Phytolon, a growing startup making natural food colourants, today announced a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, the leading horizontal platform for cell programming, to produce vibrant cultured food colours via the fermentation of yeast.

Biology by design

We tend to forget that the most advanced forms of technology on the planet are things we humans didn't invent- things like biology. Ginkgo Bioworks is trying to resemble the advanced manufacturing technology seen naturally in biology with their own foundries and codebases. They are trying to better learn from and design with biology. Though engineering living cells is hard, and natural biology has billions of years of evolution on its side, Ginkgo Bioworks is up to the challenge of making biology easier to engineer. They program cells to make everything from materials for therapeutics to food.

Founded by Reshma P. Shetty in 2009, and headed by Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks’ platform is enabling biotechnology applications across diverse markets, from food and agriculture to industrial chemicals to pharmaceuticals. They are specializing in genetic engineering to produce bacteria with industrial application– they are programming cells as easily as we can program computers. As Jennifer Wipf, Head of Commercial Cell Engineering at Ginkgo Bioworks stated, “We love enabling the use of biotechnology to challenge industry norms and attempt to build a fundamentally better product than what’s on the market today.”

With Ginkgo’s ability to design biology in the way that they do, the partnership with Phytolon is a match made in heaven. Phytolon is a biotechnology startup that is taking food colouring to the next level; they have developed a proprietary process for producing betalain pigments through precision fermentation of certain yeast strains. Though scientists have developed hundreds of artificial food dyes by using synthetic chemistry to convert petrochemical sources into a wide range of colours, these artificial dyes aren't sustainable, and sometimes aren't safe and healthy to use. Of course, they are cheaper to manufacture and visually appealing, but Phytolon asked itself, at what cost? When certain dyes are banned from food and feed due to health concerns, it makes you wonder if there is a safer alternative. That is why Phytolon’s came to be: to make a sustainable, nature-derived food colouring with the equivalent pigment vibrancy to the synthetic chemical dyes seen on the market today. Since biology is the mother of all that we know, perhaps they'll be able to produce an even wider range of colours that outperform the current synthetic colourants, but of course, with a healthy twist.

Phytolon was founded in 2018 by Dr. Hailm Jubran (CEO) and Dr. Tal Zeltzer (CTO) in collaboration with the Weizmann Institute. They have raised $6.3 million to date, with support from investors and partners from Millennium Food-Tech, the Trendlines Group, EIT-Food, Consensus Business Group, and Arkin Holdings.

The goal: maximizing the production efficiency of purple and yellow betalain-producing strains.

Under the partnership, Phytolon is leveraging Ginkgo’s bioengineering capabilities to work together and produce vibrant betalain pigments, which are the healthy and colourful compounds found in foods like beets and cactus fruit. The project aims to take Phytolon’s colours across the full 'yellow-to-purple' spectrum to the next level and to maximize the business opportunity of Phytolon’s vibrant colours for applications in the food and cosmetics industries.

As Dr. Tal Zeltzer, Co-founder, and CTO of Phytolon stated, “We’re excited to work with Ginkgo to develop natural food colours that can potentially outperform conventional artificial dyes in cost and performance.” Jennifer Wipf of Ginkgo Bioworks continued by saying “The planet needs new sustainable solutions, and we are excited to partner with Phytolon and use our platform to both enable their growth as a startup as well as support a more sustainable food system.”