His son’s allergy turned this father into a founder

PFx Biotech employs precision fermentation to produce human milk proteins that can improve nutrition for a broad range of people. Backed by biotope by VIB, their technology platform provides sustainable alternatives to current dairy products that are better for our health and the planet, but it all started from a very concrete use case: co-founder Ali Osman’s newborn son.

The idea behind PFx Biotech originated when a food engineer’s son began to struggle with a cow milk protein allergy. That food engineer is Ali Osman, a scientist with a PhD in food and nutritional science and a decade’s worth of experience in different innovation-focused roles within the food industry.

“We all know the problems associated with conventional farming, especially relating to climate impact,” says Osman. “My technical background in protein production and alternative proteins provided me with the tools to develop innovative solutions, but my son’s allergy was the eventual trigger for me to embark on the startup journey.”

From allergic baby to dream team

Ali’s son is one of many infants whose immune system reacts to the proteins found in cow milk. The resulting symptoms range from a runny nose or itchy rash to stomach aches, vomiting, diarrhea or swollen lips and eyes.

“I didn’t realize the scale of the problem until it affected my family,” says Osman. “In general, this type of allergy affects 2 to 3% of all children, but in some countries this goes up to 7%. Overall, we are talking about more than 15 million children across the globe who are allergic to cow proteins, and we know that allergies are on the rise.”

“The treatment for cow milk protein allergy is simply to avoid cow milk altogether,” he adds. “There is no specific minimally processed alternative for babies with this kind of allergy.” This lack of options prompted the initial idea behind PFx Biotech, but Osman quickly realized he wouldn’t be able to pull it off all by himself. He reached out to Harry Barraza, someone who knows the ins and outs of getting a new idea into the market.

“I didn’t realize the scale of the problem until it affected my family. We are talking about more than 15 million children across the globe who are allergic to cow proteins, and we know that allergies are on the rise.”

Ali Osman

Barraza: “My background is in chemical engineering, but I have been active as research and open innovation manager for over a decade. I scout and license new technologies in food and nutrition, so I have experience working with many startups, but until now, I was always representing large, established corporate partners exploring new platforms and innovations with founders. It is very interesting to now be at the other end of similar conversations.”

Osman and Barraza found a third co-founder in Diana Oliveira. Oliveira has a strong technical background in food engineering, but she also brings in expertise in technology transfer, having acted as a liaison between academia, industry and clinical partners. Combining their complementary expertise and skills, the trio officially founded PFx Biotech in the spring of 2022.

Human proteins in a cost-effective way

Human milk contains a plethora of proteins providing numerous benefits, including optimal nutrition and enhanced immune protection. “We use synthetic biology and precision fermentation to create proteins that are identical to those found in human breast milk,” explains Osman. “At the same time, we accomplish this in a sustainable, animal-free way.”

Today, the company’s focus is on scalability and business viability, explains Barraza. “We are driven by passion, but our ideas will stay on paper if we can’t turn them into a viable business. We know the technology works, but to be sustainable in the marketplace, we face certain cost thresholds: are consumers ready to pay a premium in terms of better product and quality? In which market segments and with which sort of product can we provide maximal value?”

These questions have opened up additional market segments such as elderly and performance nutrition.

The road ahead

Tapping into biotope’s extensive network and the R&D landscape of Flanders will be useful for the team to be able to scale up. “There  is significant support for innovative companies  and we are in touch with the right people that can help us move forward in the short term,” says Barraza. The team also plans to set up a subsidiary of PFx Biotech in Ghent. 

The team has quite a few regulatory hurdles to jump, especially when it comes to infant formula, but they approach these challenges with confidence. Barraza: “Our products are about a healthier diet and planet. This aligns with the evolving preferences of consumers and represents the future of food.”

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