Creating sustainable food from algae
“Fifty years ago, most of the fish eaten in the world were wild,” says scientist and entrepreneur Isaac Berzin. “Now most of the fish we eat are grown in aquaculture.” Out of this widely known fact, Berzin created the idea for his latest venture: an algae farm that creates food for farmed fish.
Many fish (such as salmon and mackerel) are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have significant health benefits for humans. These nutrients come not from the fish themselves, but from the algae the fish consume. In the traditional farmed fish food chain, these algae are first consumed by wild fish and sea creatures, which are caught and in turn made into food for the farmed fish. So why not go straight to farming algae as food? “We are cutting out the ‘middle fish’,” Berzin smiles. The process is also far more sustainable than traditional fish farming.
Berzin is founder and chief technology officer of Vaxa, a food technology company based in Israel. Vaxa has a showcase facility centred around an algae farm located in the treeless interior of Iceland. Along with omega-3, it produces algae-based protein powders, algae to feed fish and natural food colours.
In the facility, built in 2017, the algae grows in tanks and light comes from LEDs sustainably powered by Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy. The inputs are CO2, water and heat. The waste is oxygen and the plant is carbon negative. The yield is roughly 250 times what a conventional soybean farm would produce on the same plot of land and the water use is 200 times less.
Berzin has been a pioneer in the sustainable uses of algae for decades. In 2001, he set up GreenFuel Technologies, a company that used algae to create biofuels out of waste carbon dioxide from power plants. However, the production costs were so high that the company would only be viable at unsustainably high oil prices. GreenFuel closed in 2009 having taken over $70million of investment.
Berzin says he realised then that food technology, and not biofuels, was the most exciting potential use for algae. He says that Vaxa can address a variety of issues as a business, including human health (from the supplements it produces), climate change and deforestation (as an alternative to land-based production of oils), and the overexploitation of marine ecosystems.
Berzin says he has learned lessons that he applied to Vaxa from another of his startups, Qualitas, which produces food supplements from an open-air algae pond in Texas. “It has one of the biggest algae ponds in the world,” he says. However, the products made from the lake taste salty, and, as algae can drop to the bottom of the pond and die, there can be a fishy taste. The product was not as consistent as he wanted; composition varies by season, and there was contamination from wildlife.
“Each time you try something, say: ‘OK, we’re not there yet, but we know what to eliminate and what makes sense,’” says Berzin. Often this takes years and it means building full-size companies, because with complex technologies the issues are not always apparent at small scale. (Qualitas, which he founded in 2011, is still going.)
The Vaxa plant in Iceland is a closed system, which addresses many of the problems with the open ponds, and is more efficient. “We use LEDs to provide the wavelength and the intensity of the light to enhance the ability of the algae to create omega-3s,” says Berzin. “We keep the same growth conditions year-round, so the product is consistent. We can guarantee quality that no-one else can.”
Vaxa is also working on different ingredients for shakes and smoothies. There are powders that can be added to pizza crusts to improve the nutritional value and the company has even produced a tasteless blue spirulina algae extract that lets you have electric blue ice cubes in your drinks.
Berzin is keen to position his algae-based additives away from the niche health sector. He says he wants big players to enter the sector to drive FDA approval for algae strains, and speaks of the need to sell a basket of products (protein powder, pigments and amino acids) deriving from one algae to drive multiple revenue streams.
His biggest driver is straightforward: if we can change food production the way that the internet has changed how we deal with information, we can change the world. “That’s what keeps us going,” he says. “Years from now, people will look back at how we produced food with horror.”
1999 PhD in chemical engineering and biotechnology from Ben Gurion University in Israel
2001 Sets up algae-to-biofuels company GreenFuel Technologies
2001 Researcher at MIT’s Center for Space Research, developing cultivation systems for NASA’s International Space Station
2008 Named among Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in politics, business, and science
2011 Founds omega-3 food supplement company Qualitas Health
2017 Becomes founder and chief technology officer at Vaxa Impact Nutrition