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Nature And Nurture

Steve Mayfield, a veteran of San Diego’s algae industry, has launched a new venture set on improving the standard recipe for baby formula. The newest ingredient? Algae, of course.

The new company, called Triton Algae Innovations Ltd., has raised $10 million in capital to boost the nutritional value of baby formula currently on the shelves. It plans to do this by adding crucial ingredients present in breast milk, but missing from standard baby formula.

“Every mother, every mammal gives to its offspring a set of proteins in breast milk that do fantastic things,” Mayfield said. “Whether you’re human, dog, cat or pony, you’re born very clean and healthy, and then you land in the real world where everything wants to attack you. Biology allowed moms to give their offspring a set of proteins that would protect them from the environment before the baby’s immune system has a chance to develop.”

Mayfield, who also serves as director of the California Center for Algae at the University of California, San Diego, discovered that the same natural proteins found in breast milk are also present in algae. Mayfield’s new venture, Triton, intends to manufacture these natural proteins on a commercial scale. Once purified, the proteins can be added to baby formula to mimic the composition of breast milk.

From Fuel to Food

The application is a novel one for the algae industry, a sector blooming with new uses for the plant.

Mayfield, founder and CEO of Triton, is no rookie when it comes to discovering commercial applications for algae. He was an original founder of the then-biofuel firm Sapphire Energy Inc. back in 2007, and later launched an eco-friendly surfboard company called Algenesis Materials, which makes boards from algae-based products.

“(Algae biotechnology research) is increasingly being recognized by and transferred to multiple markets, thanks to spin-off business ventures like Triton Algae Innovations,” said Jason Anderson, president and CEO of Cleantech San Diego. “Whether it be targeted nutritional products or natural proteins for infant formula, Triton is making exciting strides toward unlocking algae’s fullest potential as a viable, renewable resource.”

The breast milk proteins Triton is targeting in its research, called colostrum proteins, greatly reduce the incidence of bacterial and viral infections. But not all babies receive high levels of these proteins in their first six months of life. Some mothers are unable to produce milk in the quantities their child needs to stay healthy, and some families choose formula-feeding for lifestyle reasons. This can lead to infection, fever and other complications as the infant — lacking the colostrum immunity shield — fights bugs in its environment.

Research shows that if 90 percent of families exclusively breast-fed for six months, almost 1,000 infant deaths could be prevented annually and $13 billion would be saved in medical costs each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.

Improving Formula

But as the $50 billion global baby formula market can attest, breast-feeding isn’t always an option.

The booming baby formula market has much room for improvement, Mayfield said. Formula is made from standard cow’s milk with a variety of additives tossed in to boost the overall nutritional value.

“It shocks people when they find out the differences in composition between breast milk and formula, and to be honest that was my first response, too,” Mayfield said. “We all assume that formula is very sophisticated and far along. It’s not.

“Human breast milk contains colostrum proteins for many, many months (after a baby is born). Colostrum is present in cow’s milk, too, but only on day one — then it disappears. That means if you’re making baby formula from cow’s milk it has very low levels of colostrum proteins; some are completely missing.”

Mayfield said Triton can grow these essential proteins in algae production facilities, and scale them to meet commercial demands — providing baby formula companies with the first commercial source of colostrum proteins.

This is a long-term goal, Mayfield said, as the baby food market is highly regulated and requires significant clinical data to break into the market. He expects that it could take Triton five years or more to break into the baby food industry. But there’s a short-term revenue opportunity in adult nutrition: immune-boosting supplements.

Supplement Income

Popular immune-boosting products such as Airborne and Emergen-C are packets of herbal extracts, vitamins, and other ingredients marketed as a dietary supplement to prevent the common cold. These products are often marketed as a preventative measure to take when traveling (when customers are potentially exposed to foreign bacteria and viruses).

Triton’s first market opportunity would be in this industry, taking on Emergen-C, Airborne and others as its main competitors. The product would be a packet containing powdered proteins derived from algae that can be mixed into smoothies, beverages or other food to boost the customer’s immune system. The product would be highly competitive, Mayfield said, because of the existing data that shows colostrum’s immune-boosting effects. In contrast, there is little scientific evidence that Emergen-C and Airborne boost the immune system.

Triton can get the adult supplement on the market before the company’s clinical trials are completed, as the market does not require such strict regulatory hurdles.

“That’s a much easier path to market,” Mayfield said. “Essentially with adults, as long as you don’t make them sick, you can sell them something right away.”

Mayfield said he’s confident Triton’s product for adults would be safe and effective based on prior data on colostrum proteins.

“We think if we increase the level of these proteins, it will activate the immune system in adults the same way that it does in kids,” Mayfield said.

The adult supplement market has many competitors, but the top brands bring in impressive sales. Airborne brings in sales revenue of about $100 million per year, while it’s estimated that Pfizer’s Emergen-C sales may top Airborne (although Emergen-C’s annual sales are not publicly disclosed).

The adult supplement market is just phase one, Mayfield said, in order to get some cash through the door while the company pursues its long-term strategy of improving baby formula. He believes Triton will have its first adult supplement on the market by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

Steve Mayfield has raised million for his new startup Triton Algae Innovations Ltd. It is the third company he has founded to develop products from algae.

TRITON ALGAE INNOVATIONS LTD.

CEO: Steve Mayfield

Revenue: Pre-revenue

No. of local employees: 9

Investors: Heliae and an undisclosed Chinese investor group

Headquarters: Sorrento Valley

Year founded: 2013

Company description: Algae-focused company developing proteins for health and nutrition products for both infants and adults

Key factors for success: Plans to be the first commercial source for proteins that may be highly valuable to $50 billion baby food industry

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