Novel technology fighting iron deficiency
In Pakistan, where one in two children are iron deficient, global food giant Nestlé announced the launch of BUNYAD IRON+, an affordable dairy-based drink fortified with a new source of iron in 2022. The unique iron source has three times greater absorption than alternative sources. The FERRI-PRO technology, originally developed by the Riddet Institute at Massey University, was acquired by Nestlé in December 2018.
Iron Deficiency Anaemia is a serious global public health problem, affecting 1.6 billion people world-wide. Anaemia predominantly affects young children and pregnant women in developing countries. According to WHO statistics, one third of women and over 40% of children under 5 are anaemic. Left untreated, Iron Deficiency Anaemia can cause serious mental and physical harm.
Researchers at Massey University’s Riddet Institute developed FERRI-PRO, a patented technology for fortifying food and beverages with iron that is affordable and easily absorbed by the body. The novel protein-iron complex, made using food-grade materials, enables fortification of food products and beverages without compromising the quality and taste, a common problem with many other fortification methods.
"We developed the technology to help to address the world's most important nutritional deficiency, as over 1.6 billion people are suffering from iron deficiency anaemia” said Distinguished Professor Harjinder Singh, the director of the Riddet Institute and leader of the research team at Massey University. “However, our goal was to not only address iron deficiency, but to address it without impacting product quality."
Having developed and patented the FERRI-PRO technology to address a clear market need, the tech-transfer teams at Massey University and Massey Ventures Ltd quickly identified Nestlé as an ideal commercialisation partner. FERRI-PRO aligned perfectly with Nestlé’s strategic commitments to address under-nutrition through micronutrient fortification, making the technology a prime acquisition target.
Massey Ventures’ commercialisation process involved engaging with Nestle headquarters in Switzerland, establishing an exclusive trial period and ultimately negotiating the sale of the FERRI PRO intellectual property.
Above: A spoon-full containing FERRI-PRO
Speaking on the technology acquisition, Petra Klassen Wigger (Head of Nutrition, Health, and Wellness at Nestlé Research) reiterated Nestlé’s ambitions: "At Nestlé we believe that we have a key role to play in support of global efforts to tackle the global burden of micronutrient deficiencies. Through this collaboration with Massey University, we will have access to an innovative technology that enables us to effectively fortify our foods and beverages without compromising the quality and taste”.
Over three years following the deal, the Riddet Institute and Nestlé collaborated to transfer, refine, and scale the technology. In January 2019 a senior delegation from Nestle headquarters visited Palmerston North to better understand the capability and capacity of the Riddet Institute, Massey University, and the wider science system through Food HQ. The Riddet Institute presented a portfolio of nineteen other market informed R&D projects. The close working relationship with the world’s largest food company continues to provide significant and on-going benefit to Australasia.
Heike Steiling, Head of Nestlé's R&D center for dairy remarked: "After we acquired the technology, we continued to collaborate closely with Massey University to bring this new source of iron to market... We are excited to see this new technology being applied for the development of affordable nutrition solutions." Talking on their collaborative efforts, Singh echoed Steiling’s comments, stating "We relished the opportunity to work with Nestlé to co-develop the FERRI-PRO technology, and it is so fulfilling to see its application in helping address iron deficiency in vulnerable populations across the globe".
Recognising the magnitude of the deal and the benefits of the ongoing relationship between Nestlé and the University, the team behind the deal were recognised as winner of the PWC Commercial Impact Award at the 2020 KiwiNet awards. This award celebrates excellence in research commercialisation, delivering outstanding innovation performance and the potential for generating significant economic impact for New Zealand. The deal later won “Best Licensing Deal” at the 2022 KCA Australasian Research Commercialisation Awards.
In 2022, the deal, technology transfer, and ongoing R&D culminated in the launch of Nestlé's flagship product containing FERRI PRO; an affordable dairy-based product called BUNYAD IRON+. The product was first launched in Pakistan where half of children are iron deficient, containing 30% of the recommended daily iron intake for an 8-year-old. With the success in Pakistan, Nestlé will consider additional products and markets to meet their goals of addressing under-nutrition.
The sale represents the single biggest commercial deal to emerge from the University, both in terms of commercial impact and societal benefits. The relationship with Nestlé also continues to provide benefits with ongoing collaboration opportunities for the University.