Winner Spotlight: Nuritas Finds Health Benefits Through Data Mining Food
Imagine going to the grocery store and picking out a cereal bar that has all the right ingredients to prevent a disease, or purchasing a drink specifically made to treat a health condition you have. After years of research, Nora Khaldi realized this could be possible—and she founded Nuritas to develop products like that.
Nuritas data mines food to discover peptides—amino acids—that contain beneficial health properties. Through extracting these peptides and turning them into an ingredient that can be added to other products, Nuritas can enhance those health benefits for consumers.
After winning the health category of Challenge Cup Dublin, Khaldi explained how the unique data mining process works and shared the challenges she faced while developing this new technology to revolutionize food.
What does Nuritas do?
We’re revolutionizing the way therapeutic peptide ingredients are being identified and created. Our overall aim as a company is to create ingredients that are more accessible, natural, sustainable and that meet real societal needs.
We data mine the billions of food peptides, and we identify and extract the ones that have a therapeutic quality. These novel ingredients are then patented and sold into different markets and have different applications such as skin treatments as well as applications in food and supplements. To do this, we’re using cutting edge algorithms and machine learning that were created and are owned by Nuritas.
Why is there a need to identify bioactive peptides and how did you come to see the need?
I’m a scientist myself and have worked many years in this area. Originally, I’m a mathematician, but I specialized in data mining. I started working in food and realized there was a large need for bioactive peptides for many reasons. The first reason is that consumers now are more aware of what they’re eating and there’s a move from treating sickness to ensuring wellness. There’s a whole public understanding of the link between diet and disease… On the other hand governments want to reduce the financial burden of the current health care and are promoting healthy living to the consumer. This is achieved by allowing people to take control of their health by consuming healthier functional foods and supplements to stay healthier for longer
On the other side, you have food companies wanting to address that consumer desire, and companies want to go into these functional food areas and want to differentiate themselves. The problem is that … it takes millions and years to develop these kinds of natural ingredients that can be added to different products. At Nuritas, we can find these therapeutic ingredients in a fraction of the time and cost.
How do you use data mining in the process to provide your service to businesses and consumers?
The process is very complicated. A lot of years went into this software—and it’s not just the software part; it’s the database part combined with the testing and what we call the “research cycle.” So each peptide goes through the research cycle in order to obtain an ingredient., On one side, we look at certain diseases. We know that certain diseases are either inhibited or activated via certain receptors in the body. On the other side we have the food that we’re interested in researching for particular ingredients that may affect these receptors. We go into that food, we data mine, and we look at different molecules in it. Each time we look at a molecule the question is: Would that molecule have an effect on one of the receptors in the body? If it does have an effect, is it a positive effect in terms of is it reducing this disease or not? If it does, then we consider it.
For each food ingredient we data mine over 30 billion peptides. From those 30 billion, we’re able to narrow that down to about 20 that then go into the lab to be tested and validated in very specific areas of interest such as inflammation, anti-aging, and muscle recovery.
We’re (also) providing a waste-royalty partnership with food companies. If a food company has a by-product that they’re either throwing away or selling at a very low price, we’re capable of taking those samples, looking through them via our data mining techniques, (and) adding value to them to create novel ingredients with health benefits that they then can go off and sell. We get royalty on those sales and also a fee for the service initially.
What were some challenges throughout the development of your startup?
For me, the biggest thing was that this was completely disrupting the way things had been done so far. It was going against the traditional way where labs were getting millions to do something and at the end sometimes they didn’t get anything. So, because of that, I got a lot of “This is impossible,” and I got a lot of resistance– even in the research world. But mainly things like, “This is completely impossible,” and “This has not been done,” even in the research world.
Because of the novelty of it, a lot of the people we have spoken to—whether it was on the financial side or the fundraising side—were trying to put us in a box that didn’t really fit who we are. …This so far has never been done, but …we’re well on the way to understanding and revolutionising big data in food.
What would you say to other startups who may be facing similar obstacles of resistance and discouragement?
I think the best thing to do in going forward is just believing in what you’re doing. The thing that pushed me the most is that I have been working in this area for many years, (and) I have invented many ingredients myself during my research career… And I also saw that in nature, people go off finding drugs in very weird plants around the world but yet in daily foods that we eat, there are so many molecules there that have not been discovered. That’s really what kept me going and believing that we could do this.
Also the thing is really getting the right people around you, getting the right people that understand the vision that believe in it and can see how this is going to grow.
What has your company accomplished recently? Any milestones/victories?
There were a lot of eureka moments in terms of the research. I think the first one we discovered was last June/July and that was a peptide that kills MRSA, which is a huge problem in hospitals around the world. So that was a huge eureka moment when we found a food grade peptide–first ever–that actually killed MRSA, (instead of) the current antibiotics, which have huge side effects.
The most recent one we found is a peptide that mimics insulin. It’s a peptide that has huge effects on taking sugar and passing it from the blood into the muscle, basically it mimics what insulin does. For people that have a problem with their insulin, especially diabetics, or even in sports nutrition if you want to recover your muscle really fast, you want to pull the sugar into your muscle…It’s a huge discovery—we’re really happy with that one.
We were one in 10 global winners in the Reinventing America competition, which was interesting… We were (also) invited just a couple of weeks ago to the GAA in Abu Dhabi which basically showcased the latest food innovation technologies which was great. We are also constantly gaining traction with companies.
Where is Nuritas headed next?
We are at the dawn of a new era… it’s the right timing for Nuritas and what Nuritas is doing. .. There are big pressures everywhere to avoid taking prescription drugs when you’re sick, and to actually enhance your health while you’re healthy and keeping it that way. Companies and consumers now clearly understand the need. The goal for the company and myself is to create something really meaningful globally that can be left as a legacy and to reinvent how we see and consume food.