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Carembouche: appetising probiotics to fight undernourishment

Innovation Article published on 01 December 2022 , Updated on 08 March 2023

Founded in 2021, the start-up Carembouche uses a probiotic developed during the LactoInside project within the Microbiology of Human Health Laboratory (Micalis - Univ. Paris-Saclay, INRAE, AgroParisTech). It promotes energy intake for people who do not eat enough and covers their needs.

In France, two million people are undernourished, mainly hospitalised adults and the elderly. These adults lose their appetite due to difficulties in moving, eating or chewing or as a result of intense treatments. The resulting weight loss creates a negative spiral, as it leads to intense fatigue, sarcopenia (i.e. the loss of muscle mass and strength), a depletion of intestinal microbiota and the weakening of the immune system. The people concerned suffer a deterioration in their quality of life and a loss of autonomy and become more susceptible to disease. Muriel Thomas, Research Director at the MICALIS Institute recalls that "undernutrition increases mortality by a factor of four, which makes it a major public health problem".


A bacterial strain with a protective probiotic effect

In 2019, as part of a Carnot Qualiment-funded project (2019-2021), the researcher, who has been conducting research into microbiota and their effects on digestive health for the past two decades, succeeded in isolating a bacterial strain of Lactobacillus. This strain has a probiotic effect that protects muscle mass in aged and undernourished animal models. Thanks to the LactoInside project, financed by SATT Paris-Saclay, the researcher then validated the safety of this probiotic. On the strength of this discovery, Muriel Thomas signed an exclusive licence with INRAE for the use of this probiotic and wanted to take it further. "After filing several patents, I wanted my research to find an outlet in practical life, so to take action I decided to take a training course in business creation." In 2020, she was introduced to entrepreneurship through the Paris-Saclay Incuballiance cluster's shared incubator. She followed the Genesis Light and Genesis Lab programmes, which were dedicated to facilitating technology transfer from research laboratories to the world of industry.


A trio on the attack against undernutrition

Following this education, Muriel Thomas decided to create a start-up. As she wanted to continue her research work in parallel with this project, she decided to spend 40% of her time as a scientific advisor and offered the leadership of the project to Odile de Christen, who was then the international IT project manager. Odile de Christen, who was considering a career change to work on a project with a societal impact, welcomed the proposal with enthusiasm: "Muriel was aware of my entrepreneurial skills and my motivation to be involved in a humanistic adventure. This is because, like her, I am convinced that malnutrition should no longer be accepted in our society." The researcher also contacted Francisca Joly, Professor of Nutrition at Université Paris VII Denis Diderot, a gastroenterologist and nutritionist at the CHU Paris Nord-Val de Seine - Hôpital Beaujon. She entrusted her with clinical nutrition consulting, as Francisca Joly wanted to offer new solutions to her patients and saw the project as a very promising avenue.
Carembouche: healthy treats that make you want to eat

In 2021, the three entrepreneurs co-founded the start-up Carembouche. The name reflects their ambition: care as in taking care of (it also refers to the square shape of the product - carré in French), and 'bouche' (mouth) refers to its easy-to-ingest nature. Its mission is to develop foods that arouse the desire to eat, in the form of small appetising bites enriched with nutrients, prebiotics and probiotics identified by Muriel Thomas. "Probiotics exist mainly in the form of capsules or powders. However, the elderly and sick already have a lot of medication to take and do not eat enough to cover their needs. Incorporating probiotics into healthy treats makes it easier to increase dietary intake (especially of protein) and probiotics." Odile de Christen adds, "Our solution is a perfect response to the recommendations of the French National Health Authority, which recommends food splitting for people who have difficulty eating.” In collaboration with chefs, the team focused on the format, as well as on the taste, texture and ease of handling without spoiling the bites, as these are essential criteria in arousing a desire to eat.

Carembouche is currently the only product on the market to offer a probiotic-enriched food for people at risk of undernutrition. It was quickly recognised by Bpifrance as a disruptive innovation project with strong commercial potential. Bpifrance also awarded it a grant through its French Tech Emergence programme.


A successful test before possible commercialisation

The start-up works in partnership with EHPAD (nursing home) Notre-Dame de Puyraveau, located in the department of Deux Sèvres. "This institution was one of the first to identify finger food as a solution for their undernourished residents who were struggling to feed themselves," notes Odile de Christen. The team has already conducted a sensory test there, offering 18,000 bites produced from 15 different sweet recipes. Under this experiment, 60 residents ate 20 per day for 15 days. "The feedback has been very positive; the format, texture and flavours of our products were enjoyed very much," enthuses Odile de Christen.

The start-up, which is currently seeking funding, is working to turn the prototype into a marketable product. This requires improving shelf life, creating new sweet and savoury recipes, designing appropriate packaging and developing product visibility and a sales network. "We plan to launch protein-enriched bites on the market in early 2023 and add probiotics at the end of that year," Carembouche's CEO announces.

The start-up's plans do not stop there, as the team may consider incorporating new nutrients into its snacks at the request of clinicians.