A bridge from city to country made of algae: An Algae Biomass Summit preview

October 23, 2016 |

bd-ts-102416-algae-smIn Arizona this week, the Algae Biomass Summit kicks off — the industry’s largest and most glamorous get-together — and it affords us all an opportunity to measure algae’s progress and prospects.

It was almost nine years ago that the Algae Biomass Organization debuted at high tide for biofuels, hailed as a wonder crop by many who were wondering where all the feedstocks were going to come from for the 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels called for by 2022 under the expanded Renewable Fuel Standard.

In particular, there were concerns back then on the diesel substitution side, and investors and an eager public salivated over the exotic productivity of algae biomass, and rubbed their hands over the prospects for a whole bunch of algal oils to come to the market.

For almost four years, ventures debuted at an astonishing pace and algae won broad support from the venture community — a disruptive technology for a large and fast-growing renewable fuels market. As algae developers struggled to bring down costs within venture timelines, and then as global commodity prices plunged — algae companies began a steady re-focusing on the higher prices available from nutraceuticals and, in the past 12 months, from the heightened public interest in advanced nutrition.

As far as the Farm goes (or grows), any and all applications are welcome so long as they produce farm income. After all, it’s a crop.. But for th City — the appeal of algae is increasingly in things that go well with a fork, and the vitamin bottle.

“For 2017, for us,” ABO executive director Matt Carr told The Digest and Nuu, “we see algae as 21st century farming for farmers. You can look at algae as a crop that’s a sustainable model for agriculture, but also as a tool for farmers who want options for cleaning up farm wastewater, want better feed for their animals and are always seeking advanced fertilizer products for their traditional crops. So, the next Farm Bill is a  logical and important boost for algae, and though the Farm Bill will arrive in 2018, 2017 is when a lot of the work is done.”

There’s a lot of appetite for change in the Farm Bill.  There are a couple of buckets such as ag innovation and global food security that are likely to be the part of the next round, and there’s urban agriculture, and the kinds of innovations that cricket protein types play – algae fits great into innovative protein. The energy title? Those programs will stick around, but the enthusiasm has been fading. There’s more heat around the nutritional aspects, and sustainability.”

It’s no surprise then that the opening plenary session at the Summit, which a few years ago invariably featured fuels-oriented companies, is titled “Flask to Fork: The Growing Wave of Innovation in Algae for Health & Nutrition”. On stage with moderator Steve Mayfield, Director of the California Center for Algae, University of California, San Diego are:  Earthrise Nutritionals CTO Amha Belay, Triton Algae president Xun Wang, DSM Nutritional’s Director of Molecular Biotechnology, Ross Zirkle, Matrix Genetics CEO Margaret McCormick, and TerraVia’s SVP for Emerging Business Walter Rakitsky. It’s an appetizer-sized sampler of the cutting edge of algae technology.

Right after that, ABO turns to “Finding Farmers: Opportunities and Challenges for Algae Feed and Fertilizer,” with FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine animal scientists Adam Orr, Keller and Heckman partner Eve Pelonis, Cellana CEO, Heliae CBO Len Smith, Algal Scientific co-founder Geoff Horst and once again TerraVia’s  Walter Rakitsky.

The two opening plenary sessions are very much in tandem – though once focuses more on animal markets and the other on the human sector.

“the reason these topics are attracting such elevated interest now,” ABO executive director Matt Carr told The Digest and Nuu, “is about customer demand as the technology developers themselves. Anyone who’s been attending the  trade floors of nutrition and food expos knows that when they see algae, companies immediately

say that they are hungry for new ingredients — both human or animal feed from algae. Algae as a concept fits perfectly in big trends in food and feed technology.”

Why? It’s the two-fold desire for simple and clean ingredients — a back to basics movement and a deep interest from consumers in sustainable food sourcing — coupled with the desire for nutritional advancement. It’s about superfoods that aren’t frankenfoods. And there’s algae, right at the foundation of the food chain — the oldest food set with the broadest genetic base. And it’s a source for everything from healthy new food coloring all the way to nutritional supplements for infants.

It’s early days for these developments. In many ways the algae industry is back in the cradle as far as market development. The good news, the technologies have advanced far beyond the cradle in terms of technical readiness.

So, we have Earthrise, looking back on year one since they launched their phycocyanin natural blue color at a major foodietech event — now, brand—name companies are asking how to get their hands on stuff.

Then there’s Triton, which is exploring the potential for to be perhaps a superior manufacturing platform for human and animal nutrition products. Not so much about massive quantities of same-as products at cheap prices — not the commodity approach. Rather, the qualitative one. Since algae are closer to animals in the evolutionary chain than bacteria or yeast, are their opportunities for better-than products — of “better-for” products.

And, consider DSM, which acquired Martek and it’s established algae DHA business a few years back. The DHA is now what Matt Carr described to us as “the grey beard of algae products,” a company and team capable of looking back on a successful product development and global roll-out to offer lessons learned along the way.

In the same panel, there’s Matrix Genetics to look afresh at the brings the toolkit technology angle, and there’s TerraVia, with new leadership, a new name and a new focus on nutrition that has a real world story from the bleeding edge of market development and technology deployment.

Over with the feed and fertilizer crowd, a reader might wonder why ABO starts this session with two experts (from FDA and Keller) addressing the regulatory framework. Why for feed but not for food?

Well, first of all, it might surprise you, as it surprises many, that there are no approved microalgae ingredients for animal feed in the US. You can make ‘em, but you can’t sell ‘em. Not a one. You can in many other countries around the world, but the US is a “not yet”.

Matt Carr explains.  “In many ways, it’s harder to get animal food approval than human. For one, there is more state-by-state regulation on feed. But also, think of it this way. A person may eat a new energy bar ingredient once a week, but that animal will get whatever new feed ingredient is introduced two to three times a day for the whole of its life. So, the bioaccumulation of toxins is much higher and amplified, and we may take a meal via that animal and officials are very careful about approvals and science.”

So, we will lay out the regulatory framework and then move to conversation around product launches and opportunities. Adam Orr, for example, is the guy who has purview over algal ingredients. So. we’ll talk both about the business side and the social and environmental trends that are increasingly become drivers.”

Among those trends? For one, the campaigns for sustainable sourcing, and both of those directly impact feed and fertilizer, not to mention companies like TerraVia that have moved into tailored algal oils for nutrition. Martin Sabarsky brings the business perspective and will outline the rational for Cellana’s 3-product model. But they’ve also done some good feed trial work as well. Len Smith from Heliae will focus on their new soil amendment product. In some ways they’ve joined the Accelergy Terrasink movement, and it’s not entirely by chance that Accelergy’s Mark Allen is moderating the discussion. But there’s more for the farmer than just feed and fertilizer — their are immune system boosters, too — lots of opportunities for the grower. Geoff Horst’s company Algal Scientific has a platform for producing beta glucan prophylactic immune boosters and other products — growers will take note.

Bringing it all together? An interesting keynote choice, Bill Foss, a co-founder of Netscape Communications that was to the early days of the web what these algae companies represent to the grower community — the next disruptive thing. Interestingly, post-IPO riches, Foss went into restaurant business in Bay Area and opened up a sustainable seafood restaurant, became an advocate for sustainable food. The logical extension of that? He became a great passionate voice in the sustainable feed and fish feed sourcing movement. He’s got a great back story and  a rousing style.

So, a most interesting ABO this year as it completes a multi-year pivot from the Pump to the Fork.

One last thing, about the next Farm Bill. There’s bound to be the usual difficulty in rounding up the huge coalition that brings such a massive bill forward. The urban congressman seeking milk and nutrition programs for the cities are increasingly scratchy about funding programs, in tight dollar times, that ultimately are aimed at rural development. Conversely, agricultural interests get increasingly frustrated that so many of the dollars go to urban nutrition programs instead of promoting exports and new technology and so on.

Bringing them together? Why not algae? It’s advanced nutrition, it’s advanced health. It supports the energy title. It’s something that grows safely both in CO2-replete urban settings and in the wide open spaces that only rural lands provide. It’s innovation, it’s a new crop that needs development. It provides products that make healthier milk, better vitamins, safer food coloring — and supports sustainable sourcing (an urban cause) by bringing new options to growers in fertilizer, water treatment, methane capture, as well as feed and feed supplements.

Politicos of a few years ago used to talk about building a bridge to the 21st century. If there’s a bridge to the 2050s and beyond — and a bridge across the canyons that must be traversed to bring forth a Farm Bill — algae may well be Top Dog, even if it is the itsy-bitsiest, teency-weenciest crop in the agricultural arsenal.

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