Meet the Founders: Bontia Bio

Vets are increasingly noticing problems with available flea and tick treatments which include emerging drug resistance, adverse side-effects, and the negative environmental impacts of existing anti-parasitic drugs. The animal health market is now calling for environmentally friendly compounds with novel modes of action and larger therapeutic windows.

Meet the founders of Bonita Bio, a Sprout Accelerator venture in the Autumn24 cohort using a synthetic biology platform for the production of natural anti-parasitic compounds with applications in animal health, human health and crop protection. To begin, the team sees a direct opportunity to provide superior and safer flea and tick treatments for companion animals. 

Described as tenacious, inquisitive and innovative, this hard-working team from The Ferrier Research Institute at Victoria University Wellington (VUW) is bringing this solution to reality. 

Taylor Hibbard is a PhD student at The Ferrier Research Institute studying the genetic basis of secondary metabolism in filamentous fungi. He has science background in chemical genomics, synthetic biology, and natural product chemistry. 

Dr. Kelly Styles completed his Masters investigating fungal secondary metabolism at Auckland Uni. He then worked at Biotelliga for 4 years in their synthetic biology team, and recently completed his PhD at VUW in fungal genomics and natural product chemistry. 

Dr. Matt Nicholson is a molecular biologist who was awarded a PhD in fungal molecular biology and has 20 years of experience in the field. Additionally, he has experience in business, sales, marketing, and commercialisation which he now puts to use at Wellington UniVentures.

Professor Emily Parker FRSNZ is a professor of Chemical Biology and the leader of the Synthetic and Chemical Biology team at The Ferrier Institute at VUW. She is also a Departmental Science Advisor to MBIE and previously served as the Associate Dean of Research for the Faculty of Science at VUW. She is regarded by the rest of the team as a crucial member who “makes it rain for us”. 

Bontia Bio are using their patented synthetic biology platform to produce a well-studied but previously inaccessible anti-parasitic compound. This is a well-known compound with proven efficacy and safety, but producing it at high yields using traditional chemical synthesis presented a challenge for past researchers and prevented the compound from being brought to market. The team at The Ferrier Research Institute picked up this project and determined how to produce the compound at high quantities using their innovative synthetic biology platform. Bontia Bio is now bringing this natural, microbial-derived, anti-parasitic compound to market for the treatment of companion animals. The compound works through a mechanism distinct from existing treatments, which may help address the rising problem of anti-parasitic resistance. 

Following their market research, the team was surprised by the amount people spend annually to treat their pets - several billion dollars globally and tens of millions here in New Zealand. “Market research is always full of surprises. In some cases, you think you have something really valuable, then you find that the market size isn’t worth it. That was not the case here. There is a large market waiting for this product,” says Dr. Matt Nicholson.

Though the initial target application is flea and tick treatment for companion animals, the application doesn’t stop there. The team knows the success of this first venture will springboard their work into additional markets. This novel compound has a variety of uses including in treating production animals, in crop protection, and for human health. 

“Bad things can happen to good products and it’s important that we succeed here for the future of the product.” 

The next step is securing funding, scaling up and improving yields further. The team is encouraged by validation from industry insiders who are excited about their compound and commending everything that has been done so far. 

The path to commercialisation has been a steep but welcome learning curve for this team eager to put the results of their work to solving real life challenges. They are excited to be working with Sprout to help them gain an understanding of the art of pitching, selling their product, and knowing how to position themselves in the market. 

“Nurturing Bontia Bio to a profitable exit is an impressive goal but ultimately, we want this company to carry on beyond us, and continue to do great things. There are so many opportunities beyond what we are showing we can do today,” says Matt. 

About Sprout: Sprout Agritech LP is an early-stage investor specialising in transformational technologies that impact how life on Earth is nourished and sustained. Through the Sprout Accelerator, they have helped grow more than 110 early-stage ventures within the agri and food industries, which have collectively gone on to raise over $60m in capital.