Episode 185: Alex Lorestani, Co-Founder and CEO of Geltor

Geltor, the company co-founded and led by Alex Lorestani, is doing nothing less than making non-GMO proteins that have zero animal-based ingredients, proteins that could ultimately pop up in just about every consumer product in the beauty, wellness and food industries. How this will positively impact human health, animal health, the planet’s health and everything from the way food is produced to the way antibiotics are used—and overused—is the focus of this crucially important episode.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®, hosted by Jodi Katz, Founder and Creative Director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey, everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast. Welcome back to the show. This week's episode features the CEO and Co-Founder of Geltor, Alex Lorestani. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Alissa Sasso. She is the Manager of the Environmental Defense Fund. Thanks for listening!

Hey, everybody. I'm excited to be here with Alex Lorestani. He's the CEO and Co-Founder of Geltor. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Alex LorestaniHey, Jodi, really excited to be here.
Jodi KatzNice to see you, Alex. So, I'm excited to talk with you, but before we get into my favorite question, I want to know about what percentage of the time do people say Geltor and not Geltor?
Alex LorestaniYeah, it's a toss-up. The correct way or the way that we intended for it to be pronounced was Geltor, like a gel. And we can get into a little bit more of why that makes sense later, but yeah, it seems to be a toss-up.
Jodi KatzWell, I'm excited to learn more about the gel side of Geltor. But before we get started, I love this question, especially during COVID, because I think we're all getting to know ourselves a little bit more again, now that we work from home. So, when someone would have asked your 12 year old self, what do you want to be when you grow up, what was your answer?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Well, I don't know, maybe I was a little bit of an unusual 12 year old. But something that I've been very excited about from a young age was one day running a hospital where no one got sick there. I thought it was really weird that people would go to the hospital and get sicker from something that happened to them there. And that's what eventually led me on this path to going to medical school, graduate school and eventually to starting Geltor with my Co-Founder Nick Ouzounov.
Jodi KatzSo, Alex, you told me that there's a situation when you were a kid with one of your parents' friends dying of AIDS. Was that what put you in this mindset of like, why is this person getting sicker and not healthier?
Alex LorestaniYeah. That was one of them. So, my mom's best friend died of AIDS in the early '90s when I was growing up. And that made a huge impression on me. I remember how much she loved him and how many important things in our home were from him. And just made a real emotional impact on me. But more broadly, growing up in the early '90s, the prominence of Magic Johnson and just the general gestalt of uncertainty and some fear around infectious diseases was something that made an impression on me, even as a really young kid. So, yeah, that played a big part in this interest that I had and it just continued to develop over the years.
Jodi KatzSo, very infrequently does somebody tell me what they want to do when they grow up, it actually ends up being something that they are doing when they grow up. So, you did pursue medicine, right?
Alex LorestaniI did. Yeah. Yeah. I wound up, so I studied biology in college and then afterwards wound up applying to MD-PhD programs. So, these are really training programs that are designed for folks that want to primarily use research as a way to improve human health and focus on human biology in general.
Jodi KatzSo, let's talk about what you studied there. You told me this story and I really wanted to unravel and understand it. And I don't have a medical degree. But learning about how antibiotics are used on farms, can you tell us about this research that you did and how it impacted you?
Alex LorestaniYeah. For sure. This is important, because it draws a direct line between the work that I was thinking about as a graduate student, medical student, and what we do today here at Geltor. So, in the lab, as a PhD student, what I was thinking about all day was how do the bacteria that make people sick in hospitals when they're there work? What are the things that make them tick from a molecular perspective? And what I was learning as I took a step back and start to work on my thesis and looked at some of the more systemic drivers of this, not the molecular ones, but the things happening in our world that make this thing go, was how connected the way that we make protein, the way that we make food, the way that we make ingredients is connected to this challenge of antibiotic resistance.

And the first real eye-opening statistic that I encountered was that 70%-80% of the antibiotics that we make for humans to be treated and get better, actually get deployed on farms to make animals better protein factories, essentially. And that made me stop in my tracks almost. It was shocking. And within that, being able to, through epidemiological research and some other work done by others is trace back from that ecological problem happening on farms, back into communities, seeing these bacteria that were becoming resistant to antibiotics in the communities and ultimately back in hospitals. So, that was a really interesting driver in all of this, that when you think about it is really hard to attack with anything but a global platform, that's a global problem. So, that was quite interesting to us.
Jodi KatzAnd in your history of manufacturing or growing food with animals, what's changed versus, I don't know, 40 years ago or 50 years ago? Why are these conversations happening now?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Well, I think that, it's a great question. And there are sort of two questions in there. One is, why is this conversation happening now? And the other one is like, what's changed over time? So, I think the big driver for why this conversation is happening now is that we're running out of antibiotics to use. We, in the early part of the 20th century, were able to unlock, discovery of antibiotics, production of them at large scale, it was this literal miracle drug.

And they were overused, used in inappropriate context sometimes. And that's created this environment where clinicians have really limited options when looking at treating many infections. There are some infections where we have one shot left. So, I think that's why we're having the conversation today, it's, options are extremely limited, sometimes critically limited and everything that we do, in the clinical setting, whether you're getting a hip replacement or an elective surgery, you need antibiotics to make these things work, to make them safe. And that's in jeopardy right now.
Jodi KatzAll right. So, let's talk about you. You have a co-founder in this business. How did you guys meet?
Alex LorestaniYeah, we met in the lab. We were both graduate students together at Princeton working on our PhDs in the same place. And it was a really exciting place to go and do science and meet other really cool scientists. So, back in 2012, Nick and I were just early in our training for our PhDs. And that's how we first connected.
Jodi KatzAnd when you first met, was this conversation around building a business around your science even something you were thinking about at that time?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Well. So, it was something that we were thinking about independently, which is, I think, a part of what drew us together. In a lot of tradition PhDs has been focused on training scholars. Training folks that would go and be fellows, then professors and so on. What I think we were both excited about was being able to use science to impact human health outside of the academic sphere.

And for me, the big part of that was thinking about human health through the lens of medicine, pursuing that. But Nick is a really one of the most amazing bio tinkerers and bio designers that I've ever met in my life. And that was what made it so fun to work with him as a graduate student, solving different problems, solving different challenges. He's the person that people went to when they had something really tricky that they needed help solving. So, I think that an interest outside of the academic sphere was one thing that certainly brought us together.
Jodi KatzSo, in reading about your company, you recently raised $90 million to fuel the growth of the business. If it happened at this moment, maybe there are other times, what are those moments where you look at Nick and you guys are like, "Oh my God, is this happening? Is this real?" Was it like, "Oh yeah, $90 million, big whoop?" Or was it like, "Oh my God, this is a big deal?"
Alex LorestaniOh yeah, it's a huge deal. We sort of have to pinch ourselves every day to a certain extent. The opportunity to work with the people that we get to work with every single day is incredibly exciting, humbling, just so amazing. We're both people who love to learn and being able to just learn from these amazing folks and lead them is such a special opportunity. So, yeah, we feel lucky every single day.
Jodi KatzI interviewed someone who runs a fragrance company and she got a huge investment and I'm like, "Wasn't that a crazy moment?" She's like, "No, I expected it." And I'm like, "Wait, I feel like I would just be ringing the bell, dancing around, calling everyone I know." So, everyone handles this stuff differently. So, I'm always so curious about how that human side of us shows through when we're seeing the success that we always dream of.
Alex LorestaniYeah. There is the analytical side of us, where we say, "Okay, We're working to build the company that all the consumer brands in the world call when they need protein." And you can do the analysis on how much capital you'll need in order to get there in a short period of time. But, if you put the numerical side of that aside, there is that other component of just being a human and saying, "Yeah, okay. Even if that's what the data are telling you, there's absolutely a emotional component to that." And that's what you feel every day. You go look at the numbers every month, every quarter, but the joy is sort of baked into every single day.
Jodi KatzSo, Alex, what is the gel of Geltor? What does the gel mean?
Alex LorestaniThe gel, yeah. So, when we were getting started, the goal was to build the protein partner of choice. And the first protein that we were really focused on was and is collagen. And collagen is used in a lot of different places. One of those places is in gelatin products and collagen can form gels itself, that was the inspiration for having gel in the name. I think it also just sounds cool.
Jodi KatzSo, you started as the replacement for, I guess, the bone marrow gelatin that we grew up with?
Alex LorestaniWell, that was and is an important part of what we see as the opportunity in protein, but to get started, what we really wanted to make was something a little different from that. So, making these special collagen proteins that we could help folks in the skincare industry, initially, just make products that weren't possible in any other way. So, in the long run, being able to replace these ingredients that we've traditionally taken from animal bones and skin is important and exciting. But being able to start by really teaching customers in the market, that you can actually make things that are better, that aren't really impossible to get without using approaches like this is what has really motivated us from the start.
Jodi KatzSo, does the collagen that you're creating, is it derived from a plant cell? Where does it start?
Alex LorestaniSo, the collagen that we're making, so this is super cool, because we can make a human collagen, just the collagen that's found inside of you, me, every human that's out there, without ever having to get anything from a person. The only thing that we need is protein sequences. So, all of our proteins are made of these strings of amino acids. And we have libraries that have information about these different protein sequences inside of. And when you go through it, you can actually say it or ask, I should phrase it as, you can ask, "What is the best collagen for this particular kind of product?" And then go and find it and take that sequence information and build a fermentation process that requires zero animal inputs and make it.

So, you just need the information, which is a revolutionary concept. If you wanted to make a fish collagen, you never have to meet the fish. If you want to make a person collagen, you never have to meet the person. You just need the data.
Jodi KatzSo, you're saying I don't need a human cell to make a human collagen sequence?
Alex LorestaniYeah. That's exactly right. Which is amazing.
Jodi KatzSo, this avoids the whole like STEM cell and all that? That's not what this is.
Alex LorestaniYeah. So what this is, is using the same general fermentation processes that we've used for decades to make things like enzymes, things like insulin for medicine, and really focusing on developing this to serve the consumer products industry. That's been one of the big challenges, I think, in an industry, being able to take what biology has been able to do in the world of the life sciences and its certain industrial niches, and then bring that to the very big world of consumer products.
Jodi KatzSo, we talked about the consequences of using animals to create, whether it's food or products for ingredients, for cosmetics or whatnot. Is there a downside to the sequencing that you're doing? Is there a ecological impact? Or what kind of impact, is it impact zero? I'm trying to understand, I know that we can watch tons of movies about the impact of animals and how we eat animals and manufacture animals, but what's the impact in this process?
Alex LorestaniYeah. So, the impact on the environment is one of the things that really drew us to being able to use this kind of technology. When you go in and do what's called a life cycle analysis to measure what is the requirement from a land perspective? How much land do you need in order to produce these products? How much water do you need to produce these products? How much greenhouse gases and greenhouse gas equivalents are produced in the production of these proteins? And then you compare it to what it takes to get a similar protein from an animal, it's extremely favorable.

So, from that perspective, it is highly advantageous today and only getting better. I think that the biggest challenge right now, these are really new products, we launched our first ingredient in 2019. So, I think the biggest challenge, for the market is their premium positioning. So, because we're so early in the development of products of scale, we can really only access a certain segment of consumer products today. We're working really hard to rapidly change that.

This year we're going to be launching our first product in the food and beverage sector and going to a completely different level of scale for this production, super excited about that. So, the team is making amazing strides to be able to essentially bring this technology to a wider audience, which I think is the biggest challenge today.
Jodi KatzRight. So, are there products in the market that have Geltor collagen in it?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Yeah. So, it's amazing to think about this, but there are tens of millions of units of consumer products around the world that have been sold powered by Geltor proteins, from Asia to North America, to Europe now. So, we have really quickly seen the demand from the industry, first in cosmetics and personal care and now entering in food and nutrition, translate into real products in the world that are doing phenomenally well.
Jodi KatzAnd on the beauty end of it, are you able to run a clinicals on your ingredients to get beauty brands the claims that they need to be able to sell well in this market?
Alex LorestaniYeah. It's a great question. And the short answer is yes. And I think that's one of the most important things that we actually do. When we've gone out and looked at the of literature and the existing data around different proteins that our customers use. There's not a lot out there. So, what we want to be able to do is help our customers understand how much of the product to use, how many times a day to use it, what are the conditions where it can be the most effective. And we do that through data that's generated through studies, including clinical studies.

So, yeah, we've been able to, actually, one of my favorite ones is when we actually had a head to head of a formulation, same exact formulation either powered by Geltor collagen or by a marine collagen. And we were able to show conclusively that you do a better job with the Geltor collagen across a couple of parameters. So, that was one of the first really early data points that we were able to rally around.
Jodi KatzDo brands plan on marketing that they have Geltor collagen in their products?
Alex LorestaniYeah.
Jodi KatzIs that something that any of the brands are using as a selling point? Because the customer shops by her values now. So, the fact that it's not animal derived and that it's saving X, Y, and Z from an environmental impact is really exciting to the customer. Have you had any conversations like that with brands?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Yeah. And that's been really cool to see. So, we have customers today that are actively advertising and marketing Geltor and/or the branded ingredients of Geltor alongside their products. And we have more that are going to be coming out this year. So, what we've been hearing from our customers is, one, it's really, it's a mark of innovation and performance, first and foremost, I think that in the beauty industry in particular, sustainability and ethical products are more and more just becoming table stakes. And the emphasis really is on the products have to work. And this is one way that the brands have really looked to differentiate saying, "Hey, look, this is the protein innovation company and this product is proudly powered by it," which is incredibly exciting.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool. Are you allowed to say the names of the companies that use your ingredients?
Alex LorestaniSo, there's one that I know that I can share, because it's out in the public domain. So, there's a really cool brand, part of the Unilever portfolio that's based in Korea called AHC, very clinically-focused. And they, within the past few years, put out a great story about how one of their products, which owns most of the segment where they're operating is powered by a couple of Geltor ingredients. So, that's the AHC product line in Korea, which is now a global brand, which we just love.
Jodi KatzI'm excited for this in beauty, but I'm really excited to see how this rolls out into food and beverage. Because there's just more people eating and drinking than using expensive face creams. So, I'm really excited to see what that kind of growth looks like for you guys. So, Alex, our last topic is going to be on leadership style. You seem like a really nice guy, and I've met a lot of people in this business and some of them, many of them are really nice, but some of them seem very ego-driven or self-serving. So, you don't come across that way to me, tell me a little bit about your leadership style in the organization, especially as you scale, it sounds like you're growing rapidly.
Alex LorestaniYeah. It's a great question. And I think that the first reflection that I have is that, it's had to change over time. When Nick and I started six years ago or so, what I think the company needed from me as a leader was very different than what the company needs from me as a leader today, where we have 70-80 people operating in a very unusual environment in these, as we're recording this, this is still COVID times.

So, I think that one of the biggest learnings has been you sort of need to think about what the company needs from you and always anchor that against what you're great at and what you love. But fundamentally being really comfortable with making yourself uncomfortable and changing what you do. So, I think that's the biggest reflection that I have on that. It's just, I think, leadership styles evolve over time and certainly my own has as well.

I think that the biggest takeaways for me, and learnings, have been to not be afraid to ask people for more. And actually view that as an opportunity to let people know that you believe in them, that I believe that you can do something here that is better than what this is right now and that's why you're here. And I've found the best people on our team and elsewhere respond really positively to that.

So, I think that's been one of the biggest learnings of the past year, and you can do that be really nice. You don't need to be an egotistical jerk to convey that message. I actually think we've got way too much done. We have way too much to do for ego to get in the way in those sorts of interactions. So, yeah, no, I think that biggest learning for me has been that leadership styles need to evolve, sometimes rapidly as you grow.
Jodi KatzAnd for yourself, during this quarantine period and the accelerated growth of your business, how has that impacted the way you try to seek out balance in your life, beyond Geltor? Or is there even time? Is there a time leftover beyond Geltor?
Alex LorestaniYeah. Well, I feel I'm so lucky, I love thinking about Geltor. I sometimes I have to force myself to stop. I think that's a challenge for myself, my co-founder and some other people at the company is like, we actually have to force ourselves to stop, because it's just so much fun. And this is what we're excited about doing for the rest of our lives.

At the same time, it's to recognize that every once in a while you need to unplug. Every once in a while you need to unplug. So, I think that there are some useful ways of actually forcing yourself to do that. And that's how I think of balance. It's making sure that you're creating spaces. I love walking my dog. I love walking my dog, leaving my cell phone at home when I'm walking her and just taking that time to not think about things intentionally, but still, that's usually when you get some of the most interesting ideas about what you want to do when you get back. So, I think that I have such a hard time answering this question, always, and I get asked it a lot. But that's how I feel.
Jodi KatzWell, Alex, I feel the same. My work is, most of the time, really fun. And I love working with my team and sometimes I wish there were more hours in the day. But I do think people need that kind of support of like, how do I make myself shut it off? Or how do I make myself walk away? Because I do believe that the creativity happens when you're not sitting at your desk answering emails or on calls. So, do you have a tip? How do you force yourself to get away from your desk, away from your phone?
Alex LorestaniI think it's not really a tip, I think that this is just a common sense thing that I've started to do is actually just leave your phone and go and do the thing, whatever it is. If it's working out, or walking your dog, painting, reading, whatever it is, just actually go and do that thing. Just like actually when I'm working, I put my cell phone in the other room so that I can go and focus on the call or the work or the whatever. I think that being able to... That's my own working style. I just like to hone in on one thing at a time.
Jodi KatzWell, Alex, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with our listeners today. I really appreciate it.
Alex LorestaniYeah. Hey, thanks so much. This has been a blast.
Jodi KatzAnd for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Alex. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @wherebrainsmeetbeautypodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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