Biotech start-up targets billion-dollar market by producing superior cannabinoids in yeast

Thursday 20 Jun 19
by Anders Mønsted, Anne Lykke

The young biotech start-up Octarine Bio seeks to commercialize the production of brand-new tailored cannabinoids in yeast. Around one thousand new molecules have already been identified, but the company will focus on those with the highest commercial potential.

Octarine Bio works on engineering yeast to produce molecules that are better than those found in nature. The young biotech start-up founded by researchers from The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain) and University of Copenhagen focuses primarily on cannabinoids and have already established a yeast production platform that produces some of the cannabinoids that are naturally found in the cannabis plant.

While the active components of cannabis have received huge interest during the last years, most attention has been given to the two molecules THC and CBD and the market is primarily based on these because they are the most abundantly produced. These molecules have proven successful in various studies in treating the symptoms of epilepsy, chronic pain and muscle spasticity.

"These molecules (THC & CBD) are not taken up by the body very well and are only available in very small quantities in the plant "
Nicholas Milne, Postdoc at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability

However, while many seem to agree that THC and CBD have therapeutic effects they present significant challenges as well.

“These molecules are not taken up by the body very well and are only available in very small quantities in the plant. What Octarine Bio does is engineer yeast to produce superior variants of these molecules with improved pharmacokinetic properties, resulting in a better pharmaceutical drug,“ says Co-founder of Octarine Bio and Postdoc at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain), Nicholas Milne.

Taking different approach than the big firms

Large well-funded companies such as Amyris and Gingko already work to produce the cannabinoids that are naturally found in the cannabis plant by transferring the genes found in the plant to yeast.

Octarine Bio’s point of difference is their ability to biosynthesize superior cannabinoids that are not found in the cannabis plant and are too difficult to produce by chemical synthesis. The company aims to elucidate biosynthetic pathways to pharmacologically interesting cannabinoids and engineer their production in yeast, thereby hijacking this organism’s inherent ability to cost-effectively produce molecules in high-scale fermentation.

“We have identified around one thousand new molecules that we can make, but we need to narrow that down and focus on making those molecules that will make the biggest difference for the pharmaceutical companies and has the best commercial potential, “says Nicholas Milne.

BioInnovation Institute is the first step

In order to transform science into business, Octarine Bio has entered into the BioInnovation Institute’s Business Acceleration Academy-program (BAA-program). As a part of the program, they receive economic support and professional teaching and mentoring on how to establish a business model for the company and how to make the company’s products and ideas attractive for potential collaborators and investors.

By joining this program at the BioInnovation Institute they hope to learn more about the business side of a start-up.

“Currently we have a good idea, a little bit of IP and some technology, but we are really at the stage of writing a business plan and figuring out whether this is something that people are interested in. This program gives us an opportunity of shaping the company in a direction where it gains commercial interest, “ says Nicholas Milne.

While Octarine Bio is still in an early phase they are potentially in the middle of entering into a market that is estimated to be 50 billion US dollars in 2030.

About Octarine Bio

  • Octarine Bio was founded in 2018 by Nethaji Gallage and Nicholas Milne to commercialize plant-derived ingredients and the company’s portfolio contains IP protected platforms for several high-value molecules.


  • The company focuses primarily on cannabinoids as these have the highest investment and commercial potential.


  • Nicholas Milne is a Yeast Metabolic Engineer and Fermentation Scientist with expertise engineering yeast to produce a range of valuable molecules. After completing his PhD, he worked for several years in industry at Evolva, and is currently a Postdoc at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability (DTU Biosustain).


  • Nethaji Gallage is a Plant Biochemist with expertise in elucidating plant biosynthetic pathways for high value molecules. She has spent the last 4 years as a Postdoc and Group Leader at The Center for Synthetic Biology at University of Copenhagen.

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