A new biotech in San Diego has a unique two-fold goal: to help people look younger and save sharks from being killed.
On May 29, Nucelis Inc. officially commissioned its first fermentation facility in Sorrento Valley that will make an array of products for the cosmetics, pharmaceutical and flavor and fragrance industries.
“Many materials used in those industries are difficult to get and source,” said Dr. Sean O’Connor, Nucelis’ president and CEO.
The first coming off the pilot plant's production pipeline is squalene, a magic-like ingredient in anti-aging facial creams that currently comes from a deepwater shark's liver.
“Sharks have adapted to extreme cold so they developed a kind of oil that is resistant to cold that maintains its viscosity,” said Eugene Linden, a well-known environmental writer and Nucelis board member.
Some 3 million deepwater sharks, many of which are endangered, are caught and killed each year for the miraculous wrinkle-reducing molecule. The problem is, those sharks are slow to reproduce because they have no predators.
“Once you kill one it’s like you are killing off a lot. Anything that is an alternative to that will be valuable to cosmetics," said Linden. "You’d never think a biotech in San Diego would have anything to do with saving sharks in the Arctic."
Nucelis has been able to convert a low-cost byproduct of biodiesel production into the high-value chemical in the lab. Thanks to the new plant, that process can be elevated to a commercial scale.
Large beauty corporations that make pricey emollient moisturizers to fight free radical damage are expected to bite.
“Folks that would use it are L'Oréal, Estée Lauder or Avon,” said O'Connor.
The goal is to start selling kilogram-scale material to such companies by the end of the year.
"The plans will be to start generating revenue fairly soon and start giving our investors a return on their money," O'Connor said.
In Europe, squalene is derived from olive oil. But that process is also inefficient.
“The only time you get to make squalene from olive oil is when the olive oil is bad, so from year to year you are betting on how bad the olive oil crop will be," said Mark Knuth, director of biochemistry at Nucelis.
That means suppliers never know how much squalene will be available each year -- and at what price.
"We are trying to control that process using yeast," said Knuth.
At some point, it might cost less to attain a youthful glow.
“Right now we are just trying to substitute it at the same price and get it into the market that way,” he said.
Producing squalene is only the beginning.
"That is just one project. There's a whole platform of products we can make using our technology," said O'Connor.
The list of specialty chemicals -- which will also be made for the pharmaceutical and flavor and fragrance industries -- use non-transgenic patented technology.
“That is very attractive to some of the customers in the market because some people don’t think [genetically modified organisms] is the way to go," said O'Connor.
Nucelis holds a license agreement with Cibus, its sister company it spun off of about a year ago, to employ Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS) technology.
The technology enables precise changes in the DNA of virtually any living organism. RTDS takes advantage of the natural gene repair system that exists in cells and is typically used by a cell to correct naturally-occurring DNA mistakes and mutations.
That means Nucelis does not need to synthetically re-engineer microorganisms by inserting foreign genes into the target DNA.
The process is akin to changing a letter in Shakespeare play while maintaining the desired result.
“No one else can match [the technology]. It’s quite unique," said O'Connor, who made the jump from the mainstream chemical industry to Nucelis in December.
The 20,000-square-foot Nucelis operation includes a $900,000 unit where initial fermentation is done using yeast, and there's room for two more units.
The intricate series of pumps, valves, piping, electrical wiring and computer systems carefully controls and monitors contents of two 200-liter stainless steel vessels on each side.
The flexible system is capable of simultaneously running multiple fermentation processes, and it can accommodate a variety of microorganisms such as yeasts, bacteria or algae.
In addition, Nucelis built a solvent-capable purification suite for a range of downstream processing needs. That will allow the company to extract and recover their target products on-site for further optimization, testing and sample-generation.
The whole operation costs about $3 million, estimates O'Connor. As production ramps up, a much larger system is expected to be built.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner participated in the ribbon cutting ceremony and provided the keynote remarks.
“San Diego is the second-biggest biotech center in America -- with Nucelis we’re going to be No. 1 soon,” said Filner. “We have to maintain that.”
Several other products are already in the pipeline and will make their way through the pilot plant in the near future.
The 20-person company is growing. For the first phase, four employees -- including molecular biologists and research technicians -- are being hired.