The importance of a healthy gut – for mental as well as physical health – is becoming increasingly clear. A new product developed by an Australian biotech start-up offers potential relief to millions of people afflicted by digestive problems.
Long overlooked, the human gut – particularly the microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit our digestive systems – has become a major focus of dietary health in recent years. As scientists unlock ever more insights into the key role of a well-balanced microbiome, products targeting the gut have flooded the supplements market.
One Australian start-up has gone a step further, harnessing a natural substance – the protective waxy coating (vernix caseosa) found on the skin of newborn babies – to create a novel food supplement that boosts not only the microbiome’s ‘friendly’ bacteria but also the human bacterial cells crucial for good gut health.
The world-first ‘peribiotic’ product (‘peri’ means all-encompassing) was developed by Melbourne-based Vernx, co-founded by CEO Craig Patch, a former first-grade rugby league footballer turned scientist. Patch is passionate about gut health, noting that, as well as supporting the body’s immune system and metabolism, it is linked to mental and cognitive health.
Up to half of Australian adults are thought to suffer from digestive problems, including bloating, stomach aches, constipation, diarrhoea and irritable bowel syndrome. Many go undiagnosed and, says Patch, “it’s not a happy place to be – a lot of your day is consumed by how you’re feeling.”
Feedback from consumer trials of his product, and from users, suggests that in up to half of people, it can alleviate some symptoms.
“I’m a scientist and so I’m really cautious about anecdotes,” says Patch. “But I’ve had people calling me and saying, ‘Craig, this has transformed my life. Not only can I now go out and about, I can travel overseas.’ And they also say they’re not so anxious anymore.”
The critical ingredient in the product, a tasteless powder that can be added to food, is a fatty acid found in the vernix. These ‘branched fats’ support good gut bacteria, similarly to a prebiotic. Furthermore, they help to repair damage to the gut cells – caused by disease or antibiotic use, for instance – that line the digestive system.
Shortly before birth, babies actually ingest fats from the vernix. Premature babies, deprived of that first meal, are at higher risk of gut infections after birth.
Pivoting a business model during the pandemic
Patch’s interest in gut health evolved following his rugby league career in the 1990s when he played for the NSW teams the Balmain Tigers and the (then) Illawarra Steelers. He was keenly interested in how nutrition could maximise sporting performance. Post-football, this became a scientific focus on the role of fatty acids in infant and gut health.
Vernx was inspired by Patch’s eight years as chief innovation officer at the omega-3 oils processing company Clover Corporation. His aim was to grow bacteria and extract a particular fatty acid to add to infant formula for improved gut health.
Animal and human trials were planned, but then the pandemic struck, throwing the feasibility of trials into doubt. A re-think was required.
Critical advice and support
Not long before the pandemic began Vernx had been awarded a $596,445 Accelerating Commercialisation grant by the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. Successful companies receive guidance from a Commercialisation Facilitator with i4 Connect, the delivery partner for the Accelerating Commercialisation service.
Commercialisation Facilitator Kerstin Holata and her predecessor, Stephen Goodall, supported Vernx through the proposal development phase, helping to develop the company’s business case and advising on pre-clinical steps, such as the active ingredient discovery.
Then, amid the pandemic, they provided vital guidance when Patch suggested dropping the baby milk idea, with all its regulatory hurdles, and instead creating a supplement containing the same bacterial strain (which was already approved as a food-grade ingredient).
The iterative, collaborative discussions with Goodall and Holata helped Vernx to shift direction and to design a new trial protocol – an online trial and survey of 350 people who sampled the peribiotic powder.
Patch says the pair were invaluable through the entire process. “It was like having a free adviser to bounce ideas off and get help with orientating your research and development. Their support was A1. It was ten out of ten.”
The product is now on the market, with robust sales in Australia and New Zealand, a recent, successful launch in the US, and plans to expand into Singapore and the UK.
Future prospects are huge
Re-investing the revenue from the peribiotic powder, Vernx is now pursuing its original infant formula idea, and is also developing a medical nutrition product for necrotising enterocolitis – a serious gastrointestinal problem mostly affecting premature babies.
The company aims to penetrate the pharmaceutical market, addressing a range of gastrointestinal disorders. It is also exploring the mental health impacts of digestive problems. The link between the gut and the brain is well established, and mounting evidence links poor gut health to mood disorders and depression.
Kerstin Holata says Vernx has “massive” future potential. Of the peribiotic, she says: “You’ve got world-class scientists and evidence-based research behind a really powerful nutraceutical product.”
“The importance of the microbiome in health has been generally recognised,” she adds. “As this emerging field develops, and we gain further clinical insights into the impact of specific nutraceuticals and treatments, the impact of products that support a ‘healthy’ gut microbiome are potentially very large.”
The facilitators, Holata says, helped Vernx to “pivot their strategy to a step-wise approach by first addressing the nutraceutical consumer market, while continuing the development of a clinically validated product”.
Having worked in big pharma and biotech discovery labs, as well as starting her own company, Holata understands the challenges that founders face. “I’ve got a really broad overview of the space and I’m able to connect people from many different sectors,” she says.
Vernx was a good fit for Accelerating Commercialisation, she believes, because “they had strong IP to protect their long-term position in the market, they had patent protection, and they were leaders in that field of research”.
From pitch deck to product
Initially, Vernx had some seed investment, some proof of concept on its active ingredient, and a plan. Three years on, it is in talks with two multinational ingredient companies about its peribiotic powder and about raising new capital.
“The grant helped us with everything from isolating the strain of bacteria that we wanted to use, optimising that, validating that, then running the trials. It took us from a pitch deck to a product,” Patch says.
“But the people who came along with the grant were equally important. There’s no doubt in my mind that we couldn’t have done this without them.”