Our recently released report, “10 Trends Shaping the Future of Food in 2022,” explores trends that are driving the transition to a climate-smart, healthy food system. Throughout the year we will dive deeper into these trends through our blog and podcast. In this article, we explore how Brightseed’s Forager® AI can unlock a greater understanding of, and use cases for, plant-based bioactives in the functional food sector. The company just announced a $68 million Series B round which will enable Brightseed to expand operations, accelerate clinical validation of Forager’s findings, and establish an East Coast commercialization center to manufacture novel ingredients for food and health industries.
Whether you eat to live or live to eat, our understanding of how food impacts our bodies has changed profoundly in recent years. Our vision of healthcare is moving beyond medicine to incorporate nutrition as a tool to delay, treat or prevent diseases. Today’s consumers are demanding much more nuanced insights into the foods they are eating and their health implications. As a result, functional foods that have proven health outcomes will play an increasingly central role in our diets. But while functional ingredient discovery has historically been a costly, unreliable and inefficient process, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the world of plant compounds and their potential health benefits is revealing a smorgasbord of possibilities for the future of functional foods.
When it comes to the development of functional foods, plant-based bioactives, also known as phytonutrients, are a key reservoir of potential ingredients and are seen as essential building blocks for the transition to food as medicine. Bioactives are small molecule compounds that plants use to communicate with their environments and protect themselves from fungi, bugs and other threats. Science has also begun to understand how consequential plant bioactives can be for human health. For example, carotenoids, which provide the red, orange and yellow colors in fruits and vegetables, act as antioxidants in our bodies, which means they tackle free radicals that damage tissue. Lycopene, which gives produce its red or pink color, has been linked to lowering the risk of prostate cancer, and bioactives found in leafy greens can help prevent certain eye problems.
But a lot of what we believe about bioactives is not yet proven, and those are just the ones we know about. The world of plants is chemically rich and powerful, yet deeply untapped. Biologically we have evolved alongside plants, and so it makes sense that we should have symbiotic relationships with many of the natural compounds they contain. But despite their importance to human health, plant bioactives still represent the “dark matter” of the plant kingdom with 99 percent remaining unknown and uncharted.
The opportunity to take advantage of the world of plant bioactives has never been unlocked because of the barriers to exploring the plant matrix, which until recently has entailed taking apart a plant and then trying to determine the health impacts of each compound. This serendipitous approach to functional ingredient discovery has resulted in most functional foods being developed from a limited number of ingredients with health effects that have been established in a costly and inefficient manner. They also tend to be poorly characterized with unknown mechanisms of action. Because of the tediousness of working with plant bioactives, the health industry has focused on synthetic compounds that they can classify as intellectual property and manufacture easily.
The AI Revolution
Similar to what is happening in a number of industries, AI is transforming the functional ingredient landscape. To put it simply, AI uses systems that can interpret input data to make decisions for accomplishing specific objectives. When it comes to functional food discovery, AI can decipher complex food and plant sources and through systems biology and machine learning, identify key bioactive compounds, which can then be validated in a much more timely and cost-effective manner. AI is positioned to exponentially increase the variety of functional foods available to consumers by systematically discovering natural, effective and safe bioactive ingredients that address specific health outcomes.
For example, Brightseed’s Forager is a pioneering, proprietary computational platform and A.I. that was created to illuminate the dark space of natural bioactives and map them to their impact on human health outcomes. Created by Lee Chae, PhD., Brightseed’s co-founder, CTO and former researcher at the Stanford Carnegie Institute of Plant Biology, Forager systematically identifies natural bioactives and maps their connection to human health benefits at an unprecedented depth and rate. Forager learns each compound to understand its molecular structure and chemical properties, and then AI maps the compound against a digital model of human health. Forager indexes this information on plants and their compounds, enabling a researcher to search for a health benefit and find a hotspot of activity, which can then be validated through in vitro and in vivo clinical tests.
In addition to building the software, Brightseed is also involved in expanding the available database. The team sources plants from around the world, and after a systemic process of preparation they perform finer and finer fractionations to capture as purified sets of compounds as possible to feed into Forager and generate data.
With traditional methods, it would take over 50,000 years to map the phytonutrients in the plant kingdom. Forager has mapped 2 million compounds to human biological benefits to date, 20x more than what is cataloged in scientific literature, and is on track to surpass 10 million by 2025. In the process, it will find hundreds of thousands of bioactive compounds and uncover novel impacts to benefit human health.
Building the Right Business Model
Despite the expedited timeline enabled by AI, the development of functional ingredients is still an expensive process with a relatively long go-to-market path. It can also be risky if a company is focused on developing a single product. As we stated in our 2022 Trends report, “Successful companies will have many opportunities or paths to commercialization which spreads the risk, accelerates the go-to-market, makes companies less vulnerable and reduces the amount of capital they need to raise if done right, because certain products can subsidize other products.” Brightseed has been able to establish multiple avenues for product development, enabling the company to diversify its revenue streams, with its partnership model supporting in-house, long-term novel product development.
Brightseed’s first revenue stream is through partnerships with food, beverage and consumer health and packaged goods companies (CPGs). CPG-fueled innovation in the food and nutrition space has slowed significantly due to inadequate investment, especially with recent supply chain upheavals and shrinking profits for some companies as a result of Covid. Today, many CPGs don’t have extensive research and development (R&D) infrastructure and have been slow to innovate. On average, CPGs invest 6 times more in marketing and advertising than they do in R&D. As a point of comparison, in the tech sector the ratio is the opposite. This has created a huge opportunity for startups to support innovation and R&D across the industry, and CPGs are on the lookout for companies that have the tools to help them fuel new product development.
Brightseed has partnerships with a number of CPGs that use Forager to gain deeper insights into plant-based bioactives in their edible and medicinal plant sources. CPGs can leverage these insights in consumer messaging and accelerate the development of validated products for specific health benefits. For example, Brightseed teamed up with farmer cooperative and juice brand Ocean Spray to analyze the phytonutrient composition of cranberries. Cranberries have long been considered a superfruit and are venerated as a rich source of polyphenols with high levels of antioxidant activity. But while some of the benefits of bioactives in cranberries are known, such as their anti-adhesive properties that may help reduce the risk of recurrent urinary tract infections and deliver cardiovascular benefits, the vast majority of compounds in cranberries have never been explored for their health impacts.
Brightseed analyzed the phytochemical structure of cranberries and identified compounds with potential cognition and immunity benefits that could unlock promising new avenues for research. Ocean Spray knew of about 600 bioactives in cranberries, but Forager discovered over 6,600. With these uncharacterized compounds, Forager can search through its database to predict which of these compounds are likely to have which health benefits. If the new health benefits identified by Forager are validated by Ocean Spray through clinical trials, Ocean Spray could either use this information to bolster its marketing messaging or could begin to develop novel functional foods or nutraceuticals. It can even help inform future breeding programs.
Brightseed has also partnered with leading multinational food and beverage corporation, Danone, to identify the biological connections between the bioactives in Danone’s raw plant sources and targeted health outcomes. In a matter of months, Forager was able to find 10 times more raw bioactives in soy than were previously known, and identify seven new health attributes. Brightseed’s other public partners include ofi (olam food ingredients) and Pharmavite, makers of Nature Made® vitamins. The company also received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to investigate ways to improve maternal health and birth outcomes through plant-based nutrition while reducing reliance on antibiotics.
Beyond Forager-based partnerships, Brightseed discovers, validates and commercializes its own functional food products. To date, there are 15 broad areas of human health that the company’s discovered plant-based bioactives address, including metabolic, digestive, cognitive, maternal and immune health. Two of these bioactives, N-transcaffeoyltyramine (NCT) and N-trans-feruloyltyramine (NFT), showed an incredible ability to clear fat from the livers of mice and in human cells. These bioactives, now in human clinical trials, could inform how to approach weight gain during the development of obesity and manage nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), a chronic condition that has no approved treatments and impacts up to 25 percent of the global population, as well as other metabolic conditions. Brightseed will launch these compounds later this year as an FDA GRAS whole food ingredient for gut health.
Functional Foods for Broader Food Systems Change
Brightseed’s discovery has also created a food upcycling opportunity since NCT and NFT can be found in hemp hulls, or the outer shell of hemp seeds. Hemp is an exceptionally sustainable and versatile crop, and hemp hearts have a dense nutritional profile. But the industry has been throwing away the seed shells without realizing the potential goldmine for human health. If the compounds in hemp hulls are shown to be able to be potentially therapeutic or hold powerful gut health benefits, they can become an additional value stream for the hemp industry. This shows that not only can technologies like Forager help discover new ingredients with health benefits, but the new insights generated could also have wide-ranging implications for our food and health systems, such as encouraging better use of resources and discovering the most commercially viable sources of these naturally-occurring hero compounds.
In addition to diverting waste streams, Forager could also help transform our food supply chains by giving us a better understanding of how to grow, harvest and process foods to optimize for plant-based bioactives and health benefits. But what is really exciting, is that Forager could help improve the diversity of our agricultural systems. Right now only 12 plants make up 75 percent of the global food system. The more we know about the health benefits of plants, especially ones that are currently underutilized, the better equipped we are to nurture demand for crops that could diversify our food supply chains and provide numerous environmental benefits for more resilient food systems.
Forager is helping to facilitate a future where we can understand the linkages between the food we eat and our health outcomes at a molecular level that was previously not possible. It can enable companies to create narratives, supported by science, around the integral role food can play in nurturing our bodies as well as supporting more sustainable agriculture systems. For the food and nutrition sector, technology that empowers consumers to take control of their health will fuel the next phase of food production.
“Natural bioactives are the unsung heroes of human health, yet consumers know very little about them beyond a handful of mainstreamed compounds like caffeine and CBD. As Brightseed continues to pioneer this discovery work, we also recognize we play an important part in consumer education and raising up the value of natural bioactives and the significant role they play in the future of food and medicine.”
- Michelle Masek, VP of Marketing at Brightseed