Ayer, MA-based Cambrooke Foods might be a bit deceiving on the surface. It is not a maker of packaged foods the average shopper would pick up at the grocery store. And its founders have no background in the food, health, or nutrition industries.
Cambrooke’s founders, David and Lynn Paolella, come from architecture and jeweler backgrounds, respectively. They are the parents of two children with phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited metabolic disorder that renders the body unable to process the amino acid phenylalnine, found in many foods. If gone untreated, the amino acid can hit toxic levels in the body and cause brain damage.
Patients can go on to live healthy, relatively symptom-free lives if they keep low protein diets, which rule out most store-bought foods. See, even items you wouldn’t necessarily put in the protein category on the food pyramid—like Wonder Bread—are still too high in the nutrient for PKU patients to eat, as they are limited to around 5 grams of protein per day.
Cambrooke first got into business developing low-protein foods with the hope of alleviating parents of PKU patients from having to cook everything from scratch. Their online catalogue of food products now contains items from bagels to veggie “meatballs” to “cheese ravioli,” and are targeted at other types diet-treated metabolic disorders as well.
“We make bread without flour, cheese without milk, and meat analogues without any protein,” says David Paolella.
Treatment for PKU patients (and those with similar disorders) needs to go beyond a low-protein diet, though. Their bodies still need protein, but without the toxic amino acids. Cambrooke has been working since its inception with scientists at the University of Wisconsin and in 2010 started selling a protein called glytactin that is safe for PKU patients to eat.
Glytactin is a natural protein more complex peptide, and it stays in the patient’s system longer than free amino acids, which traditional metabolic formulas for PKU patients have been made up of, says Paolella. He likened the difference in the two types of nutrients to complex carbohydrates and simple sugars, respectively. Thus, glytactin is said to keep patients fuller for longer and is better processed by the body than the free amino acids that previously dominated PKU metabolic supplements. Cambrooke sells glytactin in a powder form called Camino PRO BetterMilk that can be mixed into drinks, and RESTORE—a sports drink lookalike.
Cambrooke’s foods and metabolic formulas are more complex than what grocery stores sell, and its prices reflect that. PKU patients need insurance reimbursements to help cover the costs of the products, which insurance companies see as “durable medical equipment,” says Paolella. Cambrooke helps provide direct billing services to insurance companies so its customers don’t have to navigate the insurance reimbursement process themselves.
The company has also developed software services to help PKU patients stay on top of their treatment in between periodical doctor visits. “A lot of what is required is understanding what goes into that therapy, tracking quantities of protein and amino acids, the way a diabetic would track glucose,” he says.
Cambrooke has a Web service called Dietwell that helps patients track their protein and amino acid intake, blood levels, and the like, and share the information with clinicians. Dietwell is available for the iPhone now and will soon be for Android devices.
The roughly 12-year-old company grew while staying lean (the Paolellas say they didn’t take a salary for the first few years), and took in its first outside funding this year, from the Stamford, CT-based private equity firm Galen Partners. The founders didn’t reveal in an interview how big that deal was, but an SEC filing from last March shows Cambrooke took in $10 million in equity-based funding.
Cambrooke’s potential customer pool is small, with about 20,000 patients in the U.S. suffering from each of the metabolic disorders it’s making its products for. About 60,000 patients worldwide have PKU. But David Paolella says he sees a potential for growth and improvement in care as more of the U.S. and other countries expand the range of disorders they test infants for at birth.
“If the patients are detected at birth, they can actually live a very healthy and fulfilling life,” he says. “We can treat this and have a very good outcome. In the future we believe that clinical nutrition will play an increasing role in medicine generally.”