Dr. Tom Simmons, from the Lancashire coast in Northern England, was on an academic career track at Cambridge University when he realized it fell short of his ambitions. “I wanted to make impactful discoveries and inventions,” he says, “and starting a business was a more direct way of doing that than being a professor, making discoveries, and writing papers about it.”
Simmons, 35, still lives in Cambridge, where he used his background in plant science to develop a new category of food ingredient: sugars found naturally in plant fiber. Rather than sugar beets or processed cane, these sugars are made from upcycling agriculture that would normally go to waste, such as fiber-rich stems and stalks, corn cobs, oat husks, and the straw from grains. Among other advantages, this means a reduced environmental impact since growing sugarcane requires abundant water and deforested land.
“I have a special interest in sustainably-based, renewable materials and fuels,” Simmons says, adding that he had spent 10 years doing research on carbohydrates and sugars, interested in the biology in how plants grow and interact with the world. To that end, he incorporated The Supplant Company in 2017 and patented the idea for the production of sugars from fiber the following year. The method he discovered breaks down the long chains of sugars into shorter ones so the product tastes and behaves like traditional sugar in food, including browning and caramelizing.
The human body benefits as well, he pointed out, since sugar derived from fiber is lower in calories, has a lower glycemic response than glucose, and promotes the growth of good bacteria in the gut. Sweeteners like corn syrup, in contrast, are linked to diabetes and obesity.
Prepandemic trips to the Bay Area, and then Zooming with investors once travel became impossible, netted the company millions in seed money. There are now 30 employees in the U.K. and five in the U.S. To gain traction with influential chefs, a member of Simmons’ team composed handwritten letters to a number of them. Thomas Keller, whose French Laundry, in Yountville, California, and Per Se, in Manhattan, are world-renowned, responded with interest.
After some trial and error, Supplant sugars appeared last year on the menu at Keller’s Napa-based Bouchon Bakery, in ice cream with chocolate sprinkles. At Per Se, he found it worked well with baked beans and homemade ketchup for French fries. Keller also developed a Supplant chocolate bar in milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and vegan varieties.
Next is rolling out more products, including chocolate chip cookies, in the marketplace. Simmons and his team are developing a catalog offering fudge pieces, icings, spreads, jams, jellies, and cream fillings featuring Supplant sugars.
“I wanted an important problem to solve,” Simmons says. “I wanted a big problem that if I don’t solve it, no one else will.” It appears he’s gotten his wish.