Since leaving Robbinsville, former resident Nick Ouzounov, PhD has collaborated with his colleague, Alex Lorestani, PhD, from Princeton University to create Geltor, a synthetic biology company that produces collagen, without animal products, for a variety of uses, whether it be for the “highest performing skincare products or cuisine-grade vegan gelatin,” according to their website.
Ouzounov’s family initially moved to Lawrenceville from his birth country of Bulgaria when he was in third grade, before moving to Buffalo, New York, and then settling in Robbinsville when he reached seventh grade. Since the township did not have it’s own high school by then, Ouzounov attended and graduated from Lawrence High School in 2005, before studying Molecular Biology and Biochemistry as an undergraduate at Rutgers University and Molecular Biology as a graduate student at Princeton University, where he studied how microbes establish and maintain cell space.
Throughout his childhood, Ouzounov developed a love for science, specifically biology, and the opportunities for entrepreneurship. His parents were both scientists, which gave him exposure to areas of medical research, such as Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb.“I’ve always liked programming and coding, and I started looking at working with DNA in molecular biology as something similar to working with software. I started noticing a lot of opportunities in that space that I thought were fascinating.” During this time, he designed his own biology lab in the basement, which got him interested in the DIY (do-it-yourself) biology field and made him aware of “the opportunities that can give you funding and lab space to develop an idea from scratch into a product or company.”
This experience became useful when Lorestani and he began critiquing the current applications of biological products. “We saw a lot of technologies that have been implemented in the production of medicine, and we saw an opportunity for that to be applied to consumer products, partially because of the decreasing cost due to new technological advancements,” Ouzounov said.
“It started off in Small World Coffee, when we were sitting around a table and writing calculations on a paper about how we could make actual protein using microbes.” Their first and main target was creating collagen, the most abundant protein in a human body and a major component of connective tissue. Collagen is also the substance that makes up gelatin, which is used as a core ingredient in countless products. Being able to synthetically produce gelatin, a substance that was previously animal product, would be a huge scientific breakthrough.
Ouzounov details specifically why this idea is so revolutionary. “Products like gelatin and collagen, which are byproducts of the animal or agriculture industries, have existed for a long time. However, we saw an opportunity to apply technology, not only to make the products animal-free, but make significant advancements in quality as well.”
“There’s a lot of impact you can have by making better products, but they’re also better for the environment and humans because of the quality they bring to the table,” he added.
To advance their idea, Ouzounov and Lorestani applied to IndieBio, a renowned biotechnology start-up accelerator in San Francisco, in July of 2015. After being accepted, the pair worked on producing a proof of concept, evidence that the concept is feasible, for the accelerator demo day in February 2016.
The process of scaling a product and process to size can be quite difficult. “When Alex and I had our first proof of concept, it was in milligrams, and so scaling that to produce kilograms took a lot of work and effort from the whole team. Making the process cost-effective was also difficult, along with making it work for various collagens and proteins,” Ouzounov explained.
Another difficulty that the pair faced in initial pitches was explaining the specifics of their product to those without prior knowledge. “A lot of customers were coming to us, and we had to translate some difficult concepts about molecular biology so that non-scientists are able to understand as well.” However, by demo day, they were able to produce a noticeable amount of product, which helped create excitement amongst investors and helped them raise $2.5 million. This capital funded their move to San Leandro, California, where they rented out lab space to hire employees and build their new company, Geltor.
For Geltor, Ouzounov serves as the CTO (Chief Technology Officer), and handles all the technology and production, “making sure we can deliver on customer needs and on the next generation of products and technologies,” while Lorestani handles the business side as CEO.
Their first and main product is N-Collage 1% Solution, a high performance collagen without animal product, and the “first ever vegan collagen technology engineered for unparalleled skincare performance,” as their website explains. Because of its unique design and broad utility, this product has won the CEW (Cosmetic Executive Women)’s 2018 Innovation Award.
Ouzounov attributes the success of this product, and Geltor so far, to his staff. “We have the best staff, and if I hadn’t started this company I would be lucky to have them as my bosses to learn from.”
While Geltor is one of the first, there is a rapidly growing industry around synthetic biological production, though it is in the early stages. “Depending on the application, a lot of the industry is still in the research and development phases. A lot of other companies are looking at cellular agriculture, recombinant proteins, or egg production, but there’s a lot more regulation in the food path. Currently, we’ve found a good application for our product in the cosmetic space, where we see a lot of opportunities for improvement, since the collagens we produce surpasses anything our customers are used to,” Ouzounov said.
To expand, Ouzounov and Lorestani are exploring other possibilities with their products and methods. “Collagen is pretty exciting, and we’ve only scratched the surface, since there are 28 types of collagens, and there are different sequences for each with different animals. However, we’ve developed a system that can be applied to other proteins as well. We’re always looking at things that can be applied and have functions that are beneficial to humans but difficult to access through normal methods.
Looking ahead, Ouzounov is excited to explore “the next stage of technologies as we scale our production and get this product in as many hands as possible. I think it’s been super exciting, seeing the world being excited about what you’re creating and making a tangible product,” Ouzounov said.
He concluded by mentioning the importance of this field for not only scientists, but all people. “The technologies we’re developing, in my mind this is like the 70s and 80s for the computer age, in terms of how this new technology can impact the lives of everyone. This can improve biology, technology on the consumer level.”
For more information on Geltor, please visit http://www.geltor.com