GOLDEN EGGS

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Related tags: Dsm, Dsm nutritional products, Nutrition, European food safety authority

Regulatory woes notwithstanding, there’s never a dull day working in R&D at the world’s leading supplier of vitamins, carotenoids, and other biochemicals, discovers Elaine Watson 


So what's the sexiest ingredient in DSM's product portfolio? Probably not what you think it is, says Manfred Eggersdorfer, the man at the helm of research and development (R&D) at DSM Nutritional Products (NP).

Indeed, while DSM NP has built a reputation for developing novel health ingredients, some of its most exciting research is into gaining a better understanding of the health benefits of more familiar ingredients and exploring new technologies to improve their bioavailability or produce them more efficiently.

"Take vitamins," says Eggersdorfer. "They have been around for years, but we are still gaining new insights into what they do and how to produce them in a more cost-efficient or sustainable way through new catalysts or advances in fermentation."

European readers will note that vitamins are also a safer bet for customers looking to boost the nutritional profile of their products than many other 'functional' ingredients, the vast majority of which have failed to secure health claims under tough new EU legislation.

That said, Eggersdorfer remains upbeat about the prospects for three particular ingredients in DSM's stable: resveratrol a free-radical-busting antioxidant with cardiovascular health benefits (a number of human studies are due to report back this year); hunger-busting palm and oat oil emulsion Fabuless (which will be the subject of further human trials); and the isoflavone genistein (which is claimed to tackle hot flushes and maintain bone mineral density).

Resveratrol in particular has a potentially "very broad profile of activity" in areas from healthy ageing to endothelial function and blood flow to skin health, he claims. Dossiers are now being prepared for applications in the EU under article 13.5 of the EU health claims Regulation.

But in the light of the depressing success rate of applicants to date, how confident is he that DSM will get some regulatory bang for its R&D buck for such ingredients? Eggersdorfer is sanguine. "EFSA [the European Food Safety Authority] is asking a lot but, in most cases, what it is asking is in line with what we are doing anyway in terms of the science." However, he acknowledges that the strict nature of this Regulation and the uncertainty over the timetable has held the market back. "I think there has been a lot of noise [about functional ingredients] over the last couple of years, but when you start asking where the successful products that are supported by science are, there are not so many."

Getting a return on the investment required to substantiate health claims is an continuing challenge, he adds. Food manufacturers do not make the same margins as drugs companies and once they realise the costs involved in proving that new wonder ingredients do what they say on the tin, they can be "quite shocked. They can only afford so many cents in a product as a premium and that's a major challenge."

Another continuing challenge for DSM NP which was created in 2003 after DSM acquired Roche Vitamins is how to compete with China, which has achieved dominance in the global additives and ingredients market with astonishing speed. But it has also attracted controversy, says Eggersdorfer, who points out that many Chinese manufacturers were able to undercut western counterparts thanks to hefty government subsidies, lower labour costs and inferior quality, traceability, safety and environmental standards.

But a series of high-profile food scares culminating in the melamine scandal in 2008 has changed attitudes, with some buyers now suspecting that putting all their eggs in one (Chinese) basket may have been a mistake, says Eggersdorfer. "It was a big wake-up call to a number of European countries. It made people realise that it does matter where you buy your ingredients from. " That said, DSM has also been very proactive in its engagement with China, and has been well ahead of the curve in setting up R&D as well as manufacturing facilities there.

While it does not yet conduct much fundamental research in China, this could change as its Chinese business puts down more roots. "There are huge numbers of students graduating from Chinese universities every year and I have been really impressed by what I have seen. While we might have had a headstart, they now have the same access to information as we do, the same equipment and the same standards. The guy running our Chinese unit is Chinese but also has experience in the US and Europe. We also have an intense exchange programme."

So how does he allocate R&D resources? "We reassess our portfolio monthly, and at least 1015% of the money must be dedicated to competence development and assessment of new technologies. At least 3040% of projects must also have a breakthrough character that is, be genuinely novel in terms of the process or the product." And while DSM pumps the best part of euro 400M a year into research and funds more than 2,000 scientists, a business case must be demonstrated.

The pressure to innovate faster has also accelerated open innovation. The only way to compete is to invest in smaller companies with exciting intellectual property "we are looking to expand and complement our portfolio through acquisitions" and to collaborate at every level. "We are one of the pioneers in developing tools and processes to facilitate open innovation." While DSM has always worked with third parties, it is now doing this on an unprecedented scale, he says. "But if it's going to work, you have to have buy-in at the highest level. In the case of one company we are collaborating with, the chief executives of both businesses talk directly."

But DSM is also working with universities on cutting-edge research into vitamin D and its role not just in calcium uptake, but also in strengthening the immune system, muscle growth, and cancer risk reduction, he says. "We are part of two very large trials looking at this along with some big food companies."

DSM is also keen to foster young talent through schemes such as its annual science awards. A good example is Alexandra Teleki, who won an award last year for her work on iron nanoparticles, which could make iron more bioavailable, he says.

"We have offered her a job so she can bring her expertise in encapsulation technology to other areas of our portfolio." FIHN

NEVER A DULL DAY

There is no such a thing as a typical day, but Eggersdorfer typically spends one week a month with the top brass in DSM Nutritional Products (NP) exploring opportunities and working on innovation projects. Another week is dedicated to external contacts: universities, customers and collaborative partners. The final two weeks are spent with his management team and colleagues in DSM Food Specialties. Both businesses have defined roles, but collaborate closely, he says. "I need their expertise and vice versa. In most work related to human nutrition there are joint projects."

He also has regular meetings with DSM Venturing: a venture fund set up by DSM to invest in start-ups in life sciences and materials science.

Eggersdorfer has impressive academic credentials: he studied chemistry at the Technical University in Munich, followed by post-doctoral work at Stanford University, in which he took part in cutting-edge research into using sterols from marine organisms. However, there is something special about seeing things you've worked on hit the market, says Eggersdorfer, who rose rapidly up the ranks at BASF's R&D function before being wooed by Roche Vitamins to head up R&D. After Roche was swallowed up by DSM in 2003, Eggersdorfer was propelled to the helm of the R&D function at the newly created DSM NP.

While the job is challenging, it is also rewarding, he says: "Techniques such as gene chips and arrays [which can be used to analyse the expression of thousands of genes simultaneously], have started to transform our understanding of the way food interacts with the genome, while nanotechnology is also enabling breakthroughs in terms of bioavailability. What I love is that, even with vitamins, there are still insights to be gained. I've worked in R&D all of my life and I'm still as enthusiastic about it. It inspires me because it never stands still."

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