Food for thought How biotech Chromocell impacts the flavor of your meals

Joshua Burd//July 13, 2015

Food for thought How biotech Chromocell impacts the flavor of your meals

Joshua Burd//July 13, 2015

When Christian Kopfli helped start Chromocell Corp. in 2002, it was similar to many other biotech startups in the state: It was a small lab focusing on research. In this case, on the use of receptor cells in the human body for therapeutics and pain relief.

Then the food and beverage industry came calling, and the North Brunswick-based company found a new identity.

It turns out that Chromocell’s technology — meant to find new ways to block pain receptors, among other solutions — also could be used to discover new flavor enhancers and other compounds, ones that could block bitterness or increase the perception of sweetness or saltiness in food.

“At first we were a little bit skeptical, but the scientific team said, ‘No, this is a really interesting area,’” Kopfli said. “And we also felt that if you’re really able to reduce sugar consumption by a high degree, the impact on public health that you have is actually very, very big.”

Opening that door has helped propel Chromocell’s growth over the past decade.

The company, thanks in part to partnerships with food giants such as Kraft Foods, Nestle and Coca-Cola, now does multimillions in revenue (it would not reveal a specific amount) while it has grown from just three employees to about 120 today.

Kopfli, the CEO, also is proud that the company has not lost sight of its original mission in the pharmaceutical space. In fact, its growth comes as Chromocell looks ahead to clinical trials for a new pain medication — the company plans on filing an Investigational New Drug Application with the FDA as soon as this year.

“One of the challenges we had in our corporate development — and it’s a nice challenge, in a way — (is that) the flavor development took so much of our time and attention and resources, that it distracted us a little bit … from developing the therapeutics business,” Kopfli said. “But we never made a fundamental change and said, ‘Let’s just now do flavors because it’s good business.’ We always said, ‘No, you should use this technology for both.’”

The technology that holds those two core businesses together is known as Chromovert. Meant to streamline the process of biological research and drug discovery, Chromovert allows the firm to sift through vast amounts of cells and analyze how they react to certain molecules.

That process was the brainchild of two professors at Rockefeller University in New York, Kambiz Shekdar and Gunter Blobel. Soon after the discovery, they went on to co-found Chromocell along with Kopfli, a mergers and acquisitions attorney who had worked in the biotech sector.

Unable to find the right space in New York City, Chromocell ended up in incubator in 2002 space at the Economic Development Authority’s Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies in North Brunswick. Its growth led it to move in 2009 to a larger building on the campus.

While bringing a drug to clinical trials will be a major milestone for its therapeutics unit, Chromocell reached a critical moment on the flavor side as soon as 2005. That was when it forged its partnership with Kraft, Kopfli said, seeking ways to reduce sodium content while preserving the taste in its foods.

That marked “the very first time a large, very reputable company partnered with us.”

“And we’re very proud of that because, in the flavor enhancement space, it’s fierce competition,” Kopfli said. “Flavor houses are out there, other biotechs are out there, and being selected by them was a big deal for us.”

As the firm developed partnerships with Coca-Cola and Nestle over the next several years, Kopfli said there was never any real temptation to abandon its plans on the pharmaceutical side, despite its success in flavor enhancement. For one thing, the infrastructure used to help build the flavor business could also be used for its drug research.

“Sometimes people suggested it because it was very successful, but really the leadership never developed an appetite just to focus (on flavors),” he said. “You always think … that if both businesses will further develop, further grow, maybe at some time you might make two companies.

“But I’m a big fan of keeping things simple. Right now, the team works integrated, we’re using the same infrastructure, so it’s a very efficient way to do research.”

It doesn’t hurt that Chromocell has had a positive experience in New Jersey. Kopfli called it “a fantastic” place” to do business, pointing to the size of the economy and the presence of both heavyweight corporations in both the pharmaceutical and food and beverage sectors.

“All the positive elements that Jersey has to offer are, in my view, totally undervalued,” he said.

That’s not to mention Rutgers, which is a research partner with Chromocell.

“If I’m looking at the company — what it was and what it has become — the team is just what kept this company together,” Kopfli said. “And that again shows how great New Jersey is to start a business.”

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The biz in brief

Company: Chromocell Corp.
Headquarters: North Brunswick
Founders: Kambiz Shekdar, Gunter Blobel and Christian Kopfli
Employees: About 120
One more thing: Chromocell’s work with Coca-Cola includes research to cut the amount of sugar needed to offset the taste of stevia, a sweetener, in its diet versions by at least 90 percent, without losing any of the authentic sugary taste. Kopfli told Bloomberg Business in March that Chromocell is about one-third of the way there, but it could take another five years to reach the 90 percent mark.