With consumers hungry for healthier, natural food, Indiana-based startup Phytoption LLC hopes to ride the wave of demand all the way to the marketplace. The company recently captured top prize at the BioCrossroads New Venture Competition, beating five other Hoosier startups. Arrhythmotech claimed the runner-up position with a technology that aims to make a standard cardiovascular measurement noninvasive.

BioCrossroads says, to date, the annual competition has awarded more than $180,000 to 12 startup companies, which have secured over $7 million in follow-on funding. Phytoption is hopeful its $25,000 prize will be a stepping stone to grow at its headquarters in the Purdue Research Park of West Lafayette. It is already working with a few Fortune 500 companies to refine its technology and hopes to begin manufacturing at the Purdue Research Park in 2016.

Founded in 2011, Phytoption converts insoluble ingredients into soluble. Phytoption Co-founder Joanne Zhang says common nutrients, such as vitamins E, D and A and beta carotene are not water soluble, and therefore, difficult for the human body to absorb. The company believes transforming the nutrients into water soluble formats—making them more effective in foods—will be a key market for its technology.

“There’s also a major trend in the market to use natural colors [instead of artificial] in food,” says Zhang. “A lot of natural colors are not water soluble, like red, yellow and orange—that range of colors is not soluble at all. The current practice is to use a lot of solvent to address that. Instead, we’re using natural ingredients to make it soluble, so the colors can show.”

The company is also targeting the pharmaceutical sector and the cosmetic industry. Zhang says the functional ingredients in cosmetics—such as anti-aging agents—are water insoluble, and therefore, unable to penetrate beyond the skin’s surface. She notes Phytoption can make the active ingredients soluble, “so they can really function.”

Second place winner Arrhythmotech, based in Indianapolis at the Indiana University Research & Technology Corporation, is developing a new device to record and process sympathetic nerve activity and electrocardiogram signals. A conventional ECG (or EKG) focuses only on the latter measurement, but Arrhythmotech’s device will add sympathetic nerve activity to the picture.

Arrhythmotech team member Andy Cothrel says sympathetic nerve activity operates fundamental involuntary processes in the body, including a person’s breathing, heartbeat and digestive system. It’s a measurement that can also help doctors treat patients at risk of sudden cardiac death.

Cothrel says the current standard method for measuring sympathetic nerve activity is an invasive procedure that attaches electrodes directly to a nerve; Arrhythmotech’s device can capture the same information on a patient’s skin.

“We anticipate we’ll have to develop our own device to prove the technology,” says Cothrel. “But ultimately, I see the existing ECG makers probably incorporating this into their hardware and software as a way to more efficiently reach the market.”

Cothrel says the company is anticipating funds from the National Institutes of Health that will send Arrhythmotech “off to the races.”

“But that money can’t be used for things like intellectual property, market research and some of the operating expenses, so the $15,000 we won [at the venture competition] is going to come in very handy in terms of helping us advance the understanding of our marketplace and how we approach it.”

Animated Dynamics, which is developing an imaging technology for cancer therapy, earned the $10,000 third place prize, and Auricyte’s hearing loss therapy won the same amount by claiming the Pre-Venture prize. As winner of the competition, Phytoption will also have access to the Indiana Seed Fund II staff and its network of resources for business planning and early-stage strategic support.

Zhang says Phytoption is testing its technology with cosmetic companies and getting “outstanding” results.

Cothrel says, ultimately, the application of its technology could be very broad.

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