In a former insurance office building on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, a new kind of sugar factory is taking shape. The 48,000-square-foot facility is being developed by a startup called Bonumose, funded in part by Hershey. It uses a processed corn product called maltodextrin that is found in many junk foods. Like its notorious counterpart high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin is calorically similar to table sugar (sucrose), is just as bad for your teeth, and actually causes worse blood sugar spikes.

But for Bonumose, maltodextrin isn’t an ingredient—it’s a raw material. When it’s poured into the company’s gleaming bioreactors later this year, what emerges will be a “rare sugar” called tagatose. Found naturally in small concentrations in fruit, some grains, and milk, it is nearly as sweet as sucrose but with only around half the calories. And because of the way it is metabolized, tagatose can actually improve dental and digestive health, and even stabilize insulin levels.

Although long recognized as a safe food ingredient by the FDA, tagatose has proved expensive and difficult to isolate—until now. Hershey says that Bonumose’s technology, designed to affordably convert maltodextrin into tagatose at commercial scales, is critical to its effort to formulate next-generation “better-for-you” candies.

“If we can sell anywhere near the volume of high-fructose corn syrup, then you’re talking tens of billions of dollars a year [in] revenue,” says Ed Rogers, Bonumose’s CEO. “And the effect on public health could save arguably trillions in health-care costs.”

Bonumose’s multi-enzyme conversion process originated in a company spun out of the Virginia Tech lab of Yi-Heng “Percival” Zhang. Born in China, Zhang is a bioengineer with a string of awards and inventions to his name. In 2006, Esquire magazine singled him out as one of America’s “best and brightest” for his work on converting sugar from farm waste into cheap ethanol. His lab spun out companies to build a sugar-powered “battery” for smartphones, produce medicinally useful compounds, and explore using sugar to generate hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles. “Sugar will be the new oil,” Zhang’s email signature at Virginia Tech once pronounced.

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But Zhang today isn’t sitting proudly at the helm of Bonumose’s research division, or formulating healthy chocolate, or racing a sugar-powered car. When MIT Technology Review spoke to him in January, he was sitting alone in an empty lab in Tianjin, China, after serving a two-year sentence of supervised release in Virginia for conspiracy to defraud the US government, making false statements, and obstruction of justice. He still seems dazed from his dealings with Rogers—his former business partner—and the US government. If you ask Zhang, he was guilty of nothing worse than poor judgment and ignorance of the rules; he sees himself as a man brought low by treachery. “They cheated the technology from me. They robbed me and took everything,” he says. 

Turn an ear to Bonumose, however, and it’s about the triumph of American entrepreneurship over the Communist government of China. “We did not cheat anyone,” Rogers told MIT Technology Review. “Even though we had this pretty bitter battle with Zhang, we don’t wish him any ill will at this point. Maybe he wants to blame someone other than himself, but he should look in the mirror.”

Whichever version hews closest to the truth, one thing seems clear. If sugar is the new oil, the global battle to control it has already begun.

Most humans love sugar for its gloriously sweet taste and ability to give blood sugar a turbo-boost, but Zhang is more interested in the energy it packs. His parents were physicists in Wuhan, China, and Zhang grew up eager to emulate scientific heroes like Edison, Curie, and Pasteur. After studying biochemical engineering in Shanghai, he came to the US in 1997 for a PhD at Dartmouth College, where he also met his wife.

His first enthusiasm was for biofuels, a growing research topic in the early 2000s. At Dartmouth, Zhang validated a process for accelerating the conversion of agricultural waste like corn leaves and rice straw into sugars, and thence into ethanol for fuel—the “sugar-powered car” that got Esquire so excited.

In 2005, Zhang joined Virginia Tech as a tenure-track professor in the biological systems engineering department. One of his first graduate students was Joe Rollin, an idealistic young chemical engineer straight out of the US Army. “I was looking to combine my background with helping to mitigate geopolitical conflict,” Rollin says. “Biofuels was the obvious direction. And from my very first meeting with Percival, entrepreneurship came up.”

In 2010, Zhang, Rollin, and another graduate student, Xiao-Zhou Zhang (no relation), founded Gate

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By: Mark Harris
Title: Inside the fierce, messy fight over “healthy” sugar tech
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Published Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2022 09:00:00 +0000