Since leaving Mercer County, Nick Ouzounov, along with his colleague Alex Lorestani, has found himself on the forefront of biotechnology.
Together, they created Geltor, a synthetic biology start-up that produces collagen without animal products for uses such as skincare products and vegan gelatin. The science and business worlds have taken notice of their advancements.
Ouzounov started on this path from an early age. His family moved to Lawrenceville from his birth country of Bulgaria in the mid-1990s, when he was in third grade, before moving to Buffalo, New York, and then settling in Robbinsville in 1999. Since Robbinsville did not have its own high school then, Ouzounov attended Lawrence High School, and graduated in 2005. He went on to study molecular biology and biochemistry as an undergraduate at Rutgers University before gaining admission into Princeton University’s molecular biology graduate program. At Princeton, he studied how microbes establish and maintain cell space.
Throughout his childhood, Ouzounov developed a love for science, specifically biology, and the opportunities for entrepreneurship. His parents were both scientists, which gave him exposure to medical research as well as companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
“I’ve always liked programming and coding, and I started looking at working with DNA in molecular biology as something similar to working with software,” he said. “I started noticing a lot of opportunities in that space that I thought were fascinating.”
During this time, he designed his own biology lab in the basement, which got him interested in the do-it-yourself biology field. These humble beginnings also made him aware of the possibility for funding and lab space to develop an idea from scratch into a product or company.
This experience became useful when Lorestani and he began critiquing the current applications of biological products.
“We saw a lot of technologies that have been implemented in the production of medicine, and we saw an opportunity for that to be applied to consumer products, partially because of the decreasing cost due to new technological advancements,” Ouzounov said.
The roots of Geltor started off at a table inside Princeton’s Small World Coffee, where Ouzounov and Lorestani sat around a table writing calculations on a paper about how to make actual protein using microbes. Their first and main target was creating collagen, the most abundant protein in a human body and a major component of connective tissue. Collagen is also the substance that makes up gelatin, which is used as a core ingredient in countless products. Being able to synthetically produce gelatin, a substance that was previously animal product, would be a huge scientific breakthrough.
‘The technologies we’re developing can improve biology, technology on the consumer level.’
The idea is so revolutionary because products like gelatin and collagen are by their nature animal-based. The pair wished to not only make a vegan version of these products, but improve upon the quality of gelatin and collagen found in nature.
“There’s a lot of impact you can have by making better products, but they’re also better for the environment and humans because of the quality they bring to the table,” he said.
To advance their idea, Ouzounov and Lorestani applied to IndieBio, a renowned biotechnology start-up accelerator in San Francisco, in July 2015. After being accepted, the pair worked on producing a proof of concept, evidence that the concept is feasible, for the accelerator demo day in February 2016.
The process of scaling a product and process to size can be quite difficult.
“When Alex and I had our first proof of concept, it was in milligrams, and so scaling that to produce kilograms took a lot of work and effort from the whole team,” Ouzounov said. “Making the process cost-effective was also difficult, along with making it work for various collagens and proteins.”
Another difficulty that the pair faced in initial pitches was explaining the specifics of their product to those without prior knowledge.
“A lot of customers were coming to us, and we had to translate some difficult concepts about molecular biology so that non-scientists are able to understand as well,” he said.
However, by demo day, they were able to produce a substantial amount of product, which helped create excitement amongst investors and helped them raise $2.5 million. This capital funded their move to San Leandro, California, where they rented out lab space to hire employees and build their new company, Geltor.
For Geltor, Ouzounov serves as the chief technology officer, and handles all the technology and production, while Lorestani handles the business side as CEO.
Their first and main product is N-Collage 1% Solution, a high performance collagen without animal product, and the “first ever vegan collagen technology engineered for unparalleled skincare performance,” according to Geltor’s website. Because of its unique design and broad utility, the product won the Cosmetic Executive Women’s 2018 Innovation Award.
Ouzounov attributes the success of this product, and Geltor so far, to his staff.
“We have the best staff, and if I hadn’t started this company I would be lucky to have them as my bosses to learn from,” he said.
While Geltor is one of the first, there is a rapidly growing industry around synthetic biological production, though it is in the early stages.
“Depending on the application, a lot of the industry is still in the research and development phases,” Ouzounov said. “A lot of other companies are looking at cellular agriculture, recombinant proteins, or egg production, but there’s a lot more regulation in the food path. Currently, we’ve found a good application for our product in the cosmetic space, where we see a lot of opportunities for improvement, since the collagens we produce surpasses anything our customers are used to.”
To expand, Ouzounov and Lorestani are exploring other possibilities with their products and methods.
“Collagen is pretty exciting, and we’ve only scratched the surface, since there are 28 types of collagens, and there are different sequences for each with different animals,” he said. “However, we’ve developed a system that can be applied to other proteins as well. We’re always looking at things that can be applied and have functions that are beneficial to humans but difficult to access through normal methods.”
Looking ahead, Ouzounov is excited to explore the next stage as Geltor scales production and gets the product into as many hands as possible. He said it’s been super exciting seeing how excited the world has been for what he’s created.
He concluded by mentioning the importance of this field for not only scientists, but all people.
“The technologies we’re developing, in my mind this is like the ’70s and ’80s for the computer age, in terms of how this new technology can impact the lives of everyone,” Ouzounov said. “This can improve biology, technology on the consumer level.”