ITHACA, NY -- Two food scientists who met in a Cornell lab and their former television news reporter business partner are making their mark in a pretty niche industry — supplements featuring human milk oligosaccharide.
Human milk oligosaccharide (HMO) is a component of breast milk that Dr. Jason Zhang learned about while studying at Cornell. After about 100-150 years of research into what makes human milk so nutritive, scientists found a way to successfully replicate HMOs so it could be made accessible through other means.
Scientists take high-purity lactose milk and put it through precise fermentation and purifying processes to create something bioidentical to human milk. Zhang, Dr. Joel Li and Beau Berman are the co-founders of Layer Origin, one of only a handful of companies in the world that offer HMOs in products for adults.
According to Berman, companies like Nestle began adding HMOs to baby formula because they help build infant gut lining and aid in brain development. This same logic could be applied to adults with issues like irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Thus, Layer Origin was born and currently offers both prebiotic and probiotic products with HMO, in addition to other supplements for things like high cholesterol or blood sugar issues.
“So far the feedback is that this really works,” Berman said. “It gives people almost immediate relief.”
Berman said one of the reasons the market for creating supplements with HMOs is small is because it’s just so new. He said that recreating HMOs wasn’t really viable until 2016, and that the vast majority of research focused on babies rather than adults.
“There’s less research so far proving benefits to adults, and there are only three major suppliers in the world that are creating HMOs,” he said. “It’s very expensive and complicated. We’re in the infancy of this ingredient for use by adults, so we’re just bracing for more competition.”
As for the minds behind the supplements, Li comes from a background of nutrition and ingredients, while Zhang formerly worked for a large corporation in the Midwest that specialized in powdered egg whites. The two came together at the Langmuir Labs at the Cornell Business and Technology Park and spent three years working on developing the products.
The project has been largely self-funded, with some help from family and friends, and Berman said Layer Origin has big plans to keep growing. Currently, they own 400 acres of farmland across upstate New York where they can source many of their ingredients, as three of their products are based on a derivative from beans. In February, they’re expecting the arrival of machinery to be able to start doing much of the manufacturing themselves.
“We’ll be able to do more experimental runs, plus we’ll have much better margins and it’s faster to do it ourselves,” Berman said.
The factory space will be right there at Langmuir Labs, so the company can stay in Ithaca as they continue growing.
“We’re taking a risk but I think it’s going to catapult us to the next level,” he said.
Berman himself takes the Layer Origin cholesterol supplement after he was diagnosed with high cholesterol this summer, something he attributes to unlucky genetics.
“My mom took Lipitor and I’d like to avoid taking that since I’m 35,” he said. “Sometimes I’m lazy when it comes to certain things, so the BranPure [Layer Origin product] can be mixed into anything, and it’s virtually tasteless.”
He said that his father has also placed a few orders and Zhang’s family in China has ordered them too.
“It’s been so interesting to me that people in other countries are willing to pay the $35 shipping charge to get their hands on it,” Berman said. “We have something that people are really fans of.”
Currently Layer Origin is only available online, but Berman said one of the company’s goals in 2021 is to get into retail.
“We’d love to be in local stores like Wegmans and Greenstar,” he said. “And then, it’s crazy ambitious but [Zhang]’s goal is to launch 80 new products in 2021 […] It’s going to be a very busy year, but we try to be ambitious. The more we offer the more people we can help.”