Smells like team spirit: How EV Biotech is making vanilla from bacteria

Start-ups enjoy a pleasant ecosystem in the TopDutch region. ‘There’s no competition between them, it’s all about cooperation.’ Large companies are happy to give the ‘youngsters’ – like EV Biotech, a spin-off from the University of Groningen, which operates at the cutting edge of digital technology, chemistry and AgriFood – a helping hand.

Source: Top Dutch https://www.topdutch.com/one-minute-reads/smells-like-team-spirit-how-ev-biotech-is-making-vanilla-from-bacteria

Start-ups enjoy a pleasant ecosystem in the TopDutch region. ‘There’s no competition between them, it’s all about cooperation.’ Large companies are happy to give the ‘youngsters’ – like EV Biotech, a spin-off from the University of Groningen, which operates at the cutting edge of digital technology, chemistry and AgriFood – a helping hand.

Vanilla puzzles

Their 32-year old CEO Linda Dijkshoorn is a pharmaceutical biologist, and started EV Biotech last year together with former fellow students Sergey Lunev and Agnieszka Wegrzyn. The young company uses innovative technology to create micro-organisms that can produce high-quality molecules. One of the challenges is to modify the bacteria in such a way it secretes vanilla.’ Only a small percentage comes from the vanilla orchid that grows in Madagascar,’ explains Linda Dijkshoorn. Most of it is made artificially from crude oil, which emits a lot of carbon. Vanilla production is a billion-dollar market; it’s in our ice cream, our shampoo, our yoghurt, our cola.’ The Groningen-based start-up isn’t the only company wanting to turn bacteria into vanilla. For fifteen years now, a large, international player has been puzzling on the same issue, still without getting the desired result. Linda Dijkshoorn smiles: ‘We’re always up for a challenge.’ She is convinced that EV Biotech will be the first to succeed because her team uses computer models. ‘That’s quicker than experimenting in the lab.’

EV Biotech uses baker’s yeast for the vanilla-producing organisms. ‘These organisms emit CO2 and create the aeration of our bread. But you can give them a different function by adding an extra gene. The first step is to find out how the vanilla plant makes its vanilla; this is described in its DNA. This code is then copied to the baker’s yeast.’

“It would take a lot of time and manpower if we did it exclusively in the lab. That’s why we go a different way.”

That might sound simple, but it’s a complicated process. ‘It would take a lot of time and manpower if we did it exclusively in the lab. That’s why we go a different way. We translate the function of the genes in the organisms into computer models. That’s how we digitally manipulate the organisms.’ EV Biotech uses these models to calculate the effect of adding a gene and how an organism produces vanilla as efficiently as possible. ‘We can also predict which routes have the most chances of success, and which do not.’

Revolutionary technology

The results of the digital laboratory are tested with real life experiments in the laboratory. Two employees are working on that today. ‘This is where the magic happens’, begins Linda Dijkshoorn. The worktop contains bottles of micro-organisms, food, genes and secreted materials. ‘We’re mimicking the promising routes here. We use the data to improve our software models.The laboratory looks brand-new and well-equipped. But EV Biotech has also invested in its own equipment. Linda Dijkshoorn points out one device that copies DNA and another which purifies protein. In the adjoining room there is a machine in which bottles of organisms and food are being agitated to allow the bacteria to grow.

EV Biotech started out in early 2019 with funding by the investment funds Carduso Capital, Triade Investment and the University of Groningen holding. Investors describe EV Biotech’s technology as ‘revolutionary’. The company aims to achieve earnings with the technology and the production organisms. ‘We won’t be making vanilla ourselves, although a showcase might be needed to prove we can do it.’ In addition to vanilla, EV Biotech works in a similar way on processes that lead to bioplastics, high tensile silk and flavors and fragrances. Where bioplastics are concerned, Dijkshoorn sees opportunities to work together with regional partners. ‘After all, the North has a strong chemical sector where sustainability is given high priority.’

Helping hands

Linda Dijkshoorn has nothing but praise for Groningen’s ecosystem. She finds that everyone is willing to help each other. According to her, that’s the strength of the ecosystem. ‘We are doing each other little favors, and that’s how we move forward together. In Amsterdam, where I was initially planning to set up shop, I felt a lot more mutual competition.’

“We are doing each other little favors, and that’s how we move forward together.”

Larger companies are also helpful and open up their networks for us. Many of our discussion partners find our business ‘cool’ and are happy to introduce me to other entrepreneurs. A few months ago, I happened to be meeting with the American investor Neal Dempsey. He turned out to be interested. ‘I think I’ll visit him in San Francisco when I go there for a conference.’

The energetic entrepreneur hopes that in ten years’ time EV Biotech will have its own lab at the Zernike Campus in Groningen and will have made its mark in the chemical industry. ‘It would be great if we could manage to eliminate some harmful processes.’