ATC alumnus company says community key for finding investors
In the world of research, creating a new product can be a long and challenging road. But taking it to market, convincing investors and consumers of its value, and then building a successful business is even more daunting. Commercialization is complicated and requires skills that don’t come naturally to many scientists and researchers. However, it’s an area where Dr. Jianhua Zhu, founder, president and CEO of BioNeutra, has managed to thrive.
Originally from China, Zhu had already been researching the technology behind his company’s line of naturally-derived sweeteners for several years before accepting a position at the University of Alberta in 1998. After working for a couple of biotechnology companies that were unsuccessful, Zhu decided to try to bring his own invention to market and launched BioNeutra out of offices at the Advanced Technology Centre in 2003.
There’s no shortage of low-calorie sweeteners on the market, from aspartame to sucralose. But what most of these diet sweeteners have in common is that while they allow people to reduce calories, they don’t have any actual nutritional value. That’s where VitaFiber is different. BioNeutra’s main product doesn’t just make energy bars and beverages lower in calories, the sweetener is also a source of dietary fibre and prebiotics, created using starches from Alberta and other provinces. But Zhu needed to find investors and convince them of its value.
That’s something the Advanced Technology Centre could help with. Zhu credits other high-tech businesses in the centre with assisting him in locating potential investors. “They can share ideas on how to get venture capital or angel capital, how to deal with tax issues, things like that. It’s a very good environment, especially for a startup company or a scientific company,” says Zhu. Additionally, the infrastructure and office space provided by ATC allowed the new company to present a professional image, ready for investment and growth.
BioNeutra didn’t just attract investment. It also attracted the attention of former Edmonton mayor Bill Smith, who now serves on the company’s board of directors. When Dr. Zhu asked him to join the board, Smith quickly saw the potential. “[BioNeutra] sounded new, young, and exciting,” says Smith. He saw the company’s potential for growth, a promise that has certainly paid off.
In fact, Zhu says one of the best things about his early days at ATC was how easily the centre was able to accommodate the company’s rapid expansion, from one of the building’s smallest spaces into a larger lab and then a commercial pilot facility at Research Centre One in the Edmonton Research Park. “We spent about 10 years in the Edmonton Research Park, and they helped us so much,” says Zhu.
BioNeutra became profitable in 2012, went public in 2014 and was listed on the TSX Venture Exchange in 2015. It has only continued to grow since then.
A Canadian awards leader, Bioneutra has been named to the Globe and Mail’s Top 1000 publicly traded companies four years in a row and received three export awards from the Alberta Chambers of Commerce and Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. Last year, it cracked the top 60 in its first Canadian Business magazine ranking — the country’s most highly regarded business ranking of the fastest growing companies.
The company uses contract manufacturers in Indonesia and China. Last fall, it brought a new 45,000-square-foot Edmonton production plant on line to meet the ever-growing demand for VitaFiber, which is used by 200 different international companies to make healthy protein bars, beverages, yogurt and ice cream.
Looking forward, Zhu is optimistic about expanding sales of BioNeutra both at home and abroad. The company is making major marketing pushes in Asia and Europe, and is looking to open other production facilities globally.