an apple a day

How an Irish startup could revolutionise the way everyone looks at health

Nuritas is mining ‘nature’s wealth’ from the most everyday of sources – food.

IF HEALTH TECHNOLOGY over the past century was about the rise of drug treatments, one former senior pharma executive is betting the next 100 years will be the era of so-called “functional food”.

After a stint as the European regional president for global pharma giant Pfizer, Emmet Browne turned his back on the big players to take a post as CEO of Irish bio-technology startup Nuritas in March.

“Ultimately, pharmaceuticals fulfilled a need for the 20th Century and they will in the 21st Century as well, but there’s new technology now that’s allowing us to look at things in different ways,” he told

Nuritas was founded by mathematician Dr Nora Khaldi, a former research fellow at UCD, in 2013 with the aim of using powerful computer technology and artificial intelligence to mine existing food products for beneficial components.

Dr_Nora_Khaldi_and_Emmet_Browne Khaldi and Browne

“Food is one of oldest things we have manipulated, but we were never able to do much with it from health perspective,” Browne said.

I’ve spent 25-plus years working in pharmaceuticals … this was sufficient to interest me to come and fly my flag up the mast here.”

Nature’s wealth

Nuritas uses its algorithms to hunt for peptides – naturally-occurring molecules that are simpler versions of proteins. These components have the power to help the body in areas from fighting infection to speeding muscle recovery and slowing the ageing process.

“We activate nature’s hidden secrets: nature’s wealth is lying dormant in food, but these peptides need to be predicted and extracted in the correct way,” Browne said.

If we can add other components to food that can help prevent disease and improve health, that’s a good thing and something we should be doing.”

pep A peptide

However in the past, he added, searching for these useful components in ordinary food items came at huge expense and with a very low chance of success.

Occasionally in the past people got lucky, but for the majority of people it wasn’t like that – to recoup the kind of investment involved you just weren’t able to do it in food,” Browne said.

Through machine learning, the ability of its software to use existing discoveries to narrow the search for other peptides with possible health benefits, the startup had been able to speed up the process tenfold and do it at a fraction of the cost.

Once Nuritas found a peptide with health benefits and extracted it from the source, it would license the technology to companies that could use it for their own food products or dietary supplements.


Functional food

Browne said the startup was feeding into the fast-growing appetite for ”functional food” – consumables that served a purpose other than simply filling people’s stomachs.

If you take antibiotics, for example, we are involved in discovering antimicrobials that are naturally taken in food, rather than chemical antibiotics that have developed huge problems with (bacterial) resistance,” he said.

The global market for functional food was valued at $43 billion (€38 billion) in 2013, although with its growth had come an ever-increasing need for suppliers to back up their health claims with robust data.

So far Nuritas, which last month won a major agriculture-technology award from Forbes, has discovered 22 peptides with patents filed for compounds that control blood-glucose levels, giving them the potential to help prevent diabetes, and with anti-ageing properties.

That compares to a global tally of around three dozen commercially-available peptides that carried health benefits.

Browne said the company’s discoveries had come despite it having just seven staff, although that number was expected to multiply before Christmas with the announcement of a “significant” investment round.

We have the real opportunity here to create something global from Ireland and if that doesn’t get you up in the morning, nothing will,” he said.

This month, as part of’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at the health and fitness industries.

To view other stories from our collection, click here.

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