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Start-up of the month: Ironic Biotech
Guest contributor

Guest contributor

22 May 2024

Start-up of the month: Ironic Biotech

It’s easy to get swept up in the news and activities of the industry’s global titans, but what about the smaller firms that are out there flexing their creative muscles? In this instalment of ‘Start-up of the month’ – which celebrates the lesser-known companies and their innovations – we speak to Nélida Leiva Eriksson, founder of Ironic Biotech, a Swedish biotech company that develops remedies for people suffering from iron deficiency and anaemia.

Could you begin by introducing Ironic Biotech and its core mission?  

Ironic Biotech is a biotechnology company whose mission is to transform people's lives through optimal nutrition so that we can all achieve our peak performance.

How does your proprietary heme iron ingredient differ from traditional sources of iron in terms of accessibility?

Our active compounds are bio-based molecules, more precisely plant-based. They are completely different from current iron supplements, which are made of inorganic iron — also known as elemental iron. This makes the iron in our products highly bioavailable and safe compared to current iron supplements, which are poorly absorbed and toxic.

What inspired the development of your plant-derived proteins containing iron, and how do they contribute to addressing the global issue of iron deficiency?

Ironic is born from a personal necessity. I have been iron-deficient for many years and eventually became very anaemic. I had to take iron supplements, but the side effects were unbearable. It’s then that I decided to use my knowledge on iron-proteins to create bio-based iron sources. It is time to fix this problem which is highly prevalent among women and children.

Could you elaborate on the precision fermentation process used to produce Ironic Biotech's iron-containing proteins? How does this process enhance scalability and sustainability compared to traditional methods?

Our iron proteins are very similar to those found in animal food (meat), but unlike meat production, our fermentation process needs less water and energy. Also, by increasing the size of the bioreactors, the cost and efficiency increases.

What specific challenges did Ironic Biotech face during the R&D phase, and how did the team overcome them?

The main challenge was to increase the production volume of our active compound so that it can be available for everyone who needs it.

You mentioned that Ironic Biotech's compounds have no side effects compared to current iron supplements. Can you provide insights into how these compounds achieve this and their impact on consumer health?

Current iron supplements are toxic because the iron is exposed. Iron is a very reactive element that creates reactive molecules that damage our intestines. The iron in Ironic's active compounds, on the other hand, is surrounded by a protein, so the metal has no contact with the tissues of our digestive system. Instead, iron is extracted from protein and safely introduced into intestinal cells.

Given the rising concern over environmental sustainability, particularly in the food industry, how does Ironic Biotech's solution align with efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of food production?

The natural source of iron for humans is meat. That is where the most absorbable form of iron is found. However, producing absorbable iron this way is very inefficient because it uses a lot of water, land and energy. By producing iron proteins in bioreactors, all these resources are saved, since it is more efficient to produce iron proteins in microorganisms than in large animals such as cattle.

Could you discuss the potential market impact of Ironic Biotech's solution, particularly in terms of reaching populations currently underserved by existing iron supplementation options?

The most neglected population is women, who represent 50% of the entire world population. Official figures say that three in four women suffer from iron deficiency, a condition that has been recognised by the UN as one of the main reasons behind the gap in gender balance. Therefore, serving this population will help close this gap. After this huge group, we have others such as children, the elderly (a group whose number is constantly increasing), people on plant-based diets and people with chronic diseases. With our product, we can transform the lives of all these people so that they can reach their maximum potential since they will no longer be exhausted, unfocused or prone to anxiety and depression.

What are the key milestones Ironic Biotech aims to achieve with the recent funding round, and how do these align with the company's long-term goals?

We have three clear milestones: scaling up our production, establishing collaborations with companies in the food and supplements industries, and determining the dosage of our product, which will be different from current recommendations since those are based on inorganic iron.

In what ways does Ironic Biotech prioritise gender equality and social responsibility within the company and in the communities it serves? Do you think this is easier to achieve in a start-up? 

As a female founder who also has two daughters, gender equality and social responsibility are high on the list of priorities. Our product itself is a manifestation of this. And yes, startups may find it easy to prioritise gender quality and social responsibility because they can include them from the beginning when developing their products and business models. Large companies can be slower as they must make changes at many levels and sections, which takes time and can be expensive.

How does Ironic Biotech plan to navigate regulatory hurdles and ensure compliance with food safety standards as it expands its reach into the food and supplement market?

In the US, the regulatory pathway is clear. We can do a GRAS self-assessment. We should start as a food ingredient, followed by supplements and finally pharmaceuticals. In the EU, the path is still unclear. We are currently initiating a regulatory assessment of our product position in the European market. The benefits of our product are substantial, and we hope regulators will consider it.

Given the competitive landscape in the biotech industry, what strategies does Ironic Biotech employ to differentiate itself and maintain a competitive edge?

A good product is key; without it, a company will not last, and Ironic has that. We are also expanding our IP, so we will be at the forefront of bio-based nutrition ingredients. Finally, we have an excellent team committed to Ironic’s vision and working hard for it.

What role do you see emerging technologies, such as biotechnology and precision fermentation, playing in shaping the future of the food and beverage industry, particularly in addressing health-related challenges like iron deficiency?

I believe we are entering a period of significant change that will shape this century. The way we produce many ingredients will change to make them more efficient and less energy intensive and there is no turning back. Biotechnology is key to guaranteeing an efficient food production system that not only fights hunger but is also healthy. This will change the way we see food and where it comes from. Women have been responsible for the food served on our tables for thousands of years, but they are out working now, this is changing the dynamic in every home as well. By offering good-quality ingredients, biotech companies can help with these social transitions and changes. But we all should contribute from our different corners of society as well.

Could you share insights into Ironic Biotech's intellectual property strategy, including how the company plans to protect its innovations and maintain a competitive advantage in the market?

We have a combination of patents and trade secrets as well as more than 15 years of knowledge in the matter of iron proteins and iron metabolism. That’s our best capital, and it will help us to stay ahead in innovation.

Can you outline the vision for Ironic Biotech's future growth and its contribution to improving global health outcomes, particularly for women affected by iron deficiency and anaemia?

We want to reach every corner of the world, to have production plants in every region with local people working with local raw materials, fomenting local economies and local development. People don't move because they want to but because they need to, and, in many cases, they have no choice. Women are key when it comes to social development. Ironic aims to improve people's lives not only from the nutritional point of view but also the society. I want to leave a better world for future generations where everyone has the same opportunities and right to a dignified life.

What advice do you have for those looking to launch a F&B start-up of their own?

See the big picture and understand the need for your solution and how it can be implemented. Have solid science and data backing your solutions, and, most importantly, surround yourself with people who care and are passionate about solving the problem you are addressing.

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