Vancouver, BC-based Burcon NutraScience Corp, Burcon NutraScience, a R&D company developing a range of patents around its plant protein extraction and purification technology. has filed a patent application with the US Patent and Trademark Office covering ten functional properties that are expected to make canola protein isolate a valuable ingredient in both food and non-food uses.

This patent filing is potentially significant, as it provides a new layer of protection over and above Burcon's existing patents, which cover the process required to commercially produce canola protein isolate. The objective of this approach is to protect the most desirable and commercially relevant functional features of Burcon's lead product, PurateinTM.

"We believe we are the first to have a viable process to commercially produce a canola protein isolate," said Johann Tergesen, Burcon's president & COO. "The novel set of proteins produced by our process provides us with what we believe is a wide-open space in the more protective patenting areas of application and composition patents."

To understand the relevance of this approach to protecting Burcon's intellectual property and Burcon's first-mover advantage, it is necessary to understand the value drivers in the protein ingredient industry. Protein ingredients are valued by the food processing industry for their nutritional and functional properties. However, it is the functional properties of a protein ingredient that are typically the most important to its value and therefore to its price in the marketplace. 

Some of the more valuable functional properties of protein ingredients in food processing include improved texture and "mouth feel" (such as soy in veggie-burgers); formation of gels (egg white in processed hams); absorption of juices released during cooking (soy in wieners); and the stabilization of fat emulsions (milk protein in ice cream).  In fact, proteins are employed for a broad spectrum of functional attributes, such as viscosity, water-binding, gelation, cohesion, adhesion, elasticity, emulsification, foaming, film-forming and fibre-forming.  

Burcon benefits from its first-mover position by having monopoly access to the canola protein isolates required to file this and future patent applications. The research essential to understanding the functional characteristics of canola protein and required to support a patent application was conducted at Burcon's functional testing laboratory in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

The functionality lab, established in May 2001, has enabled Burcon to investigate the array of unique functional attributes exhibited by Puratein. In preparing this patent filing, Burcon performed examples of the use of its canola protein isolate in each of the ten functional properties. Although there appear to be a number of promising attributes, it should be noted that Burcon is at the early stage of understanding the commercial value of its potential products, and further modification of its protein isolates may be necessary. No assurance can be given that its products will be commercially viable.

In this regard, Burcon has also engaged the Fraunhofer Institute (Freising, Germany), a pioneer in the development and manipulation of new plant protein ingredients, to assist with further modification of the company's protein, in order to promote and extend the key functional properties expected to enhance Puratein's commercial value.

Functional attributes are the primary agents responsible for the sustained market growth of protein ingredients in the food and industrial markets.  Plant proteins, and in particular soy, have seen tremendous sales growth in recent years, driven by the technical expertise of the major producers and their ability to both improve soy's functionality and broaden its application. The soy protein ingredient market is currently estimated at $1.75 billion in annual sales and is experiencing double-digit sales growth. Coupled with a growing awareness of the potential risks from animal proteins in the wake of mad cow disease, E. coli scares, bird flu, etc., there may be significant market potential for Burcon's Puratein.

Puratein should be able to compete favourably in the protein ingredient market for three reasons. Firstly, it is derived from canola meal, an inexpensive byproduct of canola oil production, and therefore it may be able to be priced competitively with the existing animal-based proteins. Secondly, its functional and nutritional profile appears to be distinct from soy, making it a true "alternative" plant protein. Some of the research conducted by Burcon suggests that canola protein isolate's functional characteristics could enable its use in products in which soy is currently not used, and thereby complement soy.   Lastly, as an entirely new protein ingredient, Puratein has marketing potential that Burcon will work to exploit, possibly through an exclusive distribution, sales and marketing agreement.

"In the food industry, nutritional and functional properties are the two key value drivers of protein ingredients," said Tergesen: "Broadening our patent coverage to now include the most promising functional attributes of Puratein protects and enhances the company's strategic advantage as we move to introduce our new plant protein into an expanding market segment."