“When we first started out, not many people understood synthetic biology. They would say ‘What is a yeast company doing in Vancouver? What kind of company are you guys?’ It has been a bit of challenge, but through education and our passion we have been able to create something special and successful.”
Renaissance BioScience: it’s a compelling business story. Six years in, John Husnik — CEO of the Vancouver-based biological engineering company — now leads a firm that employs 25 and has tentacles that reach across the globe — not bad for a firm that started in 2013 with only four employees. One of the company’s specialisations is in non-GMO yeast breeding. It develops functional, market-ready microorganisms for the global food and beverage, agriculture, chemical and healthcare industries. By leveraging all of the tools of synthetic biology, including whole organism and gene-targeted engineering, Renaissance uses nature to produce the things we need in cleaner, smarter and more sustainable ways.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with John Husnik, CEO and co-founder of Renaissance BioScience.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind Renaissance BioScience?
John Husnik (JH): Renaissance BioScience is at its core a yeast technology company. When we started in 2013, we were able to license a highly valuable hydrogen sulphide-reducing yeast trait first discovered and patented by researchers at the University of California, Davis. Hydrogen sulphide causes a variety of off-aromas (like rotten egg smell) that can reduce a product’s sales value. Even at low levels it can also mask the full aroma and flavour of wine, cider and beer. However, using this yeast trait we were able to improve the wine fermentation process and the flavours of different varieties of wine. In just eight months, we were successful at developing non-GMO industrial yeast strains for use in the production of wine and cider.
In addition to creating these new wine strains, we were also able to find a yeast manufacturer that could produce and distribute our strains around the world. We were selling products within one year of our inception; this is practically unheard of for a bioengineering company.
Essentially, we were able to demonstrate to our shareholders early on that we could get valuable input from our customers. In our first year of operation, we produced approximately ten tonnes of yeast, most of which we sold to distributors who provided excellent feedback that helped set us on a strong path. As a result, we now offer ten diverse patented wine and cider yeast products.
Over the last six years, we have cut our teeth in breeding and developing non-GMO strains. I believe we are one of the best in the world at doing this, if not the best.
In addition, we have expanded into brewing and recently gone into producing yeast strains for beer. Our brewer’s strains will be launched this autumn and we expect them to be highly successful. The Renaissance family of conventional wine, cider and beer yeasts have been licensed to Angel Yeast, our international manufacturer and distributor. Our organic certified products have been licensed to an Italian firm, Coccitech.
Simultaneously, we have been working in the baking space to produce a non-GMO acrylamide-reducing yeast enzyme that has been licensed globally to our international partner, the Kerry Group and Orkla Food Ingredients for Scandinavia and the Baltic territories.
We’ve been fortunate to work in collaboration and partnership with some well-established and highly reputable companies.
LG: Before founding the company, what were you doing?
JH: I obtained my Ph.D. in genetics from the University of British Columbia. I was always interested in biology and originally thought I would become a veterinarian. However, during the course of my studies at the University of Guelph I took a strong interest in microbiology and pursued a career that is essentially industrial microbiology.
After my studies, I worked for a scientific firm for several years. While that company unfortunately failed in the end, I gained many valuable lessons from the experience. I learned a lot about what not to do and the harm that comes from making a series of mistakes. So, moving forward with Renaissance, our attitude has been “let’s do this right.”
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing Renaissance BioScience?
JH: The biggest challenge has been obtaining financing. In Vancouver, the finance community is primarily interested in mining. We’re not in Boston, San Diego or San Francisco, where they have many years’ experience dealing with synthetic biology companies.
When we first started out, in fact, few people understood the concept of “synthetic biology.” It has been a bit of challenge, but through education we’ve been able to achieve our goals. We are not a big company such as Ginkgo, but we’ve been successful at building a significant growth-potential business on a lot less money.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody looking to launch their products within the synthetic biology space?
JH: Clearly, perseverance is key. Some of these large companies can move at a glacial pace when making decisions about partnerships and licensing; everything takes longer than most people expect. And it’s not just a matter of conducting field trials. For Renaissance, speaking to consumers and end users throughout the process has allowed us to continuously improve our yeast strains. Also, when you have a global launch you learn some unexpected things. For us, we learned that yeast operates differently in different environments and markets. In our case, we saw things we needed to tweak so that customers in a certain part of the world could experience our products at their maximum performance.
Also, it is vital not to simply license a product and walk away, but instead to work to build active partnerships with licensees. In our case, we have as much incentive for our licensees to succeed as they do. We encourage critical feedback from our partners, as this is often more valuable than positive comments in terms of fostering improvement; even after our yeast products have been launched, they are refined on an ongoing basis.
In short, be prepared to persevere. It does pay off: we’ve grown from 4 to 25 employees in just a few years. In addition, we’ve been able to rapid license our products, and are now communicating with many large players globally about future partnerships.
LG: What’s coming up next for your company?
JH: We’ve recently developed a yeast-based RNA interference (RNAi) delivery system to be used as a biopesticide or biocontrol agent in animal disease. RNAi is a well-characterised biological process that uses inherent cellular machinery to inhibit expression of target genes in an organism in response to treatment with specific RNAi effectors.
RNAi is taking us into fields outside of food and beverage where we currently have our products. It is a promising modality for biocontrol and biotherapeutics, and has broad potential applications within the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries.
In contrast to our traditional space in the non-GMO yeast space, with our RNAi technology we work with genetically modified (GM) organisms.
The use of a live GMO can still be uncomfortable for some people. However, we think we’ve created an innovative technology product that will be of great interest. Essentially, it’s a completely biodegradable yet very specific biopesticide — an inactive yeast that has RNAi molecules in it that target a specific pest/disease. The yeast is actually dead, but the RNAi molecules within it are still active; that is, you kill the yeast as part of the manufacturing process and during its application in the field it cannot replicate. This is a whole new technology that is incredibly environmentally friendly.
To explain further, this yeast combined with different RNAi effector molecules could be used to target specific insects/pests or animal/human diseases. In this way, as a biopesticide for example it would not harm other insects like bees, as you could effectively target specific genes essential for reproduction or life of the that pest after the insect you are trying to kill has eaten the yeast. If an off-target insect or animal eats the pesticide no harm would befall that species.
In contrast to chemical-based pesticides, this biopesticide is a safe yeast strain that we developed — a positive trait for surmounting “comfort” and regulatory concerns. Intriguingly, one could actually eat this yeast pesticide and it would be nutritious, all while being deadly to its targeted insect/pest. Clearly, this RNAi technology has enormous potential and we are excited about its prospects, with the main goal now being to develop partnerships and applications within the biopesticide and pharmaceutical spaces. In May of this year, in fact, we filed a PCT patent application for the proprietary yeast platform technology that produces and delivers these RNA bioactive molecules.
Elsewhere, Renaissance is continuing to collaborate with major companies for a range of our yeast technologies, all of which can also be protected through patents. And there are many other opportunities still to be explored, as yeast can be highly useful in “clean tech,” nutrition, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, just to name a few. The yeast universe is vast, and literally millions of people could be using products that contain Renaissance yeast or products that were made with the help of Renaissance yeast strains. Simply put, our yeast technology is making products better for consumers.
Our determination shows in our sales: they continue to grow year after year after year.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainability product?
JH: Anything that is marine-biodegradable. We are trying hard in our family to reduce all of the plastic we use, and “marine-biodegradable” is the standard plastics manufacturers will need to meet going forward.
John Husnik, CEO and co-founder of Renaissance BioScience, is a confirmed speaker at SynBio Markets (Berlin, 18-19 November 2019).