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Weslee Glen
Weslee Glen

In this instalment of The Cell Base's ‘Start-up spotlight,' we speak to Weslee Glenn, head of innovation at Ayana Bio, a US-based plant cell technology company and producer of sustainable bioactives for consumer products.

Ayana Bio's mission is to unlock the potential of plant cell culture in food and nutrition. Could you tell us more about the inspiration and driving force behind the establishment of the company?

Ayana Bio was established in September 2021, launching out of Ginkgo Bioworks’ creation studio, the Ferment Consortium, in response to four intersecting problems: the global nutrition gap, agricultural limitations, the climate crisis and ingredient quality. All of these factors have negatively impacted people’s access to proper nutrition and have created supply chain constraints that will only get worse over time. 


We need new production methods to help take the strain off agriculture in an increasingly hot planet and hungry population. Agriculture isn’t the most efficient way to meet our botanical needs, leading to shortcuts on sustainability, purity, safety and hygiene. Not all calories are created equal – without a more reliable, sustainable agricultural supply chain, we can’t produce enough nutritional plants to make a real impact and feed the world’s growing population. 


This is where Ayana Bio steps in – with its plant cell cultivation technology, Ayana Bio can provide an efficient and effective way to produce the full spectrum of quality plant bioactives that we want and need across a range of consumer products. 


What factors led Ayana Bio to focus on leveraging plant cell culture in the realm of food and nutrition? 


Ingredient standardisation, reliability, climate volatility, limited natural resources, and other challenges facing the agriculture-based natural product industry are what led Ayana Bio to focus on leveraging plant cell culture in the food and nutrition space. Because some of the most potent bioactives can only be produced through agriculture or foraging, new forms of production like plant cell cultivation are needed to tap into plant bioactives at scale. This is where Ayana Bio’s plant cell cultivation technology comes in, allowing consumers to enjoy benefits from blueberries, chocolate, saffron and other useful ingredients at a volume to derive an impact.

Ayana Bio plant cells
Ayana Bio plant cells
What unique benefits do Ayana Bio's plant cell culture-based products offer and how do you envision their impact on the future of sustainable food consumption? 


Plant cell cultivation produces a consistent supply of botanicals without the supply chain challenges. Ayana Bio’s plant cell cultivation technology methods don't require the land, irrigation, herbicides or pesticides required by agriculture, or create wasted biomass to extract bioactives. The end result is products that are more consistent, affordable, and less taxing of our natural resources. Sustainably producing bioactives using plant cell cultivation rather than agriculture can also be a solution to the nutrition crisis plaguing consumer packaged goods (CPGs) by creating plant biomass with the same nutrient profile as soil-grown plants, giving CPG companies access to the same nutrients for their products without straining the agricultural system. 

Additionally, consumers want plant-based products to actually contain healthy plants. The advantage of plant cell cultivation is that we can utilise our BioConserve or BioDirect plant cell cultivation platforms that provide non-GMO routes to produce natural bioactives. This a big departure from precision fermentation and synthetic ingredients that may be “nature identical,” whereas we can directly create natural ingredients as found in nature through plant cell cultivation. 


What are the essential technologies and capabilities that make up Ayana Bio's services? 


Ayana Bio uses proprietary plant cell cultivation technology – a means to create plant materials without growing plants in the ground – to produce a full spectrum of bioactives that are representative of what is found in nature. The plant cell cultivation process starts by identifying the best plant cell lines – just like traditional plant breeding.

These plant cells are propagated from real plants (similar to stem cells) and assessed throughout the cell cultivation process for important characteristics like bioactive potency, stability and purity. We further identify the ideal plant cell line for standardised quality and then provide the nutrients that the plant cells need to grow and multiply. This process is similar to brewing beer, but instead of growing yeast or bacteria, we grow plants directly from their cells.

An Ayana Bio scientist inspecting plant cell growth
An Ayana Bio scientist inspecting plant cell growth

Given the significance of sustainability and ethics in the cellular agriculture sector, how does Ayana Bio approach and integrate these considerations into its operations? 


Producing high-quality ingredients through sustainable and ethical means is a guiding principle for all of us at Ayana Bio. Plant cell cultivation allows us to make botanical products while also being good stewards of our planet, making us optimistic about the future. 


Has Ayana Bio encountered any challenges on its journey so far? How did the company navigate and overcome these obstacles? 


My professor used to say, “All the easy problems in science have been solved already,” and I couldn’t agree more. But what an exciting time for the field! 


Plant cell cultivation is part of a much longer story dating back to about 1902. The technique found steady use around the 1950s, mostly in academic labs. The field has seen its share of challenges since then – one major example being lengthy development timelines resulting from low sample throughput.


We sidestep this challenge by taking a horizontal approach where we collaborate with our partner, Ginkgo Bioworks, to generate interoperative multi-omics (i.e., epigenomics, genomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics) datasets in parallel across many culture conditions. These high throughput analyses accelerate development timelines. 


Collaboration with the scientific community can be crucial in advancing innovative technologies. Can you shed light on Ayana Bio's engagement with researchers and scientists? 


Collaboration is the engine of innovation. But you can’t study what you can’t access. And many molecules from plants are inaccessible. Ayana Bio is solving this problem with plant cell cultivation. We already have a healthy list of partners and collaborators spanning industry and academia. I anticipate that our extramural program will burgeon as we launch more products and provide reliable access to some difficult-to-reach molecules. 


What exciting plans does Ayana Bio have in the pipeline, and what can we expect to see from the company in the coming months or years? 


Looking ahead to 2024, we are excited to introduce more high-value botanical ingredients to our Plant Cell Advantage ingredient portfolio, which currently consists of Echinacea-p PCA, Lemon Balm PCA, Dog Rose PCA, Hedge Nettle PCA, and Sage PCA. We are also undergoing discussions with potential CPG partners and look forward to announcing partnerships and seeing our ingredients in their products in the future. 


Beyond that, we are planning to advance the awareness surrounding plant cell cultivation. The technology is an emerging category that still requires extensive industry education before we can see consumers picking plant cell-derived products off grocery store shelves. For example, we recently conducted our first consumer survey surrounding attitudes toward ultra-processed foods. The results affirmed that the majority of US consumers are open-minded about incorporating healthier, processed food options into their diets if these options exist, which is where plant cell cultivation can step in. 


Start-up spotlight: Ayana Bio

Phoebe Fraser

4 January 2024

Start-up spotlight: Ayana Bio

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