A multinational speciality chemical firm’s purchase of a small University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) spin-off enterprise represents a major step forward in the business of enlisting the ocean’s most humble organisms in the search for new active ingredients. Croda International Plc, who create, make and sell ingredients for some of the biggest, most successful brands in consumer and industrial marketplaces, has acquired the Charlottetown biotechnology firm Nautilus Biosciences Canada.
Russell Kerr, founder of the biotechnology company Nautilus, which emerged from work at the University of Prince Edward Island. Photo credit: PEI BioAlliance
Nautilus is one of 54 companies in the PEI BioAlliance, a rapidly growing bioscience cluster chaired by UPEI chemistry and biomedical sciences professor Russell Kerr. It was founded by Kerr in 2007 and is an example of ’blue biotechnology’, a field defined by the search for potentially useful genetic resources from fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms found in marine habitats.
“The traditional route would be to mine these materials,” Kerr explains, “but we were looking for sustainable and quick-to-market ingredients for end products, including skin care, antimicrobials, and nutraceuticals.”
When Nautilus negotiated UPEI’s first-ever technology licensing agreement in 2010, it dealt with a technique for the extraction of diterpene glycocides from sea coral. These agents, known as pseudopterosins, have anti-inflammatory properties that can be used in cosmetics, but standard methods for obtaining them have been expensive. The method introduced by Nautilus promises to make this process much more efficient, so that extraction becomes environmentally and economically viable.
Kerr suggests that such progress caught the attention of Croda, a company who approached him at a cosmetics conference several years ago as they were interested in a partnership to expand Croda’s library of marine microbes as a potential source of commercial ingredients. Kerr then enhanced that collaboration and investment with matching funds from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a federal program dedicated to regional economic development in the Maritimes.
“That was how we got Croda excited about the benefits of our blue biotechnology,” he says. “They are a speciality chemical ingredients company that value the opportunities that biotechnology can present.”
Croda was already moving into other colours of the biotechnology “rainbow”, which includes green (products from plant cells and various botanical sources) and white (industrial products, often based on whole-cell biotransformation and biocatalysis). The company characterizes such work as examples of growth through sustainable innovation, a mandate Nautilus had also adopted in blue biotechnology.
Blue biotechnology, the search for potentially useful genetic resources from fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms found in marine habitats.
“They want access to our microbial bank, but a big part of what they’re acquiring is a group of people, a tight-knit army of technicians with experience going back seven or eight years,” says Kerr. “And importantly, they want to invest in and keep that group together.”
Even as UPEI’s modest spin-off firm becomes part of a corporation listed on the Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index, all 10 Nautilus employees will stay in Charlottetown, where Croda has doubled the space available to them and invested in robotic high throughput screening systems to speed up their work. This firmly establishes Nautilus as a Croda Centre of Innovation for Marine Biotechnology.
Kerr also expects the microbial collection, stored on-site in freezers at -80C, to grow at an even more ambitious pace. It already includes samples from the Amazon, the Caribbean, the Canadian Arctic, the Mediterranean, and the Dead Sea. Through agreements with collecting institutions in places such as the Barbados and Colombia, the volume and diversity of this material should continue to expand, even as it tackles the daunting complexity of the ocean ecosystem.
“When you look at the marine environment, the numbers are just staggering,” says Kerr, who notes that any given millilitre of seawater can contain in excess of a million microscopic organisms. “What we’ll be doing, in collaboration with the University is building up our blue library to have this resource at our fingertips.”