A step towards going palm less

Palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil globally, but the process to produce it is not an environmentally friendly one. New York based C16 Biosciences has developed a way to produce an alternative from yeast.

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Clinical testing done by C16 Biosciences has demonstrated torula oil's power to boost UVB and UVA protection in sunscreen formulations.

In 2013, when Shara Ticku was on a business trip to Singapore she noticed a thick haze in the air. She soon learned that this haze and air pollution came directly from the slashing and burning of rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia to clear the land for palm oil plantations. “I found this absolutely horrifying,” says Ticku. A few years later while getting her MBA from Harvard Business School, her cofounder, Harry McNamara, shared a similar experience witnessing palm oil's destruction of natural land, but in Costa Rica.

As the two shared their experiences, they quickly learned that palm oil is the most popular vegetable oil in the world. As demand for palm oil has exploded, producers have turned to slash and burn tactics, burning the trees and peatland of the tropical forests and destroying the homes and livelihood of thousands of animal species that live there. “We saw a massive opportunity, so we built an alternative that worked and scaled,” says Shara Ticku, CEO and co-founder, C16 Biosciences.

"We grow the yeast leveraging the ages-old technology of 
fermentation, which is already commonly used to produce food, 
beauty ingredients and medicines today. We've nailed that and 
are now producing oil at commercial scale," says Shara Ticku. 

Palm oil is ubiquitous and it’s highly likely that everyone has interacted with palm oil already in some form or the other. As an ingredient, it’s nearly impossible to avoid as it is most likely found in about 50 per cent of products on supermarket shelves, in everything from soaps and shampoos to lipstick and laundry detergent. It’s also used in an incredible number of food products – everything from Nutella to pastries to french fries. Palm oil is so popular because of its unique properties that drive critical performance – the spread-ability of a nut butter, the “melts in your mouth, not in your hands” component of chocolate, and the shelf stability of cookies and baked goods.

Ticku and her two co-founders, David Heller and Harry McNamara, came together over their interest in solving the palm oil problem. With about $1,000 from MIT to get started, they started playing around in the laboratory. Pretty quickly they found a solution they thought could be viable and got hooked on solving this problem. “When we got started, we understood that palm oil the product was highly valuable but that the process for producing it was broken. We set out to produce an oil that looks and functions just like palm oil, but to reinvent the way it’s produced. While today the oil comes from a plant, the oil palm, we’ve developed a way to produce the oil from yeast,” says Ticku. 

Historically, natural ingredients come from either animals or plants, both of which have been linked to highly extractive practices. Palmless™ leverages the fungal kingdom. The company works with naturally occurring yeast and grows it using the fermentation method, a method that has been used for centuries to make food (kimchi and beer), as well as beauty actives (hyaluronic acid), medicine (insulin), and more. The trio have spent the last five years understanding the genetics of yeast and experimenting with ways to optimize its growth and production. “We grow the yeast leveraging the ages-old technology of fermentation, which is already commonly used to produce food, beauty ingredients, and medicines today. We’ve nailed that and now we are producing oil at commercial scale,” says Ticku.

The company has taken the best of fermentation and found ways to improve it, resulting in ingredients that are more sustainable.  According to Ticku, C16 Biosciences has recently launched the Palmless™ platform for sustainable ingredients. The company is commercializing its first line of products for consumer goods - torula oil, a rich, nourishing biodesigned emollient. Clinical testing done by the company has demonstrated torula oil’s power to boost both UVB and UVA protection in sunscreen formulations.  “We also sell a refined version of Torula oil that is colorless but retains the lush, velvety textural properties customers love. We are working on an exciting pipeline, expanding the Palmless™ platform into other applications where demand for palm-free solutions is currently unmet,” says Ticku. With the current thrust towards clean beauty, C16 Bio's new invention seems promising.

The company’s initial funding came via awards from Harvard and MIT and “without them, we might never have gotten started,” says Ticku. To date the company has raised $36 million in equity funding from a global set of investors. It has also raised funding through grants and received an award of $50,000 from Beauty & You Awards held by Nykaa - Estee Lauder Co,'s New Incubation Ventures.

According to Ticku, today C16 Biosciences is working with mid-sized, disruptive beauty and personal care brands to larger-scale consumer packaged goods companies who are developing formulations featuring Palmless™ Torula oil. Beyond beauty and personal care, Palmless™ has tremendous appeal in the food industry, where palm and palm-derived ingredients are a pain point for manufacturers. “The Palmless™ pitch resonates with formulators/cosmetic chemists/contract manufacturers as well as brand and business leaders – we see both types of customers easily grasping the functional and emotional benefits of formulating with Palmless™ Torula oil,” she says. According to Ticku, most large consumer goods manufacturers, and even more of the innovative indie brands, have sustainability commitments around deforestation and cleaning up their supply chains. “These companies all need alternatives, but historically they had no viable alternative. What gives me hope around this problem is the clear commitment to do better,” she says.

In fact, new regulation out of the European Union, such as The EU Deforestation Regulation, is putting increased pressure on brands to clean up their supply chains, especially around palm oil, and ensure their products can demonstrate and trace that they are 100 per cent deforestation-free. As companies work hard at their sustainability commitments, it would be interesting to see how the alternatives work out.