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Start-up of the month: Zya
Siân Yates

Siân Yates

19 June 2024

Start-up of the month: Zya

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 Josh Sauer (pictured left), co-founder and CEO of Zya, a food-tech company that has developed an innovative substance that, when added to sweet foods, can convert some of the sugar into fibre during digestion. 

What led to Zya’s establishment and what is the company’s long-term goal? 

The co-founders met at Oxford University in 2018, with a shared passion to improve the day-to-day nutrition of consumers. We wanted to make it easier for everyone to benefit from better nutrition while enjoying the everyday foods they love. 

At Zya, we harness the power of enzymes to transform how our bodies use food. By adding micro quantities of naturally derived enzymes to foods, we can retain preferred taste profiles while improving nutritional outcomes. The first product we are developing is Convero – an enzyme that converts up to 30% sugar to fibre after eating. This means that we can improve the nutrition of food at the point of digestion, not reformulation. In this way, our long-term goal is to empower brands to make better-for-you varieties that are highly appealing to mainstream target audiences.  

For Convero, this will drastically increase the number of people benefiting from reduced sugar and increased fibre in their diet. Meaning that our micro-sized enzymes will empower nutritional shifts that ripple into macro transformation – for individuals and society.

What kind of impact do you believe Zya’s product could have on the global food and beverage industry? 

The conventional approach to reducing sugar in food focuses on reformulated recipes and sugar substitutes. The result is unsatisfying food that just doesn’t taste quite as good. With this in mind, we believe that it's of critical importance to give the industry a brand-new way of reducing sugar in food products. Namely, by reducing the sugar after eating with our Convero enzyme, without requiring reformulating with sugar substitutes. 

We believe that sugar conversion is the new way of sugar reduction. This will be hugely impactful for the food industry as we equip them with a new powerful tool to reach their sugar reduction goals. Now, manufacturers can have the opportunity to create new categories of ‘sugar-converting’ foods, empowered by Convero that appeal to mainstream target consumers. 

Can you tell us more about the enzyme used and how it works to convert sugar to fibre inside the body? 

Normally, when you eat sugar (sucrose), it gets broken in half by an enzyme in the small intestine (into glucose and fructose) for absorption in the body. An enzyme is a type of protein that helps your body function and process food. Our enzyme does the same thing, but after breaking sugar in half it sticks the fructose part onto another sugar molecule, building up a healthy, prebiotic fibre in the process. 

What kinds of products are you targeting with this solution? Where could it have the most effective applications? 

Initially, we are targeting dry food products (snack bars, for example), with a particular focus on chocolate and baked goods. The most effective food applications for Convero are those in which sucrose is essential for taste/texture and has a highly functional role within the food product, where manufacturers have found it almost impossible to replace it with any alternative. 

What stage of commercialisation is Zya currently in with its product? Is it currently going through a regulatory approval process? 

We are looking for CPG manufacturers to partner with us now, for launch in 2026 in the US market. We have produced samples of Convero for testing with interested CPG manufacturers in their food applications. 

Concerning our regulatory approval process, there are several paths to establish safety. In discussion with the FDA, we are actively considering GRAS, and currently anticipate self-affirming GRAS in 2026 for market launch. On the topic of compliance, we have also considered the impact of our product on the nutrition facts label with the agency and we look forward to continuing these conversations with the FDA. 

Have there been any particular challenges for the company in its journey so far? 

One challenge has been how we’ll communicate the benefit of our ingredient Convero, to the consumer – as it’s a completely new concept to the market. Through formal focus group tests in the US with a research partner, we spoke and listened to consumers to develop a clear concept of sugar-to-fibre conversion after eating. This was affirmed by quantitative research in a gen-pop survey in the US – where we found that our concept (in the use case of a cereal bar) would appeal to very strong purchase intent (eight out of ten consumers would likely purchase a cereal bar with our ingredient).

Not only that but brands that include our ingredient would grow the market they operate in, increase the volume and frequency of sales, and see brand switching as well as premiumisation. The concept excelled across all metrics of consumer interest. Therefore, we expect a market shift towards our approach of reducing sugar after consumption. 

What has been Zya’s biggest achievement to date?

We have recently shown the efficacy of our ‘MVP’ version of Convero in pig animal trials (which are unharmed in the studies). Pigs were chosen because their digestive system is very similar to humans. In these preliminary studies, we have shown meaningful conversion of sugar to fibre after consumption compared to sucrose-containing food given to the pigs that didn’t contain the enzyme. 

These results give us confidence that reducing sugar after consumption will become a reality in the near future. 

For aspiring start-ups in the food and beverage industry, what valuable advice or insights would you share to help them navigate the challenges and opportunities in this dynamic sector? 

Our advice would be to focus on consumer needs and don’t compromise on taste! 90% of consumers say that taste is their top purchase motivator. For us, this meant thinking outside the box when it came to sugar reduction. 

Historically, sugar reduction has not been a truly appealing proposition to consumers, due to taste/texture concerns. We believe that we’ve now made the prospect of sugar reduction exciting for consumers through this new concept of sugar conversion.

#startups #sugarreduction #Zya


July 2024 Crunchtime poll: Start-ups

Foodbev Media has recently launched an exciting new interactive podcast series called Crunchtime. The first edition will focus on the start-up space. Head over to our poll to vote for your preferred sub-topic in this area!

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