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EndoBright, a New Approach to Natural Colorants
EndoBright, a New Approach to Natural Colorants


EndoBright is Emily Ediger, Megan Foley and Nick Simms and they have an idea for a novel method of producing a natural red dye for the food and cosmetics industries.

Simply put, a dye is a colored substance that takes to the substrate it’s been applied to; a natural dye is one obtained from plants or animals. Synthetic dyes such as 6-hydroxy-5-[(2-methoxy-5-methyl-4-sulfophenyl)azo]-2-naphthalenesulfonic acid, or FD&C red No. 40 as it’s commonly called, are produced in labs by color chemists.

The last two decades have seen the demand for natural dyes increase dramatically. According to an article in Chemical & Engineering News published not long ago, natural dyes make up 31% of the dye market, but demands for these dyes are growing at 5% a year, whereas demand for synthetic dyes are growing at an anemic 1%. The reasons for this shift in demand are relatively clear: a general change in attitudes caused by findings linking consumption of synthetic dyes to adverse conditions. For example, a recent study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that the caramel coloring agent 4-MI used by Coke and Pepsi can cause cancer in lab animals.

EndoBright hopes to meet the growing demand for natural dyes with an innovative approach to producing the most sought out colorant: red.

Pulling from the skills and resources of team members Ediger and Foley, both biologists studying at PSU and Nick Simms, a business student and founding officer of the Entrepreneurship Club at PSU, EndoBright plans to test the viability of naturally occurring pigmented compounds produced by microorganism called fungal endophytes. In order to explore their ideas and have a chance at funding their initial examination of color compounds produced by fungal endophytes, EndoBright recently participated in the first annual Clean Challenge competition for innovators and entrepreneurs interested in developing clean technologies. 

Having successfully made it through the first round of the competition, EndoBright won a $5,000 development grant, access to workspace in the new Lab 84 on campus, a place in the 2013 Lab2Market event and the opportunity to meet with local entrepreneurs and members of TiE Oregon.

“This project came from research I conducted in the Ballhorn lab,” Ediger said. The Ballhorn lab is the lab of Professor of Biology, Daniel Ballhorn, advisor to the EndoBright team. “The first step was growing the endophytes in a nutrient broth rather than in petri dishes; it’s the only way to scale up production to manufacturing level.”

“Now that we’re able to grow endophytes in a nutrient broth, we can use the money from the development grant to test the dye that we extract to be sure it’s safe and non-toxic and to be sure the dye will last in whatever we put it in,” Foley added.

According to Simms, EndoBright is entering the preliminary phases of a business venture.

“We’re beginning to reach out to local and even international organizations working in the industry. We found that there aren’t many people out there working with endophytes, so this could be a new solution to meeting the huge need for natural dyes,” Simms said.

If the team’s tests come back in the positive and they find that the entophyte-produced dye is non-toxic and that it will take to foods and cosmetics, they will have found a way to overcome some of greatest obstacles facing the natural dye industry. 

Right now the availability of natural dyes is limited for several reasons: plants are subject to environmental variation and it’s difficult to scale up because of the long growing periods. Furthermore, growing plant material dyes is energy and resource intensive and it introduces massive amounts of pollutants into the ecosystem. Using endophytes to produce a natural red dye at the industrial scale could sidestep these problems.

EndoBright has three months to test and develop their ideas, to further investigate the natural dye market and industry. During this time they will receive advice from mentors in the entrepreneurial community, learn how to craft a successful business pitch from early stage venture capital investment professionals from DFJ Frontier and apply their skills as aspiring scientists and entrepreneurs all with the goal of presenting their idea for a new clean technology venture to the Clean Challenge judges at this fall’s Oregon BEST FEST where they’ll have a chance at a $25,000 dollar award.

“When we come to BEST FEST,” Foley said, “we want to come with a sample of the dye. We want to be able to say that it’s safe, non-toxic and that you can incorporate it into any kind of food or cosmetic item. We’d like to come with proof of our concept.”

Encouraging ideas that spur green innovations, stimulate sustainable ventures and grow our local economy in a responsible way is one of the many aims of the Clean Challenge at PSU. Another is bringing together faculty and students from across campus—the biology and business, the computer science and linguistics, architecture and engineering and technology management in order to share and exchange ideas, to make the connections that ignite the sparks of change. EndoBright is just one of six Clean Challenge semifinalists that can attest to what comes when you bring people with diverse skills and backgrounds together to innovate for a better tomorrow.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted July 15, 2013