Using Biotechnology Innovations, Senomyx Makes New Taste Sensations

6/1/09Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego-based Senomyx is using some innovations from the biotech industry to develop novel flavor ingredients to enhance tastes, enable food makers to reduce their costs, and improve the “nutritional profile” of food and beverages. At least that’s the way CEO Kent Snyder described it when I met with him recently.

Snyder emphasized that Senomyx (NASDAQ: SNMX), which was founded in 1999 and went public in a 2004 IPO, does not do any bioengineering of food or food products.

Rather, the company specializes in discovering and optimizing molecules that interact with taste receptors in the tongue. Senomyx uses biochemistry to detail the molecular structure of a receptor, and uses robotic assaying techniques to screen hundreds of thousands of compounds, looking for ones that interact with each receptor. The compounds that are screened come from various sources and are a mixture of natural extracts and synthetisized molecules, according to spokeswoman Gwen Rosenberg. In this way, the company identifies molecules that intensify specific flavors, such as sweet or salty, or block unpleasant flavors. At the end of March, Senomyx said it holds 157 patents on technologies that encompass the company’s work, including its assay techniques and flavor compounds, with another 390 patent applications pending in the United States and elsewhere.

Kent Snyder

Kent Snyder

Senomyx has formed collaborative partnerships with seven major food companies, and works closely with its corporate partners to develop its flavor enhancers. Once Senomyx has developed a particular flavor ingredient and shepherded it through approval for human consumption by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, the corporate partner manufactures the additive for the food industry. Senomyx does not do any manufacturing, and about 75 percent of the company’s 124 employees are in research and development. “All the marketing is taken care of by our collaborators,” Snyder explained.

In the first quarter that ended March 31, Senomyx posted a net loss of $7.4 million on $3.5 million in revenue. In financial guidance for the full year, Senomyx says it expects to report a loss of $24 million to $27 million on total revenue of $18 million to $22 million in 2009. The company ended the first quarter with $33 million in available cash and no debt.

Earlier this year, Senomyx initiated work on two compounds that help block the bitter receptor, so as to make drugs more palatable, especially for children. “Children’s cough and cold preparations tend to be bitter,” Snyder says, and drug makers typically add syrup to mask the bitterness. “But if you can block the bitter taste, you wouldn’t have to add all that sugar.”

A similar concept applies to the company’s efforts to identify compounds that intensify flavors, especially sweet and salty flavors. By devising a molecule that intensifies the taste of sugar, for example, Senomyx says it can help food companies use less sugar to make cookies and soft drinks—without sacrificing flavor. Likewise, a molecule that enhances … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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