Calysta’s quest to turn salmon into “Happy Little Vegemites” via methane gains momentum

January 14, 2016 |

BD TS 011516 Calysta smSoaring fish meal prices, a 9 billion human population on the way, and a world eating more protein per capita every day. A recipe for disaster? Along comes Calysta with a technology to turn abundant natural gas into food. And getting closer to industrialization.

If, like the author, you happened to laze away the 1970s and the idyllic years of childhood bronzing under the Australian sun, you would have been near-to-drowned by a series of television ads that introduced the chirpy jingle:

Pass the Vegemite please, Mum, 
Pass the Vegemite, please
Please, Mum, pass the Vegemite
Pass the Vegemite please

Well, it won’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it gained something with the catchy tune. And sold a billion jars of vegemite.

Now, in the world of industrial biotechnology, we refer to Vegemite in its scientific identity as a “yeast extract”, specifically a “single cell protein” — and, in a nutshell, that’s basically what Calysta calls FeedKind, it’s entry-to-market product billed as “a new fish feed ingredient to reduce the aquaculture industry’s use of fishmeal.”

Happy Little Vegemites

The fish of the world that grow up on the fish farm, goes the theory, will be Happy Little Vegemites consuming healthy proteins which Calysta’s technology makes from methane.

It’s sort of a complete inversion of the old “food vs fuel” debate, because instead of converting food feedstocks into fuels, we are converting fuel feedstocks into food. Fish food, that is. Specifically, for your friendly farm-raised salmon.

Delightful for the salmon until they find out that they’re really only asked around to tea because they’re featured on the menu. But while they’re growing up on the fish farm, we’ll expect them to grow “stronger with Vegemite every day,” as a generation of Aussie children were so informed via television. They’ll be “Happy Little Vegemites,” and so will we, goes the theory, and here’s why.

Above: The Original Happy Little Vegemites of Australian TV lore.

Planet Earth: running out of time, alternatives

Vegemites-II-011516You see, we’re running out of affordable conventional fishmeal, which is basically made for big fish by grinding up little fish. Our vast global human appetite for big fish, from our lofty position at the top of the food chain, is causing stress on the “little fish” population. And, unless we all want to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, with the human population heading for 9 billion, we better figure out a better way to bulk-up the bigger fish than simply industrializing the capture of little fish.

Leaving aside “feed the world” imperatives, consider the cost implications. In recent years, while the soybean meal (fed to cattle) price has been relatively flat, the price of fishmeal has been skyrocketing, reaching $1500 per ton last year. More than twice the price of fuel, pound for pound.

As Cellana CEO Martic Sabarsky says, “we need to cut out the middle fish” — in Cellana’s case, by feeding algae directly to big fish by transforming algae into fish feed.

Marching to the beat of a different fisher

But Calysta has a different path. They’re using methane, which is abundant (check your local rig count for confirmation that we are struggling to find markets for all of it). Some methane is renewable, a lot of it is fossil-based — but activists are generally in less of a twist about extracting fossil fuels to make food than just about any other use case. And, studies have (so far) confirmed the nutritional value of the feed, based on criteria such as growth performance and animal health.

Now, it’s not exactly a no-brainer. Actually, the effort to make SCP from methane is the technology that sunk the Soviet Union (which you can read more about here), but Calysta has an impressive array of new IP around gas fermentation.

Scale-up of something achievable in the lab into something that will make Happy Little Vegemites out of salmon, at scale? That’s a daunting enterprise — but a good idea to advance the effort in the northern UK in Teesside, which is home to an entire flock of advanced chemical and industrial talent and conveniently close to the Norwegian salmon industry. If someone needs to pop over to raise some capital amongst those who know the fishmeal crisis all too well.

“Gas fermentation is real”

Calysta is in the news this week because, as CEO Alan Shaw put it, “gas fermentation is real,” citing a conditional award of up to £2.8 million Exceptional Regional Growth Fund (eRGF) grant subject to due diligence from the UK Government. This will contribute to a £30 million first phase investment over ten years by Calysta to develop a Market Introduction Facility to undertake R&D critical to commercialize FeedKind and develop the technology for other applications. At the Centre for Process Innovation in the Teesside area, Calysts expects to develop its production process.

The project itself

The project is expected to both safeguard and create up to 39 positions in science, engineering and operations, along with indirect jobs benefits in construction and the supply chain.

Calysta plan to locate a novel loop reactor adjacent to CPI’s existing National Industrial Biotechnology Facility. This loop reactor will incorporate Calysta’s proprietary, best-in-class gas fermentation technology. CPI staff will then gain experience in operating the facility under Calysta’s supervision.

Reaction from Calysta

Calysta CEO Alan Shaw said: “The eRGF grant is a major vote of confidence for us from the UK Government. After looking at potential sites around Europe, we look forward to building Calysta’s first plant in Teesside.

“Teesside remains an important centre for the process industry,” he added. “We are keen to capitalise on the area’s commercial attractiveness, technical skills and research and development expertise. Our plant will not only provide a boost for the economy of North East England, but will also support the UK’s goal to become a world leader in the emerging industrial biotechnology sector by generating game changing technology in gas fermentation and synergistic applications.”

The Bottom Line

Single-cell protein as the industrial technology that saved the fish industry? It’s a powerful idea, though early in the, hmm, roll-out. Not everyone the world over adores SCP, or yeast-extract, though Marmite made inroads in the UK. So, will Mikey like it? That is, will salmon like FeedKind? Studies show they do, suggesting that, for now, we might adopt the old Australian phrase, “she’ll be right, mate.”

Good on ya, Calysta.

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