A Capital Region startup is striving to be among the first in the nation to produce the zero-calorie, natural sweetener stevia on an industrial scale. An agricultural biotech company, Yuba City-based Stevia First is bolstering its chances of success by actively collaborating with experts in the field, drawing on the area’s robust talent pool of farmers, agronomists, agricultural innovators and biotech experts to develop a product that’s superior in both taste and cost compared to its foreign competitors.
Stevia First is a prime example of the region’s proliferation of advanced agricultural sciences, which also include innovative seed production, breeding and crop improvement. With its rich farmland, warm weather and biotech expertise, the Capital Region has emerged as the world’s dominant leader in the agricultural biotech industry, luring entrepreneurs and businesses from across the globe. Stevia First plans to capitalize on these competitive advantages and use the valley’s agricultural infrastructure to further its efforts.
The 2-year-old startup is staffed with a team well versed in creating and managing ag- and bio-related public companies. Co-founder and CEO Robert Brooke brings a background of electrical and biomedical engineering, while partner and board chair Dr. Avtar Dhillon boasts more than 20 years of experience in acquisitions and mergers in scientific, engineering and farming enterprises.
They’ve watched as the demand for more natural, low-sugar and no-sugar products has fueled an industry willing and able to modify food products to meet changing consumer needs. And they saw doors open for the development of a natural, zero-calorie sugar substitute. Stevia, used for hundreds of years in South America and for decades in Japan, gained widespread traction as a desirable alternative to artificial sweeteners in the early 2000s. In 2008, it was approved for use in the U.S. as a food additive, and multinational food companies like Coca-Cola, Danone and Merisant began using it in everything from soft drinks to yogurt and snack products.
The sweetener is derived by extracting the steviol glycoside, a sugar compound called Reb A, from stevia leaves, which are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. But the plant’s extracts can have a bitter aftertaste and are far more expensive to produce than other brands on the market.
Stevia First believes it has a solution. Through proprietary fermentation technologies, the company is working to produce more desirable sugar compounds that taste superior to earlier versions — a Stevia 3.0, if you will.
Currently, 85 percent of stevia leaf production takes place in China, with the balance coming from South America. Stevia First is hoping to become one of the product’s first domestic producers and gain a distribution advantage through a modern, scalable supply chain.
“We see an opportunity to become the dominant producer of stevia in America,” says Brooke. “Stevia has become a very viable and mainstream natural sweetener, and we anticipate demand outstripping supply. If we can compete on taste and cost, it will be a no-brainer for companies to work with us.”
For Stevia First, the goal is to quickly and reliably produce a variety of next-generation, on-demand stevia sweeteners that can be tailored to meet changing consumer preferences. It’s not an easy proposition, but they’re not tackling it alone, tapping into the expertise of the greater ag-bio community and joining other regional companies using technology to adapt plants.
At UC Davis, where Stevia First routinely collaborates and consults with faculty and researchers, Dr. Kent Bradford, director of the university’s Seed Biotechnology Center, is involved in the region’s thriving agri-bio community, and he’s using his expertise to stimulate business and economic growth statewide. To further that objective, Dr. Bradford and Francois Korn of SeedQuest, launched Seed Central, an initiative to energize the seed industry cluster surrounding UC Davis.
“In this area alone, we have 80 to 100 different seed-related entities all doing business,” Bradford says. “Companies want to breed and adapt their seeds to our ideal climate. But we also want to work with them on the networking and business side to enhance their operations.”
For example, if stevia production takes off in California, there could be opportunities to produce stevia seeds to supply the industry and expand breeding and crop-improvement research, something UC Davis is an expert in.
The technology to enhance or modify a food product typically starts at the molecular level, where biotechnologists analyze a seed’s DNA to isolate the most desirable characteristics, breeding the ideal parent seeds to improve all kinds of things — yield, color, taste — in addition to making it resistant to diseases and pests.
Several local seed suppliers, including HeinzSeed, which grows proprietary tomatoes for the iconic ketchup brand; and BHNSeed, a hybrid tomato developer, have developed seeds for the global market through breeding stations here in the region. Woodland is home to Monsanto’s vegetable research headquarters, and fermentation-based technologies, like the ones Stevia First is using, are gaining in popularity to accelerate the development and commercialization of bio-products.
Industry experts like consultant Mike Pereira see a greater focus being placed on technology that increases the nutritional level per food unit and anticipate breakthroughs in drought and salt tolerance. “Seeds are the resilient vehicles that enable genetic crop improvements to be realized by the grower and ultimately the consumer. They bring biotechnology to life,” says Pereira, who founded Granum Services, a seed-production advisory firm. Fermentation-based technologies are also being watched closely for their ability to yield low-cost, high-quality products on a broad scale.
Stevia First is continuing to perfect its fermentation strategy. In the meantime, the company is preparing to debut in the coming months a new stevia sweetener called SF Natural and a product called Sucrolette, “that helps you kick your sugar habit quickly and with very little sacrifice. It is a combination product that includes fiber to control appetite, group nutritional counseling for advice and encouragement, and stevia to keep the sweetness,” according to the company.
The once-niche market of agricultural biotechnology has come into its own. Viewed as an appealing alternative to chemical pesticides and artificial food products, it’s an industry to watch as it attracts investors and biotech companies to the region.