The race to scale Asparagopsis heats up

CH4 Global, Greener Grazing and Sea Forest all recently announced they are moving from research scale to production scale. It’s the start of a new stage in the race to reduce livestock’s methane emissions with seaweed supplements.

Image by Ryan Song

Just before the start of COP26, the US and EU announced they want countries to join a Global Methane pledge to cut methane emissions from energy, agriculture and waste by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. One way to achieve such emissions reductions might be by feeding the world’s cows Asparagopsis.

Mainstream media outlets have extensively covered the Asparagopsis story in the past 2 years. Is the red seaweed the next doomed investment hype similar to the algae-for-biofuel bust 10 years ago, as one renowned seaweed scientist thinks, or is it a brilliant scheme that will have a tangible influence on the climate crisis?

The most honest answer to that question is probably: it’s too early to tell.

Bromoform-producing E. coli

Whether Asparagopsis truly does not affect animal health, milk and meat production adversely is still an ongoing debate, with more research needed to conclusively decide either way.

How to get the seaweed to pasture-roaming cows? “The grass-fed system is a big one because we don’t have a solution at the moment”, says Sea Forest CEO Sam Elsom. And will the Asparagopsis solution prove affordable to farmers?

Meanwhile, other livestock methane reducers are already in the market, with more competitors on the way. For instance, students at Maastricht University have modified E. coli bacteria by adding the bromoform-producing genes of Asparagopsis (NL). The researchers expect the E. coli could then be given to livestock in capsule form just once, after which the bacteria would continue to reproduce and give off bromoform in the gut. More research is needed to prove if their thesis is correct, but if they are right, their solution would be a game-changer.

So, there are still a number of open questions. Leaving those debates aside for the moment, what is the current state of play in the business of Asparagopsis?

From research scale to production scale

Around this time last year, one could read phycologists doubting that start-ups could close the life cycle of Asparagopsis anytime soon to produce a meaningful amount of spores to scale up production. Since then, this hurdle has been taken. CH4 Global announced it closed the life cycle in June. Others have since made similar statements.

That’s already a great achievement in itself. However, the next challenge for Asparagopsis start-ups is to take their successes out of the lab and expand on them in the sea.

To accomplish that, last week CH4 Global announced $13 million in Series A funding led by DCVC. One day later, Australia’s Sea Forest announced it has invested A$50 million in its production facilities on the back of a A$34 million raise in April (I am not sure where the remaining 16 million came from). A trial with wool-producing sheep ended in July and results should be shared soon.

Finally, Greener Grazing announced this week they have built a “unique platform to manage the environmental and biological triggers to produce spores” and are now teaming up with leading hatchery Hortimare to close the gap between research scale and production scale.

Building the hype?

Building a bit of hype to impress potential funders is par for the course for start-ups, one could say. In this case, Sea Forest seems to be the biggest offender. In 2020, we read the company expected to harvest 500 tons of dried asparagopsis a year at its pilot facility with plans to triple the annual harvest by 2022. In its latest communication, CEO Sam Elsom has revised this number upwards to 7000 tonnes per year from its Stage One farm, this time astutely leaving out a deadline. Industry insiders are skeptical the company could achieve this amount in the near future.

CH4 Global has said it looks to bring its first commercial product to market in 2022, with plans to scale production in 2023 and beyond. Greener Grazing, as a subsidiary of barramundi producer Australis Aquaculture, is self-funded.

Leonardo Mata, chief scientist at Greener Grazing: “We are not announcing or promising the production of x tons of Asparagopsis until we achieve more consistency with large-scale operations and understand better the effects of seasonality and regional differences on production. The domestication of species takes years.”

Armata vs taxiformis

A key difference is that Sea Forest and CH4 Global are working with A. armata. It is a cold water species native to Australia and New Zealand. Greener Grazing is working with A. taxiformis, the tropical, warm water species.

The distinction gives rise to two different business models. While CH4 Global and Sea Forest are looking to build out their own sea farms in Australia and New Zealand, Greener Grazing wants to leverage the existing knowledge and infrastructure of seaweed farming that is already present in Southeast Asia, supplying farmers with seed and know-how rather than managing operations themselves.

What about the others?

Three other start-ups have received enough funding to be considered contenders in the race.

Volta Greentech is occasionally in the news as it plans to build the world’s biggest seaweed factory in Lyssekil, Sweden in 2022. They are cooperating with Sweden’s largest feed company Lantmännen and hope to start feeding their first cows very soon (podcast, at 13 min).

We haven’t heard that much out of Hawai’i, where both Blue Ocean Barns and Symbrosia have a facility, outside of funding news: $5 million for Blue Ocean Barns in June, 256 000$ in grant funding for Symbrosia in January.

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