Nucaps Nanotechnology: New encapsulation tech for nutritional and pharmaceutical sectors

Nucaps Technology CEO Mariano Oto ©CompassList

Nucaps Nanotechnology is growing through a mix of accelerating market penetration and continuous R&D


Navarre-based Nucaps Nanotechnology is a new entrant in the market of food science, offering natural protein nanocapsule technology for nutritional supplements based on a over decade of research. The startup this month announced its new project Inmunocaps, a nano-encapsulation of resveratrol for the treatment of symptoms produced by Covid-19, that’s pending market release.

Nucaps says its nanocapsules offer the encapsulated ingredients a 30 times better absorption rate than current alternatives, which in turn helps to reduce the cost of fortified foods and supplements. Its Inmunocaps lets patients orally take in resveratrol, a compound found in grapes that acts like antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties, in the form of pills. Currently, resveratrol is only administered to Covid-19 patients at hospitals through injections.

Founded in 2017, Nucaps was winner of IBM’s best technological solution award at the Smart Agrifood Summit in Málaga last year. The startup received a capital injection of €400,000 through the UN I + D + I Tech Transfer Fund managed by Clave, Center for Agrifood Technology (CNTA) and the University of Navarre in May. 

In an interview late last year, Mariano Oto, the company’s CEO, detailed how the growing demand for better nutrition led to the development of its nanocapsules, to offer a better form of delivering nutrients like iron, in terms of absorption, durability and taste.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led your team to create Nucaps Nanotechnology?

Market needs. Interestingly, we work more with marketing departments than with R&D ones because the former are the ones who know the needs of the market best. Medical studies have shown that one of the reasons behind the increase in diet-related diseases (heart, diabetes, obesity) – which are among the main causes of mortality in Western countries – is the progressive decline in nutritional levels, due to the modern lifestyle, and, in some cases, the lack of fresh food intake. 

As a result, there is greater demand for nutritional supplements or fortified foods. But therein lie other issues: active substances degrade very easily, are difficult to manufacture, have low efficacy, and sometimes even have unpleasant taste.

Nucaps Nanotechnology found a solution to that in nano-encapsulation. Nanocapsules are micro balls – 5,000 of those would fit into a strand of hair – made with only protein. Active substances placed inside the capsules are protected from light, oxidation, saliva and gastric acid, so they can reach the intestine, adhere to the intestinal mucosa, and be released in a way that they can be readily absorbed by the body.

We work with food and ingredient manufacturers to create custom developments to deliver the desired properties. In addition, nanocapsules can be compressed to make pills, left in powder format to be incorporated into food as they resist cooking processes, or used in drinks. 

Could you tell us a little about your background and your team?

We are currently five people on the team: four are scientists, doctors and specialists in nano-encapsulation, and me. I am the CEO of the company, have worked in business for 20 years. I joined this project three years ago, and two years ago we decided to exploit our technology and continue researching with the income generated from our products and services.

Also supporting the company are the University of Navarre, the Center for Agrifood Technology (CNTA), and pharmaceutical group Idipharma. This allows us to use all their infrastructures, equipment and capabilities to develop our projects.

What have been the main milestones for Nucaps so far?

We have successfully encapsulated probiotic bacteria, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, omega 3 (both from fish and seaweed), and we sell to European countries. For example, we collaborate with Doctor Oetker in Germany, and with Ferrero Rocher in Italy. For Ferrero Rocher, we encapsulate polyphenols –natural anti-aging antioxidants that can be sold in the market to improve nutritional levels, although they are extracted from the company’s waste from the production process.

In the case of Doctor Oetker, the company wants to incorporate iron in its finished food products. But iron, usually supplied as ferrous sulfate, has the following problems: it oxidizes very easily, it is not well absorbed by the body, and has a particularly unpleasant taste. The solutions currently available involve higher-than-needed doses, so that a part of it gets absorbed by the body. 

However, by wrapping ferrous sulfate in corn protein, we avoid the unpleasant taste of iron. Nanocapsules also resist the high temperatures of cooking, and when they reach the intestine, the body is able to absorb all the iron located inside the nanocapsules. That means that we improve the dosing mode as overdosing is not necessary any more, and we improve nutrition levels as the dietary supplement is added to the finished food.

Another example are the prototypes we have developed and the tests we have carried out for a company in Taiwan that had been investigating a very biologically potent strain of L-casei for five years, but at room temperature the bacteria only survives for three days. With our technology, it can be preserved at room temperature for six months. So it can become a commercial product.

So far we have succeeded in the scaling process from the laboratory to an industrial scale. Our next challenge is to increase our production capacity to reach new markets, while continuing with R&D. In this sense, we are already testing different proteins and their properties. It is a world of possibilities as even aromas or flavors could be nano-encapsulated. 

Our aim is to make all this possible at an acceptable cost to the consumer, so that we will be able to democratize the access to nutritional supplements.

What is your business model?

We have a B2B licensing model. We work for other companies creating a new technology for the specific substance they want to encapsulate and they pay us for the technological development. As everything we develop is covered by one or more of our four international patents, the development itself belongs to Nucaps Nanotechnology, but the client gets an exclusive operation authorization for a certain market and a specific substance. 

Subsequently, either we manufacture it through third parties, or they manufacture it, and we charge royalties on the client’s product sales.

Are you developing proprietary products that you can license to other companies?

Yes, we are already developing several substances in R&D projects that we can launch either through our own brand or through a third party. In the future we will have our own range of products. 

Using our technology is cheaper than using high doses, and then adding an additive or a preservative. It is also cheaper than using a synthetic material or a taste-masking product, which are the current alternatives. With the additional advantage that our nanocapsules are only made up of protein, so our solution is healthier than any other.

Could you tell us about your sales figures or expectations?

We started selling a year ago and we are already selling in five countries. Last year we broke even and the sales expectations for 2019 are over €500,000, but we are still centered in R&D projects.

How much have you invested in the business?

Our first and only financing round, which took place when we set up the company, was €500,000. In addition, we have two participatory loans from Clave Mayor and ENISA.

Who are your competitors?

Our main competitors are the companies that provide alternative products, from additives to taste-masking or genetically modified products, which are more expensive and not as healthy. But there is also a company in Greece that works with liposomes microcapsules. In comparison, our technology is more efficient, healthier – we use protein instead of fat – and 20 times cheaper.

In the pharmaceutical sector, encapsulation with polymers (plastics) is still an admitted practice. Our next battle is that this sector only uses natural products to encapsulate, so that they don't have to include the contraindications of eating plastic on the medicinal product package leaflet.

How do you see Nucaps growing in the near-to-medium term?

We hope to quickly acquire market share within the encapsulation market, which we are already doing, convincing the players to opt for our technology. In this sense, we see Nucaps Nanotechnology with a real industrial capacity at a European level to produce encapsulated products and ingredients.

Consumers in the US and Europe are increasingly concerned about health and nutrition, specifically healthy aging and slowing down body deterioration. In Europe, there is a high quality market: people are very concerned about natural products and acceptance is fast growing. The leaders are Switzerland, Germany, France and, to a lesser extent, Italy. The US market is currently the big market, although it is mainly moved by prices.

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