Chemist, Brenden Carlson, Ph.D., is helping reinvent the gummy. Directing the Seattle Gummy Company’s formulations, he’s invented whole new sugar compounds along the way to developing healthy and tasty fitness gummies, energy gummies, multi-vitamin gummies, and even the world’s first planned line of pharmaceutical gummies–which promise to boost efficacy and patient compliance with medications. But his career trajectory didn’t start with applied chemistry in food, or health or medicine—but in aeronautics and military applications.
Dr. Carlson formally began charting his path to becoming, as his colleagues call him, the “walking encyclopedia of polymer chemistry” when he and his mentor, Professor Martin Gouterman at UW, patented a polymer for paints and coatings that would become the standard method of atmospheric pressure testing for new airplanes. It remains the industry standard, offering superior accuracy at a far cheaper cost than the previous method, which required $100,000 “pressure taps” drilled into aircraft. Most planes in the air today have been tested with Dr. Carlson’s inventions—which he developed as an undergrad at the University of Washington.
“It’s always nice to get a patent, and at 22 there weren’t a lot of students walking around campus with those,” said Dr. Carlson, who worked two years behind a cash register in the Bay Area while saving up for college. He has since issued 60 patents with Xinova and its precursors.
His original paint polymer solution stands out because it represents the type of out-of-the-box thinking characteristic of bold innovation. The idea was sparked from a Discovery Channel show in which rats breathed a fluorinated fluid. It got his inventive gears turning on a challenge he’d been pondering with Boeing aircraft and atmospheric pressure testing. Paint could be used for pressure testing instead of pressure taps if the paint polymer’s temperature dependency were removed. He went to the lab and took fluorinated alcohol and acid and made paint out of it. Low and behold, the resulting polymer canceled out temperature dependence completely, leaving only pressure dependence.
It was the kind of innovation the forward-thinking Prof. Gouterman hoped for when he gave lab space and inventive freedom to young students like Dr. Carlson, who are more open to pursuing crazy ideas.
“His lab was very unusual,” said Dr. Carlson. “Professor Gouterman likes working with youth because they don’t have any experience. He found that to be an advantage because a young person, when they encounter a problem, they go in a direction that an older and more experienced person might dismiss as, ‘Oh, that won’t work.’ But younger folks might do unconventional things, not knowing any better, and from there the most beautiful discoveries might happen.”
Dr. Carlson joined the Seattle Gummy Company at the behest of its founder–his former Xinova colleague, Dr. Connie Wan. As a chemist, Dr. Carlson was drawn to the challenge of plying his trade in new fields of food science and pharmaceuticals/nutraceuticals, which would allow him to play around with new sugar compounds. The key challenge to healthy gummies is designing a sugar that doesn’t cause cavities and blood sugar spikes but also has a pleasing sweetness, unlike the metallic, cloying taste of artificial sweeteners.
Solving that challenge inspired Dr. Carlson to invent a new sugar molecule, Trulinose, which tastes like table sugar but without the toothache or blood sugar spikes. Trulinose is currently used in Seattle Gummy products, but it stands to be an ideal table sugar substitute in everything from cookies to ice cream.
“I have an extensive sugar background, but applying it to gummies and consumer products, in general, was a huge change and an appealing challenge. Also, it’s sort of cool to be playing with food. With paints and coatings you have… all these really harsh chemicals to worry about.”
Chewing gummies confers multiple advantages over swallowing things. Bioactive compounds like ginseng and caffeine are absorbed much faster and more effectively through the gums than via the digestive tract. Caffeine, for instance, is absorbed five times faster in a gummy than a cup of coffee. Moreover, eating or drink stuff actually changes the compounds themselves– the liver alters compounds during digestion, so the bloodstream gets a different chemical form of caffeine, for instance, when it’s drunk than when it’s chewed.
The gummy-effect holds true for pharmaceuticals: think of how doctors tell heart attack victims to chew an aspirin rather than swallow it. Moreover, gummies support much higher patient compliance: studies indicate a 90% compliance rate with chewing gummies, compared to roughly 50% with pills, which can be so unpleasant to swallow that actual medicine phobias exist in patients.
Despite these advantages and benefits, pharmaceutical gummies don’t yet exist, largely due to the cost of getting FDA clearance.
“There are no gummy pharmaceuticals on the market. We are pioneering this.”
When he’s not inventing new sugars and driving the gummy health renaissance, Dr. Carlson plays the occasional video game or, more likely, is working on an innovation challenge with Xinova and the chemical solutions company he founded, Seattle Polymer. He often innovates solo, but he enjoys the social aspect of invention sessions and of collaborating with other Xinovians, such as Angele Sjong.
“I enjoy all three forms of invention equally,” he said.
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