How Ayana Bio will use science and technology to make more nutritious ingredients

The food world is just mad about saffron.

Created from the dried stamens of a high-maintenance crocus flower, saffron is treasured for the vibrant yellow color and delicate flavor and aroma it brings to food. Saffron crocus threads are meticulously hand-harvested, dried and packaged, and then sold for prices up to around $50 per ounce.

But, Frank Jaksch points out, there are significant health and wellness benefits to consuming saffron as well. However, extracting them and making them available on a commercial scale is difficult.

“How are you supposed to take a incredibly high-value botanical like that and translate it into something that is a health and wellness solution to be used as an ingredient of those types of products?” he asked. “The answer is it’s impossible.”

Jaksch, who co-founded botanical-based supplement company ChromaDex in 1999, is ready to make it possible. He’s just been named the first CEO of Ayana Bio, a company spun off of Ginkgo Bioworks last year. Ayana Bio, which has been operating under the radar since its September 2021 creation, will use plant cell culturing techniques to produce biological components from ingredients like saffron, ginger, blueberries and cacao for use as food ingredients and supplements, and in nutritional beverages. 

Jaksch said he co-founded ChromaDex to apply chemistry to the natural products space and become a provider of ingredients for food and supplements. ChromaDex perfected the creation of a form of vitamin B3 that has anti-aging properties, known by the brand name Niagen, and focused on producing it as a supplement.

Headshot of Ayana Bio CEO Frank Jaksch

Frank Jaksch

Permission granted by Ayana Bio


But, Jaksch said, with Ayana Bio he wants to get back to his roots: using science and technology to develop novel ingredients from the plant kingdom in a way that they are most impactful to human health, and make them readily available for use in consumer products. By taking the helm of Ayana Bio, Jaksch said, he has the unique opportunity to do that.

“The plant cell technology platform that Ayana Bio has is, to me, a game changer in being able to bring novel ingredients — and basically sustainable ingredients — to the market,” he said.

Growing nutrition in a bioreactor

Ginkgo Bioworks, the publicly traded cell-programming biotech giant, announced the spinoff and funding of Ayana Bio last September. Ayana was started with the intention of using Ginkgo’s well-known cell programing technology and infrastructure “to bring to market high purity, clean and reliable medicinal bioactives in convenient forms.” Its creation was funded by a $30 million Series A round from Viking Global Investors and Cascade Investment.

The best way to take advantage of these bioactives, creating them at large scale in a consistent way, is through plant cell culture, Jaksch said. This is a method that grows individual plant cells in a bioreactor. Although these cells are grown using technology, they are identical to ones found in nature, according to the company. Ayana Bio plans to utilize the cells on their own, not combine them or use them to engineer plants or plant-based products outside of their natural habitats.

While plant cell culture has been researched for years, few companies have advanced R&D to take advantage of it. Many are using precision fermentation to produce single compounds that work well in food products, but Jaksch said that approach doesn’t do enough to create the types of nutritional compounds in plants.

“Plant cells don’t have to be engineered to produce these compounds because the plant cells were designed by nature to produce not only one compound, but multiple compounds,” he said.

“The plant cell technology platform that Ayana Bio has is, to me, a game changer in being able to bring novel ingredients — and basically sustainable ingredients — to the market.”

Frank Jaksch

CEO, Ayana Bio

Using cell cuture, Ayana Bio can harness that power of plant cells and focus on perfecting production of those compounds. Some of these compounds are difficult to obtain today. Price can be an issue. Sometimes, taking a wild plant and transitioning it to mass cultivation makes its nutrient levels shift, Jaksch said.