Isobionics, a company from the south of the Netherlands, wanted to produce a natural alternative for the odour and flavouring valencene. They developed it together with Wageningen University & Research's Plant Sciences Group. Within three years Valencene PureTM caused a breakthrough.
Until recently, real oranges were needed to give perfume, soap and soft drinks an orange scent or flavour. The orange smell and flavour is caused by valencene, a natural substance which is extracted from orange peels. "And that is a labour-intensive and energy-intensive task," says Hans Kierkels. "One of the disadvantages of this method is that the quality and quantity are heavily dependent on different factors such as weather conditions. Moreover, valencene often contains traces of pesticides and other plant protection products.”
Kierkels is project manager at Isobionics, a DSM spin-off which uses biotechnology to produce fermented flavours and fragrances. The idea to produce an alternative for valcene, was based on a technology that DSM used for another product. Isobionics obtained the license for this technology and developed it significantly. Kierkels: "It is better to do risky developments such as these 'outside of' DSM in a spin-off such as Isobionics. A spin-off is more flexible and can compete on costs. Incidentally, I consider it one of DSM's strengths that the company was willing to part with this idea, to let it mature elsewhere. That certainly is not common.”
Enzyme in a coniferous tree
In their search for a partner Isobionics contacted Wageningen University & Research's Plant Research International. A logical step, according to Kierkels: "It's not just the technological approach in Wageningen which is innovative, but their way of searching for better, faster enzymes is at the forefront of technology as well. If you are looking for an enzyme to use as a basis for a natural ingredient for orange flavouring and fragrance, you would expect to find it in citrus fruits. But the productivity often drops below a threshold quite quickly. The researchers of the Plant Sciences Group looked beyond the obvious solutions and found the suitable enzyme in a surprising place: a pine species. It turned out that this enzyme outperformed any enzyme in citrus fruit ten to fifteen times.
Working with the Plant Sciences Group
Kierkels is full of praise about his cooperation with the Plant Sciences Group. "The discussions are always good, arrangements are always kept and the schedule is always tight. The facilities in the laboratories are also excellent. But the success of our partnership lies in the personal bond, the feeling that you are going to tackle a problem together. All of this enabled us to make headway quite quickly: in hardly three years time we had a high quality product which we could immediately use on a larger scale.
Short lead time
A short lead time is crucial for a company such as Isobionics. "In a small business you must simultaneously develop technology and find customers. Most investors will not be interested if you are tied to investment programmes which last four to five years. We were able to scale the project up to factory production within three years. Our customers were already exited after they smelled and tasted the first samples. And when the first orders came in, I knew: this product is a real breakthrough."
One of the next products which Isobionics produces from Valencene PureTM is BioNootkatone TM. This product is also catching on according to Kierkels. “Nootkatone naturally occurs in grapefruits, which mainly grow in Florida. But this market is very scarce. With our product producers can be certain that there is a qualitatively stable product available year round.”