Home » Insights » Rising Stars: Women in the Bioeconomy [PANEL]

Shelley King

CEO, Natural Products Canada

The demand for ‘green’ products has never been higher. Luckily, some incredibly smart, driven women are lending Mother Nature a hand. 

“We see solid solutions to complicated challenges coming from STEM-savvy female entrepreneurs right across the country,” says Shelley King, CEO of Natural Products Canada, an organization that supports the commercialization of naturally-derived products and technologies.

Emily Hicks relied on her science background to co-found FREDsense, a company tackling waste-water treatment with the help of microbes. Luna Yu’s company, Genecis Bioindustries, uses bacteria to upcycle organic waste into bioplastics. And Dr. Mariana Royer formed Bio Stratège to leverage powerful compounds from trees and plants for a range of products, including cosmetics and nutraceuticals. 

Women in STEM are also addressing the demand for ‘clean label’ products that we put in and on our bodies. After significant scientific research, Kenna Whitnell, founder of Altilis Beauty, chose breadfruit as an active ingredient in her skincare line, inspired by its natural phytochemicals and its importance to the ecology and economy of the Samoan communities where it is grown. Hannah McIver’s company, MicroSintesis, harnesses the natural communication molecules produced by the microbiome to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals and humans. And finally, Natasha Dhayagude used her background in biochemistry to start Chinova Bioworks, a company that develops a natural preservative extracted from mushrooms for use in food and beverage applications.


Luna Yu

CEO, Genecis Bioindustries

Mediaplanet: What attracted you to STEM?

Luna Yu: 99% of world’s bacteria remains uncharacteristic. We are excited to learn what some can do, and how SynBio can be applied to produce high value materials, without the expensive and polluting chemicals.

Genecis Bioindustries make bacteria that enables production of premium materials cost-competitively. Our core competency is using organic waste as the feedstock, instead of paid feedstocks like sugars. Our first product line is a biodegradable plastic resin (PHAs) used for high-end applications, like 3D printing filaments and personal care products. Our proprietary technology significantly reduces the resin production costs, lowering the barrier for plastic manufacturers to create healthy and affordable products.


Natasha Dhayagude

CEO, Chinova Bioworks

Natasha has a background in biochemistry and was always set on growing her career in a more traditional field like medicine. However, she always had a passion for using her scientific textbook knowledge and applying it to solve a real-world problem. Her passion combined with finding a great co-founder is what led to the start of Chinova. She strives to inspire other women in STEM to do the same and currently employs 90% of woman in STEM fields, all from her hometown in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Being a woman in STEM and a minority one of her biggest goals is to make sure she has an extremely diverse team as she continues to grow and expand the company.

Chinova Bioworks is a Canadian company that addresses the growing demand of consumers for healthy, natural, clean-label ingredients while providing producers an effective solution that ensures food safety, shelf-life and the overall quality of the product. The company has developed an innovative preservative ingredient extracted from mushrooms called chitosan. This technology offers broad-spectrum protection against all types of microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, and mold), is easy to use, has no organoleptic impact all at a competitive price point.


Emily Hicks

President & Co-Founder, FREDsense Technologies

Mediaplanet: What attracted you to STEM?

Emily Hicks: I first fell in love with biotechnology as an undergraduate student when I had the opportunity to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition (iGEM). I loved the idea of being able to engineer biology to do useful things and solve real problems. I was fascinated by the potential biology has to solve so many different problems. FREDsense is really an extension of this, using biology to solve a complex problem that affects many different industries.

FREDsense combines genetic engineering and electrochemistry to create portable sensors for doing water quality analysis in the field. We engineer bacteria to detect specific compounds and in response, produce electrochemical signals that we can measure using field devices. Currently FREDsense is focused on detection of trace arsenic for cities and industrial applications with our first product, FRED-Arsenic. Generating data comparable to an analytical lab, FRED-Arsenic provides rapid and accurate data to field operators. By tuning the bacteria, we can create new sensors for a wide variety of different contaminants across industries.


Dr. Mariana Royer

CEO & Founder, Bio Stratège inc.

Mediaplanet: What attracted you to STEM?

Dr. Mariana Royer: I started off by studying the exceptional properties of Amazonian trees in French Guiana, where I discovered their defence mechanisms and their complex technology to resist extreme conditions, along with their ability to survive and live long. In 2009, during an economic crisis for the Canadian wood industry, I happened to be doing my postdoctoral fellowship in Quebec. Considered by the forest industries to be residue, I realized forest resources have been wasted for years. Seeing the potential to contribute towards the circular economy, I decided to launch myself in entrepreneurship to utilize the natural resource by maximizing its potential in a sustainable way.

Bio Stratège is now pursuing its green mission by being involved in different projects that aim at expanding a sustainable model to contribute to the industrialization of the natural ingredient field in Canada. Projects like these are very important to support the Canadian bioeconomy and to have an impact on the international markets.

Bio Stratège is our expertise developed over the last 10 years in the field of eco-extraction technologies. We are growing the development of natural ingredients and eco-responsible products, while also offering a marketing strategy to Canadian companies. After creating the concept of upcycling bark to extract natural bioactive compounds dedicated to cosmetics, we continued our mission to help make the world a little greener every day by offering a panel of turnkey services that help turn an idea to green innovation, and helping it ultimately get to the market. Bio Stratège is also associated with the Nordext Inc. project, the first industrial eco-extraction platform to be located in the heart of the boreal forest in Québec’s Far North and dedicated to nutraceuticals and animal feed. We are also co-founders of Manie Cosmetics Inc. which will highlight the synergy of the forest’s molecules with key active ingredients from Nordic tree bark.


Kenna Whitnell

COO & Founder, Altilis Beauty®

Company founder and COO Kenna Whitnell first began experimenting with ingredients and formulations as a teenager searching for a natural solution for acne and dry and sensitive skin. While experimenting with plant based ingredients, and bringing to market a few aromatherapy products under the brand ‘Soleluna Cosmetics’, she noticed two growing trends within the natural product industry; the adulteration of raw materials, and unsustainable plant material sourcing. She knew there had to be a way of enjoying the benefits of plants, without compromising the planet. Her search led her to breadfruit, incredibly rich in unique and powerful phytochemicals with antioxidant, soothing and protective benefits for the skin.

Altilis is the species name of breadfruit, a staple food crop in the Pacific Islands and the key active ingredient in all ALTILIS Beauty® skin care products. While studying biochemistry at the University of British Columbia in 2017, Kenna Whitnell discovered the skin care benefits of the breadfruit male inflorescences (flowers). From the breadfruit flowers she developed an extract, isolated the compound responsible for bio-activity, and structurally characterized it as a bioflavonoid with powerful antioxidant and skin brightening properties. Through this new ingredient and product development, Kenna works closely with local partners in Samoa, to bring new income opportunities into the communities in which breadfruit grows abundantly and is an essential part of community, traditions and health.


Hannah McIver

Founder & CEO, MicroSintesis Inc.

Hannah McIver: We didn’t set out to build a STEM business. In fact, after the sale of my last STEM company, I firmly believed I would never do it again. But business ideas ultimately speak to you and this is exactly what happened here. We found a great technology, with strong potential, and a solid foundation of early data; I was hooked. Changing the world through clinically validated, microbiome derived, therapeutic products to reduce the chance that we will live in a world without effective antibiotics is a passion that drives every person in our company. How could I not be attracted?

MicroSintesis is one of the first companies dedicated to understanding the communication molecules used by the microbiome to modulate the microbiome’s population. Probiotics secrete a newly discovered set of biopeptides as part of their natural defence mechanism that reduce the virulence of pathogenic bacteria and improve the probiotics’ competitive advantage. By harnessing these molecules MicroSintesis has been able to reduce the incidence and severity of several microbiome related infectious diseases. Our goal is to develop a new generation of clinically validated probiotics and microbiome therapies for animals and humans.

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