Nuritas founder Dr Nora Khaldi crunches the data of food

10 Jun 2016

Inspirefest 2016 speaker Dr Nora Khaldi combines life sciences and IT expertise to search for bioactive ingredients in plants that have the potential to prevent or tackle disease.

Next time you eat an apple, stop crunching for a moment and think about how you might instead crunch the data it contains – data in the form of molecules that could help keep us healthy.

Scientist and entrepreneur Dr Nora Khaldi wants to find such specific molecules in plants that can be used as ingredients to improve health.

As founder and CEO of Nuritas, she is combining IT and life sciences expertise to mine DNA and protein data from plant materials in the hope of discovering new food components to help prevent, manage and possibly even cure disease.

“We are interested in bioactive peptides,” explained Khaldi. “These molecules are tremendous, they are amazing, but they are very hard to find.”

Nuritas is taking a new look at this problem using artificial intelligence – by combining life sciences and IT expertise their approach is a quicker and less expensive route to discover bioactive peptides in foods, according to Khaldi, who explains how it works.

“Our focus is plant-derived ingredients,” she explained. “We usually start from raw materials – maybe wheat or apple or rice – and we have the genome (DNA information) and proteome (protein information) of that species. We analyse billions of different combinations of peptides and identify the ones we think have certain benefits.”

The approach gathers and analyses information on aspects of evolution, how molecules bind and their structure, if known, and the search is ‘unsupervised’, she added.  “You don’t go in with a prior idea, you are looking for the [peptide] that has a combination of the best scores.”

Khaldi said she hopes that the Nuritas platform will cut the time and cost of discovering new ingredients for health promotion, disease prevention and medicines.

Maths and biology

It’s obvious talking to Khaldi that science is her thing. “For as long as I can remember, science has been at the centre of my mind and my heart, it has always been there,” she said, noting that her father was an engineer and encouraged her love of problem-solving with maths.

Then there was biology, another fascination that Khaldi “studied on the side” as she learned about maths and problem-solving. So, when an opportunity came up to do a PhD in bioinformatics in Trinity College Dublin, she combined those interests. And it was during these studies that she noticed a gap in our knowledge.

“I realised people were looking for novel medical drugs in weird places, like in deadly fungi, yet there was an ocean of knowledge in food, because food contains tremendous amounts of data in terms of molecules,” she recalled.

Right time for food information

Khaldi’s post-PhD experience working in Ireland and the US galvanised her resolve to harness that ocean of food data and she founded Nuritas to bring AI into the mix.  “What really pushed me forward with Nuritas, and still pushes me every day, is that I feel it is the right timing,” she said. “People are realising that they want to now take more ownership of their health, they are more aware, more educated, and information goes around really quickly, and that information needs to be clear.”

Ultimately, she sees us moving towards knowing what specific foods or products are most suitable for us as subgroups (say, for people with a particular disease or condition), and in the longer term we may even personalise our diets based on our genetics and microbiome.

“All that is coming together, there is a lot of movement and companies working in this area and it is just going to grow,” said Khaldi. “Over the next few years, people are going to be much more informed in terms of what is good scientifically and we will also see more efficacious products on the market that are well regulated and scientifically proven.”

Embrace entrepreneurship

At Inspirefest 2016, Khaldi will speak about her experience as a woman founder of a STEM company, and she recommends to scientists that they embrace entrepreneurship for their ideas and discoveries. “It is the only way you really reach and transform someone’s life,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there that are willing to help and it is amazing on the science side: you have the funds to do it, you have a great team and there are no layers of decisions, especially in a start-up. It is incredible, I would highly recommend to go for it.”

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book your tickets now to join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication