Spero Shakes Up Vanilla Market with Corn-Based Flavor Tech

Santa Barbara-based startup Spero Renewables is making waves in the vanilla flavors market with innovative technology that promises to produce cost-competitive natural vanillin. The company claims its method can offer a more stable and affordable alternative to traditional sources of natural vanillin, potentially transforming the industry landscape.

Currently, consumer goods companies seeking vanilla flavors have several options. Vanilla beans and extracts, while prized for their natural label, come with a hefty price tag. Vanillin derived from petrochemicals is cheaper but falls under the category of artificial flavors. Another option is vanillin produced through the bioconversion of ferulic acid in rice bran, a market led by Syensqo, which spun out of Solvay. This form of vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor but is subject to supply uncertainties due to its reliance on overseas rice sources. Other sources include vanillin from cloves, wood pulp, and conifers, which may or may not be considered natural depending on processing methods and regional regulations. Additionally, vanillin produced by genetically engineered baker’s yeast via precision fermentation is considered natural in some jurisdictions but not in others.

Spero Renewables, founded by UCSB chemistry professor Dr. Mahdi Abu-Omar, has developed a method to convert ferulic acid from corn bran into vanillin through bioconversion. Unlike other methods that purify ferulic acid first, Spero’s technology allows for the direct conversion of a low-purity corn fiber extract into vanillin. This streamlined process could open up a new, cost-effective source of natural vanillin.

Dr. Abu-Omar explains, “We take corn fiber, a byproduct from corn milling plants usually used as low-value cattle feed, and rather than separating and purifying the ferulic acid, we use non-GMO microbes to convert the ferulic acid in the extract to vanillin, which we then purify.” This approach eliminates the need for expensive purification steps, giving Spero a significant advantage over competitors who rely on purifying ferulic acid from rice bran.

Spero’s vanillin meets both US and European regulations for natural flavors, allowing it to be labeled as such on ingredient lists. The company emphasizes the stability and predictability of corn as a raw material, which is cultivated extensively across the US. “Stable corn crops and abundant supply assure that Spero’s natural vanillin will maintain its consistent high quality and competitive pricing, on par with or even lower than that of rice-bran derived vanillin, and less than a third the cost of vanilla bean vanillin,” says Abu-Omar.

The company is currently collaborating with a corn milling plant in the Midwest to demonstrate its technology at a pilot scale. Having already produced hundreds of grams of pure vanillin for market sampling, Spero is now aiming to scale up production. The startup is in the process of raising $2 million to run a pilot for three to four months, which will enable it to produce tens of pounds of vanillin and distribute more samples to potential customers. On a commercial scale, Spero anticipates that integrating its technology into a corn mill will require around $25 million in funding, but the resulting product and revenue are expected to exceed this investment significantly.

Spero is also in discussions with several flavor and fragrance companies, as well as B2B ingredient warehouses, to market its vanillin. “We’re a technology company, not a sales and marketing company,” notes Abu-Omar, underscoring the importance of these partnerships.

The market for natural vanillin is growing, with many companies willing to pay a premium to avoid artificial flavor labels, though the high cost and limited supply of vanilla beans and extracts remain a challenge. While Spero’s vanillin may not match the price of synthetic vanillin, it offers a competitive alternative to existing natural sources, potentially reshaping the vanilla flavor industry.

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