The AI-powered company is unlocking the hidden healing potential of plants by finding active compounds that could target specific conditions. Next up: diabetes and sleep disorders.
By Will Yakowicz
For six weeks in July 2017, Lee Chae, a Stanford-educated plant biologist, sat at his kitchen table in San Francisco—where he can smell and hear the Pacific Ocean—and opened up his laptop. It sounds like a typical workday morning for many, but Chae did something more than just fill out a few spreadsheets. He began building an artificial intelligence platform that can identify bioactive compounds in plants and identify potential remedies for specific human ailments.
That same year, Chae, along with cofounders Jim Flatt and Sofia Elizondo, launched bioscience startup Brightseed to identify unknown compounds present in plants and develop them into various food ingredients, supplements and medicines. For the last five years, the trio has been collecting plants that humans have been using as food and medicine for millennia, grinding them into powder, extracting the active chemicals and running them through their AI platform—which they affectionately call “Forager”—to find the next blockbuster supplement.
The company’s first discovery is a pair of compounds—N-trans-caffeoyltyramine (NCT) and N-trans-feruloyltyramine (NFT)—found in cannabis seed shells and black pepper that have shown promise in two preclinical studies on mice to remove fat from the liver. The studies, both of which were published in Cell Death and Disease, a Nature peer-reviewed journal, suggest that these compounds could be used to manage non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a chronic condition that afflicts about a quarter of the world’s population. Currently, there is no FDA-approved treatment for NAFLD beyond encouraging patients to lose weight and eat healthy. Serious cases require weight-loss surgery or even a liver transplant.
“Cannabis is known for THC and CBD,” says Chae, naming the psychoactive component in pot that gets people high and the chemical compound associated with anti-inflammation and other health-related benefits. “And yet, there are these other two compounds that have been sitting in there after all this time and it’s a totally different chemical that helps us process fat from the liver. It just tells you how little we know, even of plants that we have a very intimate knowledge, that there’s still a lot to discover in how you can use plants.”
“Think about things like aspirin, which came from the bark of the willow tree, and metformin, which came from the French lilac and is a first-line treatment for type II diabetes—those all originated in plants.”
Headquartered in South San Francisco, Brightseed closed a $68 million Series B round this month and the company has raised a total of $120 million at what Forbes estimates to be a $300 million valuation. Brightseed is using that capital to expand its R&D and ramp up the commercialization of the two hemp seed compounds.
Cannabis is not the only plant the company is researching. Brightseed, which was named to the Forbes AI 50 list this year, is on a mission to catalog the bioactive compounds in the approximate 60,000 edible plant species. So far, it has a library of some 2 million compounds, and it has a goal of extracting 10 million by 2025. Elizondo, who used to work for Boston Consulting Group before meeting Chae and Flatt, says Brightseed believes that humans have only scratched the surface when it comes to identifying and developing compounds found in plants that can benefit people’s health.
“The hypothesis is that nature is underexplored for its potential solutions for health,” Elizondo says. “Plants are prolific producers of natural chemicals, some of which we feel, like caffeine, but there’s a bunch that we don’t feel and they’re responsible for maintaining our body working at full capacity. There are millions of bioactive compounds and natural chemicals out there and we’ve only really tapped about 1%.”
Brightseed is still small—Forbes estimates its revenue is under $20 million—but it has some big partners. Danone, the milk and yogurt conglomerate, has tapped Brightseed to explore potential new plant-based ingredients for its products. And supplement giant Pharmavite, spice trader OFI and Ocean Spray are also using Brightseed in hopes to discover new ingredients associated with wellness. Tobe Cohen, the chief growth officer of Pharmavite, says his company struck a deal with Brightseed to use Forager to help it create a new $100 million (annual sales) sleep supplement brand from a biocompound that Flatt says could help prolong people’s sleep without them feeling groggy or “hungover.” “Compound discovery is out of reach unless you’re in the pharmaceutical arena,” adds Cohen. “With the Forager database, it has opened up a way to explore and discover new biologically active plant compounds.”
Brightseed itself is launching a pipeline of chemicals focused on three areas: metabolic health, cognitive function and gut health. Next up is a compound found in a plant—the founders won’t say which plant—that could help the body manage blood glucose levels, which might be used in conjunction with diabetes medication.
This is not Flatt’s first foray into health supplements. In addition to serving as the chief of research and development at food startup Hampton Creek, he led R&D for Martek Biosciences, which commercialized DHA and omega-3—two lipids that promote brain and eye health and are now used in infant formula, milk and other products. In 2011, Martek was acquired by DSM for $1.1 billion.
Chuck Templeton, the founder of OpenTable and managing director at early Brightseed investor S2G Ventures, says Brightseed is going after huge markets that lack solutions. The company’s first product targets non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which currently has no pharmaceutical treatment and costs Americans tens of billions of dollars a year in healthcare. Templeton adds that Brightseed’s goal to create food ingredients and supplements that help address big health problems is a refreshing business model. “It’s a fantastic team hitting a fantastic idea when all the computational tools are being used to sell expensive ads or to build dating sites—they’re using it for phytonutrient discovery,” says Templeton.
Flatt has his own spin on Brightseed’s mission, sounding like a cross between a biochemist and a shaman. “There is a lot to be gained by looking at traditional medicine,” he says. “Our ancestors understood that nature did, in fact, offer a number of solutions to conditions. Think about things like aspirin, which came from the bark of the willow tree, and metformin, which came from the French lilac and is a first-line treatment for type II diabetes—those all originated in plants. This is a well-proven approach.”