The state of Queensland in the north east of Australia is renowned for its iconic beaches, dedicated surfers, and stunning ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef. But Noosaville, one-hour drive north from the city of Brisbane, houses the facilities of Provectus Algae, a synthetic biology company that plans to revolutionize bioproduction by using photosynthetic microbes. The company announced today a $3.25 million seed to accelerate the commercialization of their algae synthetic biology platform.
“It became clear to me that algae is a grossly underutilized production system which has great potential to provide natural, high quality ingredients to the world,” says Nusqe Spanton, CEO and founder of Provectus Algae.
Algae have a unique potential as bioproduction systems. They grow literally out of thin air, consuming carbon dioxide to produce biomass. Enter their ability to grow on seawater, and you get a sustainability powerhouse that you can adapt to your needs using synthetic biology. And synthetic biology techniques for algae are developed and available for the community.
Where algae lag behind compared to microbes routinely used in fermentation, is upscaling and downstream processing. There are no standard cultivation GMPs and a slow-growing strain can really throw the production process in disarray.
Prior to founding Provectus, Spanton was working for 17 years in the aquaculture industry. He was growing algae to feed pear-producing oysters, and he gained firsthand experience on the importance of finding the right conditions to make your algae grow happy at a large scale. Spanton soon realized that algae can do much more that feed mollusks, and the recent technology advancements gave the tools to achieve this potential.
“Optimization is carried out through a series of high throughput experiments. We are able to quickly establish the optimal conditions for growth and/or other processes within the organism,” he says.
There are around 300,000 algal species known to science, but the true number of algal species may be more than 5 million. Each has a unique genome, a unique metabolism, and has adapted to specific ecosystems. Growing algae is tricky, and that’s why only a handful of species have found their way to commercial applications.
Provectus is using a combination of controlled, high-throughput experiments and can upscale to their 20,000 liter pilot facility. “[We have a] deep understanding of the light and how it affects the growth of the algae. This is represented in our proprietary technology which enables us to have absolute control of the environment of the algae,” Spanton says. Provectus is taking the lessons learned by the synthetic biology giants, such as Zymergen and Ginkgo, on how to optimize a strain and apply them to alage.
When I asked Spanton about the biggest challenge the company faces, he mentioned the algae skepticism coming from the biofuel bust a few years back. Companies such as Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, and Algenol promised a lot about algae-based biofuels, but the 2015-16 drop in oil prices and technical challenges didn’t let them reach the market. This led to an algae aversion in the biotech community.
However, there are two notable differences that make 2020 a good year to go into algae: the technology has advanced, and the market focus has changed. Algae companies no longer try to make fuels, but focus on making biomaterials, nutrition supplements, and other high value compounds.
Provectus has defined its focus areas as food and beverage, agricultural chemicals and animal health. They expect to launch several products in the next few years, in partnership with industrial leaders in their respective fields. There is a common trend of algae companies partnering with established multinational companies to get their products to market. Some good examples are the partnering of Corbion with Nestlé and Algenuity with Unilever. But while the companies follow a B2B strategy, they heavily rely on consumer demand for more sustainable products, and focus a lot of their marketing on the environmentally friendly processes and potential.
Provectus successfully completed a seed round, led by Hong Kong based Vectr Ventures, with participation from Maropost Ventures and additional family offices and private investors. The company has also received significant support from the local government, supporting them with more than AUD 490,000 ($346,000) in grants.
Photosynthesis is directly or indirectly responsible for life on Earth as we know it. Algae have unique capabilities, and synthetic biology can expand them even more. In times of climate emergency, we cannot ignore an organism that uses our waste, can grow in the most inhospitable ecosystems, and give us a plethora of greener, CO2-draining production options.
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