The latest venture for Mike Borg (Class of 2012) is a company that uses microscopic barcodes made from baker’s yeast to trace products in the food supply chain
A self-taught software developer, Mike Borg arrived at the Faculty of Information looking to take advantage of the technical courses in the information systems and design curriculum while, at the same time, continuing to make use of the humanities and liberal arts topics he had studied as an undergrad. The interdisciplinary nature of the Faculty was one of its major attractions for Borg, who was also active outside his classes, working as a research assistant and participating in Professor Matt Ratto’s Critical Making Lab.
“Matt had a concept around annotating the physical world – using a combination of images and visual annotations on those images to track changes in physical space,” says Borg. “He and I saw some opportunity there.” With funding from the University of Toronto Early Stage Technology (UTEST) program, which provides support to U of T entrepreneurs looking to create research-based companies, Borg spent almost a year post-graduation helping to develop a software-as-a-service application for his and Ratto’s Shotlst startup.
“It was my first major taste of what a startup is and how difficult it can be. I got to sink my teeth into some really tactical concepts,” says Borg. “You can draw that thread all the way to where I am today.”
Although Shotlst was eventually wound down, Borg moved on – thanks to the contacts he had made at UTEST – to a new job as the first technical hire at MedReleaf, a startup whose goal was to provide cannabis at a medical grade standard. There, Borg developed all the information systems, including their traceability solutions and e-commerce store, helping the company grow its recurring monthly revenues to more than $30 million .
After MedReleaf was bought out and merged into another cannabis company, Borg and MedReleaf’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Jeremy Friedberg, who is a molecular geneticist, co-founded Index Biosystems to take advantage of an opportunity Borg saw at the intersection of biotechnology and information systems. Their new company utilizes well known molecular techniques, similar to those used at MedReleaf to identify different cannabis cultivars, to develop traceability systems.
This time around, Borg is looking at the wider agriculture and food sector. Index Biosystems is creating a new category of traceability technology, which they call BioTags™, microscopic barcodes crafted from baker’s yeast. Borg and Friedberg opted for yeast as the carrier for their BioTags because of its versatility. “The reason we chose yeast is because it’s environmentally ubiquitous and everywhere. You’re probably inhaling some as you sit there,” says Borg. “It’s also very easy to engineer and very inexpensive to manufacture.”
While other companies have used “naked DNA taggants” and synthetic silica tracers, those can be expensive to produce and require specialized detection equipment, according to Borg. In contrast, the inert but identifiable sequences of DNA that are placed in inactive sections of the yeast genome can be detected and identified using PCR machines, which can now be found almost everywhere as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Borg emphasizes that the Index Biosystems does not engage in any type of genetic modification, a process often resisted by wary consumers. And because no genes are modified, the company has been able to quickly obtain Health Canada and US FDA authorizations for use of their product in food.
While Index Biosystems has tested its product by spraying it on to a variety of foods, the company’s current focus is on dry processed goods, like flour, and seafood. Borg explains that massive silos are filled with grains daily while milling operations often run 24/7. “They’re producing hundreds of thousands of tons of product per year. And the problem with that is they have no way to really know where a particular batch begins and where particular batch ends,” says Borg.
While a contamination event, like a deer defecating in a grain field, might affect only a small amount of product, traditionally, manufacturers have not been able to narrow the scope, resulting in broad and costly recalls. “There’s a lot of wastage, a lot of money loss. So what we allow manufacturers to do is bookend the grains and batches that come into these mills, and when there is a recall, we can reduce it from months to days.”
Along with food safety, Borg says Index’s biotags can be used to authenticate claims of sustainability made, for example, by seafood producers. And there has been interest from pharmaceutical firms looking to identify counterfeits and adulterated products.
Index Biosystems is also working with strategic partners to develop an insurance product for clients who are not satisfied with their current coverage for contamination and recalls. “This is insurance backed by biotechnology, and we’re using our biotags to get there,” says Borg. “We’re leveraging this IP that we’ve created to build out a highly defensible insurance business.”
Index Bioystems and its partners are further looking to build out a corollary prevention program. Combining yeast biotags with antimicrobial peptides, which can, for example, prevent listeria from continuing to grow on a food product, provides a preventative solution to producers.
While Borg isn’t the first Faculty of Information graduate to found a startup, get into biotech or master innovative insurance products, he’s certainly the first to do all three in one company and mix it up with yeast. The interdisciplinary nature of the Faculty prepared him well, says Borg. “I always loved it – and being a good generalist is becoming more important than ever.”