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Manufacturing: Duopharma ventures into plant-based pharmaceuticals

Manufacturing: Duopharma ventures into plant-based pharmaceuticals

20 Oct 2022

It is common for people to replace meat with plant-based alternatives to reduce their dietary carbon footprint. It is now possible for them to also go for plant-based pharmaceutical products.

Duopharma Biotech Bhd signed a collaboration agreement with US-based food technology company The Live Green Co in July to explore this possibility in Malaysia. Essentially, it hopes to use plant ingredients to replace animal, synthetic and ultra-processed ingredients in pharmaceutical and functional food products.

Ideally, this will enable Duopharma to reduce scope three emissions from its value chain and potentially increase the health profile of its products.

“With plant-based ingredients, you find that human tolerance to the products becomes less of an issue, relative to some chemical compounds. So, you could potentially get a safer product,” says Leonard Ariff Abdul Shatar, group managing director of Duopharma.

The company is planning to do its scope three emissions accounting this year to fully understand the impact of this shift to its carbon footprint. These actions are meant to be aligned with its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We invested in The Live Green Co because it has a plant-only technology that is going to disrupt the market. The company doesn’t use additives or chemicals. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the food system is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and it urges governments to make plant-based food and technology available,” says Nagarajan Pillay, chairman of The Live Green Co and founding managing director of venture fund DRADS Capital.

Duopharma will use the technology to introduce plant-based functional foods and replace some ingredients in its pharmaceutical products. “For example, we will design food products that are acceptable to diabetic patients. That’s what we call functional foods,” says Leonard. 

“On the pharmaceutical side, basic things like colouring are things that we should be able to get plant-based alternatives. Another example is making plant-based collagen.”

For Leonard, the benefits of exploring plant-based alternatives go beyond sustainability. The functional food sector can become a commercial driver for the company.

“Another thing that attracted us was the halal certification for our products. The ability to remove animal-based products from our portfolio was an attractive proposition,” he says.

At least two reformulated products will be offered to consumers by 2024. Consumer brands carried by Duopharma that will soon have plant-only or plant-based tags, including Flavettes, Champs, Uphamol and Naturalie.

Ingredients in pharmaceutical products

Most people may not know what is inside the drugs or supplements they consume. Leonard explains how animal-based and ultra-processed ingredients are used to create these products.

“Take collagen. It is a standard product used in a lot of food supplements. In some cases, it is seafood based [because it comes from fish skin.] Then, you have products like gelatine. For a lot of soft gels [like gelatine], they are mainly bovine- or porcine-related,” he says.

There are two main components of a tablet: an active ingredient and compounds to hold it together. “You don’t want the tablet to break up or discolour. So, you put in excipients to form the backbone and carry the active ingredient. Some of these excipients are additives that are ultra-processed,” says Leonard.

Obviously, replacing ingredients will result in a variation in the product. Duopharma won’t change the active ingredient. “But yes, there is a regulatory hurdle that we have to overcome,” he says.

The Live Green Co’s main product is Charaka, a technology-driven database of 25,000 plants, with a million data points on each plant’s unique characteristics.

“These could be used to create different compounds. For example, lentils can be good emulsifiers and binding agents. We built the database with the premise that nature has a lot to offer and we should tap into it because it is sustainable and healthy,” says Sasikanth Chemalamudi, co-founder of The Live Green Co.

Using plant compounds to generate pharmaceutical products is not new. In 2015, Tu Youyou, a scientist from China, won the Nobel Prize for her work in traditional herbal medicines. She discovered a substance from sweet wormwood that can cure malaria.

What makes this effort different is that Duopharma wants to add plants that are indigenous to Malaysia into The Live Green Co’s database. It has invited the company to set up a research centre in the country.

Achieving Duopharma’s climate targets

As a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Duopharma needs a fair amount of electricity to power its cold rooms. Energy is its largest source of emissions (without considering scope three emissions). This is a big challenge for the company as Malaysia’s grid is still primarily powered by fossil fuels, says Leonard.

Duopharma tries to address this by using more energy-efficient chillers and equipment. It is also hoping to purchase renewable energy certificates. What about solar?

“We’ve reviewed solar but our data indicates that it does not give us big savings. The impact on our carbon footprint is actually quite small compared to [changing] our chillers [to be more energy-efficient.] We prioritise those that can have a bigger impact. Things like solar can be introduced later,” says Leonard.

The company has not introduced energy-efficient chillers at all of its plants yet, so he is unable to share how this strategy has contributed to reducing overall emissions. On the other hand, Duopharma is hoping to generate carbon credits from the plant-based products it is manufacturing with The Live Green Co. 

Another target is to replace 50% of single-use plastics with biodegradable plastics by 2026. However, most biodegradable plastic can only degrade under specific conditions. Leonard acknowledges the difficulties of achieving this target. 

In the pharmaceutical industry, this is exacerbated by the fact that stability of products is vital. The type of packaging used can affect that.

“We need to rethink how we do it. In South Australia, they have a bottle return policy. Consumers pay a higher price but they can get a rebate once they return the bottle. It is something we may have to consider moving forward,” he says.

Most of Duopharma’s product packaging is glass, apart from the cap, which is plastic. That is because glass can provide better protection and there is less risk of cross-contamination. But when the product is shipped out, it is shrink-wrapped in plastic.

“We are looking at how we present the products to retailers because there is a lot of packaging there as well,” says Leonard. Even glass recycling is less common now, he adds.

Water management is another area that the company focuses on. It has rainwater harvesting and water recycling systems installed at its plants.

It is interesting to note that Duopharma has had to contend with the issues of water scarcity and flooding. There have been a few incidences of water shortages in the state in the past five years, which impacted operations, says Leonard.

“Our haemodialysis concentrate is basically clean water mixed with salt. Whenever we had drought or problems with water in the last few years, we have had to get road tankers to bring us water to keep operations going,” he says.

Meanwhile, the massive flooding last December badly impacted Klang, where its factories are located. Fortunately, the company’s new buildings are on elevated ground. 

“During the recent floods, the property across our road was flooded, but we were safe. It may be different if we get a worse flood,” says Leonard.

Duopharma plans to create a roadmap to reach net zero and implement a five-year strategy to reach carbon neutrality.

Leonard hopes that the local ecosystem can be better developed to support sustainability, so that whatever new regulation that is introduced comes with solutions for businesses to adopt as well.

“For example, I would love to have solar power and sell it back to the grid. But I live in an apartment, so none of the available schemes apply to me. Or I would love to have an electric vehicle, but I don’t want to park in Tapah and walk to Ipoh because there are no chargers,” he illustrates.

“Companies can only go so far. We still need the government’s help to have a target and design regulations to reach that target.”

Source: The Edge Markets