet, these are unstable, expensive and don’t really taste like sugar. After my post-doctorate research at the lab of the inventor of protein design, Bill DeGrado at UPenn, I published a book, Computational Protein Design.

After publishing the book, for the first time in my life, I had a hard time sleeping at night as I thought I had the ability to help solve some of the world’s leading challenges to make tasty, healthy, cost-effective and sustainable hypersweet proteins to fight sugar over-consumption.

I quit my academic career and, with only an idea opened, Amai. Rather than opening the company within the academia, I thought that it would be better to team up with the (food) industry and thus went to the Israel Innovation Authority’s sponsored Strauss Group incubator. The incubator consulted with their advisory team (PepsiCo, Danone and others) and decided to invest in the idea.

Start-ups are always born from a great idea. What happened in between having the idea for protein sweeteners to actually launching your business and how long did it take you?

Amai was launched in December 2016. We had several sweet designer proteins till we reached the current frontrunner which is stable in a hot cup of tea and tastes like sugar (up to a certain amount) thus enabling to reduce 30-80% of the added sugar, depending on the specific food category. We decided not to go to market with the first protein, but rather to wait till we have a winning product which was tasty, healthy, stable, cost-effective and sustainable. We are currently scaling-up production and are in the process with the regulatory authorities towards market launch in less than two years. In parallel we already have numerous collaborations through EIT Food, where our collaboration just won the EIT Food Innovation Impact Award for a consortium grant with Technion, PepsiCo and Danone. Other collaborations are with multinationals companies such as Ocean Spray.

What were the first challenges when you decided to launch your own business?

The first challenge was to turn my idea to a fundable milestone under a tight schedule and on a very low budget. The solution included renting space and lab facilities from an old friend. We focused on outsourcing with academic service units found in four different academic institutions. Also, at a very early stage, we began collaborations with large multinationals such as PepsiCo and Danone who are the Strauss Group’sbusiness partners and are on the advisory board of The Strauss Group-owned Kitchen Hub incubator where Amai is a portfolio company. Finally, I founded the Israeli Academia-Industry Sweet Science Forum which quickly encompassed all of the Israeli R&D leaders working on sweeteners. Therein, I met Shmuel Marko, the CTO of SodaStream who was intrigued by our solution and invited me to his lab where he conducted sensory analysis and said that it was the first time he’d seen something that can truly revolutionise sweeteners. Today Shmuel Marko is Amai’s VP for Food Technology.

What are the challenges now?

Team building as we moved from a proof-of-concept start-up to a production R&D start-up is one of our challenges. Getting the best people in the increasingly competitive spaces of structural computational biology and of alternative proteins is another challenge. Finally, working with large consumer packaged goods multinationals is a challenge as the large market adapts to open innovation of working with start-ups and respecting their IP. We see significant differences in the approach of different corporations to potentially synergistic collaborations.

You pitched Amai Proteins to investors at Food Tech Matters last April. What advice would you give a start-up pitching to a panel?

Always stay focused on substance, your competitive edge and disruptive innovation rather than hand waiving slogans.

What has happened in Amai Proteins’ world since pitching at Food Tech Matters last April?

In the last half year we doubled our team, established numerous non-dilutive (grant) and fee-bearing collaborations with biotechnology and consumer packaged goods market leaders, scaled-up production, obtained techno-economically viable production in new host organisms, established the regulatory file for our thermostable frontrunner hypersweet protein, raised a significant Series A, and so much more.

What advice do you wish you’d been given when you decided to launch your business?

A young start-up jumping into the real work must swim in unique and fast ways to beat the hungry sharks that smell blood from a long distance.

What advice would you give to a young start-up?

Listen to everyone and surround yourself with experience people who fill in the gaps you have – gaps which you must continuously identify and focus on when you look at yourself in the mirror.

The winner of the Future Ingredients Competition will be announced during Food Matters Live, 16-17 November and will appear on the Table Talk podcast, with a worldwide audience of over 75,000 listeners, will appear in a winning video interview to be shared on the Food Matters Live weekly Ingredients newsletter and YouTube channel and will also be featured on the Food Matters Live website for at least six months, benefiting from the growing reach of Food Matters Live international food and drink community.

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