Using precision fermentation, Ardra Inc. aims to replace natural flavour ingredients with more sustainable alternatives.

Natural ingredients may seem better for the planet, but that’s not always the case.  

Consider rose oil. It takes thousands of kilograms of rose petals to extract a single kilogram of the popular fragrance ingredient.  

“If a multinational cosmetics or consumer goods company said tomorrow, ‘We’re not going to use any artificial rose oil,’ we couldn’t grow enough roses in the world to supply such a big company,” says Pratish Gawand, who graduated from the University of Toronto with a PhD in chemical engineering in 2014.  

Gawand’s startup, Ardra Inc., aims to replace natural flavour ingredients in food with more sustainable alternatives manufactured using precision fermentation. Think of the fermenting tanks in a brewery, but instead of yeast, Ardra’s technology involves microbes that are genetically engineered to produce high-value compounds rather than ethanol.  

Following fermentation, the ingredients must be purified to the high standards of “flavour houses,” flavourists that formulate the flavours of food products. 

“Humans are much more sensitive to detecting odours than even gas chromatography instruments,” says Gawand, who is Ardra’s chief executive. “We have to meet those kinds of standards, and we have done it.”  

Typically produced in small quantities from plants and animals, most natural ingredients end up being shipped long distances to the companies that use them, which comes with a cost to the climate. Ardra’s process, on the other hand, would provide manufacturers with a local and more sustainable source of necessary ingredients.  

“This addresses major challenges in the food industry – mainly around sustainability and supply,” Gawand says. 

Ardra’s list of products includes heme, the iron-carrying molecule that turns blood red and gives meats their distinctive taste. Fermented heme can be used not only to enhance the taste of plant-based meats but also to give it other meat-like qualities. For example, Gawand says heme is thought to be among the reasons that meat chars on a grill. ​​ 

Ardra can also ferment leaf-aldehyde, which replicates a variety of flavours including green apple, berry and citrus. And it makes​ natural​ ​petroleum-free ​butylene glycol, a versatile moisturizing agent often used in shampoos, lotions and cosmetics that is​ otherwise​ largely petroleum-based. 

Gawand co-founded Ardra in 2016 with his U of T PhD supervisor Radhakrishnan Mahadevan, a professor of chemical engineering and applied chemistry in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering and Canada Research Chair in Metabolic Systems Engineering. “U of T was our very first investor,” Gawand says, adding that Ardra received its first investment from the university’s UTEST (University of Toronto Early Stage Technology) program.  

“The university helped us put the company together, put the patent together and it wrote us our very first cheque.”  

Ardra began its journey with butylene glycol technology.  

“​​Krishna [Mahadevan] and I were inventors on that patent, along with Associate Professor Alexander Yakunin and PhD student Kayla Nemr. We assigned the patent to the university and licensed it out,” Gawand says.  

Mahadevan, for his part, says his prior experience working with startups, including Geno – a San Diego, Calif.-based company that currently makes a more sustainable version of nylon, among other products – made him keen to explore the commercial potential of his group’s research.  

He says Gawand had the passion and drive necessary to translate bench research into a viable business.  

“He had a tough work ethic and would go to great lengths to achieve his research goals,” Mahadevan recalls. 

He adds that Gawand’s commitment to sustainability also made a strong impression, recalling an essay that his former student wrote and shared with the lab describing the urbanization of the landscape near his hometown in India. (Gawand, an avid birdwatcher in his youth, lamented that new construction near his home drove out the egrets, cormorants and other birds that he remembered seeing on his walks to and from school.) 

Ardra has come a long way since it was founded less than decade ago. It has raised more than $4 million in funding and has strategic partnerships with a U.S.-based flavour house and a European company.  

Gawand says he hopes Ardra’s success will pave the way for other Canadian companies in the bio-manufacturing sector.     

“I want to put the wheels in motion for Canadian bio-manufacturing and precision fermentation,” he says. “From Ardra’s success, I want to get Canada started on bio-industrial innovations.”