Specialty carbohydrates: a very specialised biobased industry

Among the surprising new companies in the biobased industry is certainly Inbiose. This spin-off from Ghent University specialises in specialty carbohydrates: very complex structures consisting of a precisely controlled sequence of simple sugar molecules. Oligosaccharides, in technical terms. Inbiose can produce them custom-made, from 1 kg to 10,000 tons per year. Joeri Beauprez, Chief Scientific Officer of Inbiose, proudly presented his company on EFIB last month.

specialty carbohydrates in breast milk
Breast milk contains specialty carbohydrates that are beneficial to the baby. These can now be custom made.

Custom made specialty carbohydrates

Specialty carbohydrates are complex substances made from simple sugars like glucose, galactose, L-fucose, sialic acid and glucosamine. In nature, they are found in products like milk (also breast milk). They are applied in high-end products like pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics and plant protection products. Their value ranges from € 10/kg to € 10,000/kg. But they are very hard to isolate or produce. They can be extracted from natural sources, but often there are problems with the availability of the resource, and the complexity of extraction procedures. Chemical synthesis is problematic: very complex, with low yields, using toxic chemicals and producing much chemical waste. Enzymatic synthesis is simple and cheap, but only for one-step reactions. Inbiose developed microbial synthesis: using modified microorganisms that produce very complex carbohydrates in one step, from cheap resources, in an environmentally sustainable way.

In order to be successful in this market, Inbiose has developed expertise in a number of fields: industrial biotechnology (engineering of the production organism), process skills (development of the fermentation process, optimisation of yield and production rate, scale-up) and separation technology (recovery and purification of the product). Its flagship products are human milk oligosaccharides, used in the formulation of baby milk powder. These have prebiotic effects, strengthen the baby’s natural immune system, and stimulate brain development. Another high-end product is chitosan, often produced from the exoskeleton of insects, but now also tailor-made from vegetal feedstock by Inbiose’s technology. Chitosan is a very interesting substance that has anti-inflammatory properties, can be used as a growth stimulator in plants, for skin care, and many other applications.

Structure of a (relatively simple) oligosaccharide.

Only the very best quality

The field of specialty carbohydrates is almost endless. These substances play a major role in life itself, and as they can be custom-made now, we will witness many more applications in the years to come. And will Inbiose be able to cope with the regulatory obligations that its high-end products require? At EFIB, I heard from various companies that they now try to avoid health claims for their products because of strict regulation and lengthy procedures; they rather present them as nutraceuticals or food additives. I asked Joeri Beauprez if they encounter the same kind of problem. In principle, no, he said. Human milk oligosaccharides are natural compounds present in mothers milk and we only aim at products with the best quality and purity.

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