Collagen is a vital material for the beauty and medical industries. Traditionally made from animal carcasses, startups are now exploiting safer, more sustainable sources.
Collagen is a protein found in the skin, ligaments, bone, and extracellular parts of animals and plants. This biological ‘glue’ gives structural integrity to tissue and knits together organs, all whilst preserving the suppleness necessary for motion.
Collagen’s strength, elasticity, firmness, and antimicrobial properties hold vital applications in beauty and medicine. Although famous for being an anti-ageing ingredient, collagen is also widely used in medicine as surgical sutures, haemostatic agents, and wound dressings. Researchers use it as a culturing medium for stem cells. The market for medical collagen is expected to reach a value of US $395.6 million, an increase of 8.7 percent from 2022. Healthcare professionals need collagen as a biomaterial for tissue regeneration therapy since it offers an ideal ‘scaffold’ for cells to attach to and grow upon. The value of the market for implantable biomaterials, which refers to any biological substances used to replace or repair damaged tissue within the body, is expected to reach $161.22 billion in 2025.
Despite its high-grade applications, most collagen is still obtained from animal waste. 70% comes from pigs, 15% from cows, and the rest from fish, chicken, and sheep. Byproducts from the bovine leather industry are a significant source. Even the collagen used in biomedical research is made from rat tails or bovine sources.
Consumers and producers are now seeking alternative sources due to the health concerns surrounding animal-derived collagen. A major worry is the risk of viral disease transfer, particularly for the zoonotic bovine spongiform encephalopathy – mad cow disease. Religious objections to bovine derivatives have also motivated the shift. Meanwhile, consumer demand for vegan cosmetics has been pushing the beauty industry towards ethical ingredients. Clean collagen startups are either extracting the substance from marine species or culturing the protein from cells. The former avoids the health risks of using livestock carcasses while the latter has made possible the first fully vegan, high-performance collagen from plants.
Apart from water, collagen is the most common substance in jellyfish bodies, and it is structurally similar to mammalian collagen. Products from wild aquatic invertebrates do not pose the same health risks as those extracted from the carcasses of industrially reared livestock. Although the sustainability of harvesting wild ocean species seems dubious, jellyfish blooms are becoming more common in warming oceans. This ecological hazard holds the potential to yield a free, widely available feedstock for the budding marine collagen industry.
Jellagen, a Welsh company founded in 2015 by Professor Andrew Mearns Spragg, is a rising star in biomedical-grade marine collagen. The company specialise in extracting what they call a ‘type 0’ collagen from the jellyfish species Rhizostoma Pulmo. In evolutionary terms, this type 0 collagen is the most basic form of the protein and has been around in animal bodies for 600 million years. It is known as ‘stem collagen’ because of its capacity to grow into other types of collagen suited for different applications.
Jellagen capitalises on one intriguing property of collagen: it encourages stem cells to multiply and differentiate into specialised cells. This solves a major problem in tissue regeneration therapy which is that stem cells often die off before they can form specialised cells and support organ repair. These cell-nurturing properties of collagen are exploited by Jellagen’s JellaGel™ Hydrogel, a product shown to be effective in growing tissue implants from stem cells for treating osteoarthritis, a condition where the cartilage cushioning the ends of bones wear down.
Researchers from Jellagen and Censo Biotechnologies Ltd. Published a paper in 2020 reporting they had used Jellagen collagen to culture microglia cells from stem cells. Microglia are found in the central nervous system and are involved in neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. Growing cells outside the body is a crucial biomedical research technique. It allows them to be observed and subjected to drug trials under controlled laboratory conditions. Collagen I made from rat’s tails is more commonly used for this application but Jellagen was found to be a more effective culturing medium.
Cosmetics ingredients makers around the world also turning to marine collagen to supply a more ethical product. Starstech Co. is a Korean start-up working in this niche with their Penellagen, a collagen-based skincare ingredient extracted from the invasive starfish species Asterias pectinifera. Launched in 2021, Penellagen was the result of a collaboration between the company’s researchers and scientists at Korea University in Seoul.
Fish are superabundant in collagen, making up around ~75% of total weight. Even seafood waste is rich in the substance. Given that on average around three-quarters of a fish is discarded, there is immense potential for a circular collagen industry around seafood waste. In Europe, an innovative collaboration between Prionova Europe, an ingredients supplier, and Hofseth BioCare have created a cosmetic collagen blend from Norwegian salmon byproducts. Their processing technique makes use of collagen found in every part of the fish.
In 2017, Thailand’s Department of Fisheries studied how to use the discarded scales, fins, and bones of tilapia to produce collagen. Tilapia is the world’s most cultivated fish species. A viable method for extracting collagen from industry waste would be a huge boon for circular aquaculture. In Europe, the BlueCC project led by the Norwegian Institute of Good, Fisheries, and Aquaculture is currently exploring ways of sourcing collagen from underutilised marine species, including bycatch. The species of interest are jellyfish, starfish, and the cleaner fish used to remove parasites in salmon aquaculture systems.
In the last four years, some collagen manufacturers have been moving away from animal carcasses altogether, whether marine or land-based. Jellatech, founded 2020, grows collagen from animal cells. They do so using a technique known as precision fermentation. This biotechnology is commonly used by foodtech companies to culture ‘real’ meat from biopsied animal cells. “We don’t need to slaughter animals…We just harvest the collagen from the cells instead of the animals,” explained CEO Michelson. From the perspective of the collagen industry, it is useful for making consistent products from wild biomass feedstock of potentially uneven quality.
Since 2018, US-based Geltor has been one of the few companies to offer a one hundred percent animal-free collagen. They too culture collagen from cells, except that they are taken from plants instead of animals. Again, this relies on precision fermentation. The company customise microbes so that they can transform plant-based sugars into collagen proteins with the desired properties. Another company offering no-slaughter, precision-fermented collagen is Evonik in New Zealand. Their VECOLLAN® collagen is primarily targeted at the healthcare industry.
Hong-Kong based Avant produces a fish cell-based collagen under the brand name Zellulin. Their ingredient targets the anti-ageing and nutraceuticals market and can be blended into moisturisers, drinks, and supplements. It promotes anti-oxidisation, regeneration, and skin repair. Again, their collagen does not require animal carcasses since only a sample of fish cells are needed. CFO Allan Leung has underlined how precision fermentation can produce a better quality and more consistent product across batches compared to those produced through animal husbandry.
Collagen in a circular economy
Further advances in cutting-edge medical treatments like stem cell and tissue regeneration therapy will depend on a reliable supply chain of sustainable, ethical, and hygienic collagen. This demand for clean collagen also offers a profitable avenue for making the seafood sector more circular. The marine collagen start-ups that have appeared over the decade have constructed value-adding supply chains linking fisheries and aquaculture to health and beauty. Successfully implementing a circular economy will demand more linkages of this kind between sectors that have historically operated in isolation.
So far, clean collagen startups have targeted jellyfish and starfish, yet many more marine species are waiting to be explored. Around 70 percent of a sea cucumber’s body wall protein is made from collagen. A 2020 study by Tawianese and Chinese scientists reported that the species Holothuria cinerascens is rich in type-1 collagen with better moisture-retention and absorption capacity than glycerol. Sea cucumbers, like jellyfish, are invertebrates and are widely cultivated in global aquaculture. Marine sponges are another source of collagen. A 2018 study by Pozzolini et al. demonstrated in particular the wound-healing properties of collagen peptides derived from the sponge species Chondrosia Reniformis.
The startups manufacturing cell-based collagen are demonstrating just how versatile a technique precision fermentation is. Although better known these days for its application in foodtech, it was originally developed by pharmaceutical researchers in the 1980s. This bio-engineering method is uniquely capable of making sustainable, ethical biomaterials to the exacting specifications required by the biomedical sector.