New Roads to Health
In two new business ventures, Richard Peet ’76 is bringing to market the health benefits of high-fiber, gluten-free chicory flour and the therapeutic potential of biosynthetically produced cannabinoids.
Alan Sandals remembers Richard Peet ’76 as a “long-haired hippie —earnest, inquisitive, and intensely focused on science.” It was the summer of 1974, and Sandals, also class of 1976, was living with Peet just off campus in a large house owned by one of their professors. Even though they were renting, Peet planted a vegetable garden, fastidiously tending to yellow beans and summer vegetables in a plot close to the house. “He always seemed very sincere about his beliefs in the good of nature,” Sandals remembers.
These days, Peet is decidedly more polished. After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology and working as a research scientist, he got a law degree and became an attorney focused on intellectual property at international law firm Foley & Lardner. But the passion to use science as a way to make lives better is still there.
Retiring from Foley & Lardner in 2014, Peet focused his energy on Blue Prairie Brands Inc., a startup he co-founded in 2012 that aims to make chicory flour into a common gluten-free replacement in everything from pastries to protein bars.
"This is an area that I’m very excited about—the microbiome,” Peet says. “We’ve only recently started to appreciate the role of microorganisms that have a profound effect on our health.”
Sandals agrees. He and his wife, Alisa Field BMC ’77, were early investors in Blue Prairie in 2012. Field has celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that demands a gluten-free diet. “That was part of my interest in the whole project,” she says.
She’s not alone. Gluten-free has become a lifestyle choice for a growing number of health-conscious consumers. The gluten-free market was valued at more than $4 billion in 2014 and is expected grow to more than $9 billion over the next five years, according to Euromonitor, a consumer data group.
Blue Prairie’s chicory flour has attributes that make it a better option than many of the popular gluten-free alternatives, Peet says. Chicory has been used as an alternative to coffee, but has a notoriously bitter flavor that requires roasting to make it palatable.
Blue Prairie’s varieties of chicory produce flour that is low in bitterness, slightly sweet, and contains large amounts of inulin fiber, a prebiotic that feeds the good bacteria that operate in the gut to aid digestion and support overall health. The high fiber content means that it can help suppress appetite, and at 30 percent of the sweetness of sucrose, the company’s chicory flour is ideal for baked goods such as cookies, brownies, pastries, and even tortillas, says Peet.
Blue Prairie already has attracted the attention of big business. In 2016, the company completed a $6-million series A investment round with investors including DSM Venturing B.V., a Netherlands-based arm of a multinational conglomerate that is a massive force in the food and beverage industry.
Still, Peet says, at this stage, he’s measuring Blue Prairie’s growth in acreage. Currently, the company’s Scottsbluff, Neb.-based processing plant is fed by about 200 acres of chicory grown per year. Peet expects that acreage to grow to several thousands of acres within the next several years.
Peet isn’t resting on Blue Prairie’s early successes. While he was establishing Blue Prairie, he was also working to grow Teewinot, a biopharmaceutical startup he cofounded with a former client in 2013 focused on the biosynthetic production of pure pharmaceutical-grade cannabinoids.
Teewinot doesn’t grow the cannabis plant. The company uses biosynthetic processes Peet and his colleagues invented and patented to produce pharmaceutically pure cannabinoids in yeast that could eventually improve human therapies for diseases as diverse as Crohn’s, pancreatitis, and epilepsy.
"We are the first company in the world to be able to make the cannabinoids that are not very abundant in the cannabis plant in a pure pharmaceutical form to test them to treat a variety of illnesses,” he says.
Most of the cannabinoids Teewinot produces are non-psychoactive, and don’t involve THC, the principal intoxicant in cannabis. Rather, Teewinot seeks to coax out properties in cannabinoids that are thought to reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and potentially slow tumor growth and even kill cancer cells.
"It’s a very hot area of research,” Peet says.
Globally, the medical marijuana market is expected to reach a value of nearly $56 billion by 2025. Nearly 30 states have legalized marijuana for medical uses, and a growing number of states and countries are gaining approval for using cannabis in therapeutic applications.
"Now that we can make (cannabinoids) without growing the cannabis plant, there is increasing interest,” says Peet.
Teewinot raised $30 million in second-round funding in 2017, and the company is looking to raise an additional $40 million in series C funding this year. Peet says Teewinot is in conversation with several pharmaceutical stalwarts to bring three to four cannabinoid molecules through to Phase 1 clinical trials.
Drug development timelines are long—but the potential for more effective next-generation therapies is huge.
"Teewinot means ‘many pinnacles’ in Shoshone, the heritage of one of my partners,” Peet said. “These molecules have such great potential to help people. We’re very excited.”