This story is brought to you by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development and Wareham Development.
Demetrix, a biotechnology company based in West Berkeley, is now commercially selling rare cannabinoids that have the potential to deliver a range of health and wellness benefits. According to Chief Business Officer Cynthia Bryant, this “marks a significant step on bringing rare cannabinoids safely and legally to major, global consumer markets.”
With just five years between their start as a small lab in 2017 to rolling out full-scale commercial manufacturing earlier this year, Demetrix is the first company to produce the rare cannabinoid cannabigerol (CBG) using industrial biotechnology in such a short time frame.
The two best-known cannabinoids derived from the Cannabis sativa plant — THC and CBD — are highly regulated by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency. But that leaves more than 100 other rare cannabinoids open for exploration, says Demetrix CEO Jeff Ubersax. “These bioactive compounds have potential applications in everything from personal care and wellness to nutrition to pharmaceuticals,” he said.
The challenge is that the plants themselves make only tiny amounts of these compounds — typically less than 0.1% of a plant’s dry flower. Demetrix uses a proprietary fermentation process to produce CBG at a commercial scale, essentially programming yeast with the instructions to make CBG and then growing it in a fermentation tank.
The company says this biomanufactured CBG has a higher purity level and a lighter environmental footprint than that produced using traditional agricultural methods — compared to growing cannabis plants either indoors or out, fermentation uses a fraction of the water, power and land and produces less greenhouse gas emissions.
Cannabinoids are a growing trend in consumer health, wellness and beauty products, and Demetrix’s speedy ascent to commercial production means their rare cannabinoids may reach store shelves soon. In March, the company finalized a deal with Evonik, a leading German specialty chemicals manufacturer that supplies ingredients to top beauty and personal care brands worldwide.
But for Ubersax, safety, quality and sustainability are more important than speed.
“Everything we do is focused on delivering products that have the highest level of purity, are science-backed, and have a minimal environmental footprint. We want our products to be good for the people who use them and the world we live in,” he says. “I got involved in science because it matched my interest in figuring out how the world works with my passion for making the world a better place. That is our mission at Demetrix as well.”
Biotech, at home in Berkeley
Ubersax and the company’s president, Darren Platt, met doing research and development (R&D) at biotech company Amyris in Emeryville, where Ubersax says he was “running everything bio-related” while Platt managed the “computers and robots.” Amyris’ co-founder, serial entrepreneur and UC Berkeley professor Jay Keasling, recruited them in 2017 to build what would become Demetrix (pronounced dee-mee-trix).
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Ubersax, who minored in Classics as an undergrad, recalls being attracted by the name, which is inspired by Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest.
When he and Platt joined the Demetrix team, they didn’t have to go far. Demetrix’s first expansion was into its state of the art labs on Seventh Street in neighboring West Berkeley, nestled among dozens of other companies using biotechnology to address a range of health and environmental issues in the Berkeley-Emeryville Bio Corridor. Just over three years later, the company employs about 100 people and also leases a 16,000 square foot R&D facility right across the street, also within Wareham Development’s Aquatic Park Center research campus.
The Demetrix team says this is just the beginning — the company has plans to continue expanding capabilities and product lines, and Ubersax expects that by 2024, they’ll be looking for 50,000 square feet of space. He says the Berkeley-Emeryville corridor’s good reputation for synthetic biology firms will help the company recruit highly specialized top talent, which is often hard to find.
With the Berkeley City Council’s recent approval of an updated, more flexible land use definition for “R&D” — which allows for a greater variety of facilities beyond just laboratories — the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development and partners in the Berkeley Startup Cluster hope that companies like Demetrix will have an easier time locating, expanding and innovating in Berkeley.