Selling coal to Newcastle is probably easy enough nowadays, but how can an Oxford company sell a plant-based health food, based on mulberry leaves, to China?

Biotech boss Robert Miller said: “We are a very small company using Western science to develop drugs and health food ingredients from medicinal plants which have been used in China for years. But we are not selling a herbal medicine back to them.

“It is a patented ingredient that we have developed in a joint venture with a partner in Beijing."

Plants like mulberry leaves have been used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for hundreds of years, so how can an English company break into the market?

He said: “We very much see ourselves as a Sino-British operation. We work very closely with our Chinese partners and it is very much a collaborative effort.”

Mr Miller joined David Cameron's trade mission to China in December and his company, Phynova, based in Long Hanborough, signed two trade agreements with partners in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

The agreements are expected to accelerate use of its health food ingredient, called IminoNorm, in healthcare and food products across China.

Phynova believes that IminoNorm, a natural botanical extract, can help maintain healthy blood sugar levels in people who are threatened by diabetes.

China has the largest number of diabetics in the world — an estimated 115 million, plus 150 classed as 'pre-diabetic' — and high blood sugar has become a key health problem.

Mr Miller said: “We have taken a traditional remedy used for what they call 'the thirsty disease'. They used it but nobody knew how it worked. We combined our western life-science skills with a traditional medicine."

He added: “Our agreement with Purple Stone Biotech Group, based in Shanghai, positions IminoNorm as the key ingredient in a novel, over-the-counter medicine which will be used in food and healthcare products across China.

“Meanwhile, the agreement that we signed with PuraPharm International, based in Hong Kong, will strengthen our IminoNorm supply chain and help us target further key markets in both China and Europe.”

He said working with UKTI had been “incredibly advantageous” for its overseas business.

“If you are trying to do business in a place like China and you are signing agreements with high-ranking UK minister there, it's always advantageous,” Mr Miller said.

“This could not have been done without the guidance of our excellent trade adviser, Mitzi Swanson, as well as our attendance at the UKTI trade mission to China, which gave us the foothold we needed in the Chinese market.

“Securing these deals has also allowed us to invest more in the business, including our UK manufacturing base.”

Phynova operates a research centre in Beijing and its cross-cultural team enables it to act as a bridge between the Chinese and Western markets and to capitalise on the full potential of the market opportunities.

Phynova's pipeline is based on a portfolio of patented botanical compounds. It hopes to boost revenue by commercialising some as consumer healthcare products.

Phynova employs seven people in Long Hanborough and seven in China, and hopes to manufacture in Wales and China, supplying its proprietary ingredients to partner companies.

Other products, intended as medicines rather than health foods, will be offered to commercial partners, with licence fees providing income, and further cash coming from milestone payments.

Last year, the company secured £400,000 from the UK Technology Strategy Board´s Nutrition for Life collaborative research and development funding competition to establish a UK supply chain for IminoNorm and to enable Phynova to demonstrate its efficacy in a clinical trial to be carried out at Southampton University.

The company, set up in 2002, has previously raised cash from private investors to develop its products, and raised more from the Alternative Investment Market (Aim) of the London Stock Exchange.

But in 2009 Phynova decided to quit Aim, saying the listing was costing £200,000 a year and it would be easier and less expensive to raise money as a private company.

Mr Miller said they had “very supportive” investors but would consider raising money from the stockmarket again in future if the time was right.

“We have seen so much in the media recently about sugar and its dangers. We have been working on this for five years but all of a sudden there is a lot of interest in this issue. We are fortunate now to be in the right place at the right time,” Mr Miller said.

Ms Swanson, International Trade Adviser from UKTI South East, said: “I am delighted that in just under a year of working with the Phynova team, UKTI support has led to the company securing deals in these lucrative Chinese markets.

“Their success in China goes to show not only the opportunities the market has to offer but also the value of UKTI trade missions and particularly the Gateway to Growth scheme, which Phynova has completed.”

“By visiting China with experts from UKTI and like-minded businesses, this company has grabbed the opportunities available to them and now boasts a truly international presence.

“Fellow companies in the south-east should follow their example by looking overseas for equally lucrative opportunities in markets across the world.” * UK Trade & Investment International Trade Hotline is 08452 789 600 or email: