Zero-calorie, natural sweetener
Stevia sweeteners are natural, zerocalorie, high-intensity sweeteners that are typically 200-300x sweeter than sugar. Traditionally obtained from the stevia plant, they are the fastest growing segment in the sweetener market today, being used in thousands of food and beverage products.
Despite the undoubted success, there is, however, a problem with the current commercially available stevia sweeteners – their taste. The most prevalent stevia sweeteners in the plant have a lingering bitter, liquorice flavour, which only intensifies as the concentration of the stevia sweetener is increased. This issue cannot be solved with taste-masking agents.
The other issue with plant-based stevia is that its sweetness on the tongue has a natural peak that cannot be improved. No matter how much more of it you pump into a beverage, you’ll never get a sweeter taste. The impact of these two issues can most readily be seen in carbonated soft drinks. The use of stevia as a sweetener for such drinks has strongly accelerated in recent years, but in almost all such products, the stevia is blended with sugar or similar, so that the final product has no more than a 30-35% reduction in calories compared to regular drinks. The taste and sweetening power issues of the current stevia sweeteners mean that the sugar cannot be replaced entirely. It also means that plant-based stevia is not achieving its zero-calorie potential.
The stevia plant also makes stevia sweeteners (for example, Reb D and Reb M) that do not have this taste problem, but unfortunately the plant makes them in very low amounts, well below a concentration of 1%. Getting commercial volumes of finished product would require planting, growing, harvesting and extracting an extraordinary amount of stevia plants from vast tracts of land which in turn makes them prohibitively expensive.
By making these better-tasting sweeteners using yeast fermentation, Evolva can solve this problem. Sweeteners such as Reb D and Reb M can be made on a large scale with a commercially viable cost of goods. As an added plus, Evolva’s approach also provides a simpler, shorter and safer supply chain than traditional cultivation, processing and refining of plants.
Based on these advantages, Evolva believes that fermentation-derived stevia ingredients have the potential to accelerate the adoption of stevia-based sweeteners, significantly expanding the market potential.
Currently, only agriculturally-derived stevia sweeteners are available. Evolva believes it will be the first company to successfully employ fermentation technology to produce commercially relevant stevia sweeteners. Stevia sweeteners are not amenable to synthetic production.
In 2013, Evolva exclusively partnered its stevia programme with Cargill, Inc. (Minneapolis, USA), with Cargill being responsible for the manufacture and commercialisation of the resultant stevia sweetener products. Under the terms of the partnership, Evolva has an option to financially participate in this business up to a 45% level. If Evolva chooses not to exercise its option, then Evolva will receive royalties from Cargill that range from mid-singledigit to low-double-digit percentages.
As with all Evolva’s products, it is hard to estimate the market potential of Evolva’s stevia. However, based on market data compiled by Mirabaud Securities (2014) and LMC International (2014), various third-party data and internal market forecasts, Evolva estimates that the total addressable market for its stevia product is around USD 4 billion. This market size is considerably in excess of the current stevia market (estimated at around USD 100-200 million at the ingredient level) but is in turn a small fraction of the total sweetener market (estimated at some USD 60-70 billion)
2014 activities & future plans
Stevia represented Evolva’s largest research programme during 2014. Good progress was made throughout the year on strain development, product purification and production scale-up. Highlights included:
In May, Evolva announced the achievement of a key technical project milestone, prompting Cargill to make a payment of USD 1 million to Evolva.
Evolva received its first granted patent relating specifically to its stevia products. We believe this is a positive indication of many more patent grants to come.
In December, Evolva acquired Allylix Inc, in large part because Evolva believes Allylix technologies will help drive the future cost-effectiveness of stevia production fermentation. Cargill supported this acquisition by investing USD 4 million in Evolva.
During 2015, work will continue on driving stevia towards launch, which is expected to be in 2016. Evolva expects to decide on its 45% participation in the stevia business in the first half of 2015. Evolva expects that it will receive further milestone payments from Cargill during 2015.
As we look ahead at fermentation-derived stevia scale-up, the focus will start to shift, as is the case with any new sweetener product under development. Cargill and Evolva will be focusing on things like taste optimisation, manufacturing preparation, the product safety testing that will be needed for regulatory protocols, and sales & marketing outreach.