Biotech startup NovoNutrients has pioneered a process that turns CO2 or other industrial emissions into protein powder for use as feed in aquaculture. Called NovoMeal, the product is created in a natural fermentation process by microbes genetically engineered to sequester and consume carbon.
“Fish farming will fail if it's not provided with an alternative protein nutritionally equivalent to small fish very soon,” said NovoNutrients CEO David Tze. “Aquaculture requires capturing over 400bn small fish per year [to produce] marine protein, and its price has gone up fivefold since 1995.”
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, aquaculture is booming globally due to the ever-growing demand for fish, the consumption of which increased by 122% from 1990–2018 but, in the same period, the percentage of fish stocks at biologically sustainable levels fell to 66% from 90%.
The company says NovoMeal has a protein content of 68%, is free of GMOs and mercury and other contaminants found in marine protein, and is packed with amino acids. “Our protein [also] outpaces the insects, algae and soy that other companies are touting with a higher protein max performance and future availability,” Tze said.
The startup completed a $4.7m seed funding round before the commercial launch of NovoMeal in July this year. The deal was led by a new investor, Hong Kong-based Happiness Capital, and saw the participation of new investors, the US-based E2JDJ and the Australian family office Marinya Capital. Earlier investors, SOSV, which runs IndieBio, the world's largest biotech accelerator, and sustainability-focused Grantham Environmental Trust, also participated.
The latest round took NovoNutrients’s total funding raised to $9m so far. Earlier investors included the US-based investor Joyance Partners and German alt-protein backer Purple Orange Ventures. The 15-strong startup has already announced its intention to launch its Series A round before the end of 2021.
Plans quick scale-up
NovoNutrients is currently piloting its fishmeal with fish feed giant Skretting as part of its participation in the World Wide Fund for Nature-led accelerator FEED-X, which aims to reduce feed-related environmental impacts by adopting alternative feed ingredients.
It is also feeding its 1,000-liter bioreactor with waste carbon dioxide provided by US oil giant Chevron as raw material for its biochemical process – a collaboration under Chevron Technology Ventures’s Catalyst Program, an innovation scheme for the energy sector. NovoNutrients is the first biotech company to join the program.
The startup plans to quickly scale up to the industrial level with a 20,000-liter bioreactor after previously testing its technology using waste emissions from a cement plant and oil refineries. NovoNutrients has the capacity to produce one ton of protein per month, which it aims to expand with its upgraded bioreactor.
The company maintains that its production is so scalable that the CO2 emissions from a single large cement plant would be enough to produce more than $3bn worth of its protein powder, equivalent to the annual soy output of the US state of Nebraska, one of the nation's largest soy producers. This could place NovoNutrients' technology in a unique position to scale in the alt-protein sector, as it uses CO2 as raw material, the removal of which the startup could in fact charge for.
According to Tze, the same three issues had always come up in his discussions with aquaculture producers about alternatives to the current feed – cost, availability and quality of the protein – all of which, he said, are fulfilled by NovoMeal.
For example, during trials in a Montana trout farm, the growth rates of fish fed on NovoMeal surpassed those of the control group in the final critical period when the fish are larger, and the cost of feeding them goes up. The protein powder can also be enhanced with enzymes.
NovoNutrients' proprietary gas fermentation technology involves capturing contaminants like C02 and feeding them by pipeline into loop bioreactors where they are consumed by the startup's specially-engineered bacteria, which convert the gas or other contaminants containing hydrogen, for example, hydrogen sulfide and cyanide, into glucose, propelling their growth and reproduction.
As these bacteria divide and multiply their cells amongst themselves, their growth rate is unsurpassed in nature, as they are simple life forms with no energy unnecessarily expended and no need for rest or sunlight. Through a natural process of fermentation, the bacteria turn into the protein-rich powder, NovoMeal.
NovoNutrients' research was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2019. NovoNutrients has also been working with the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) from 2019 to build computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models helping the startup design efficient and productive bioreactors and operating conditions.
Once fully developed, a NovoNutrients plant will sequester and convert over 200,000 tons of CO2 annually into over 100,000 tons of protein feed during the same period. Besides removing CO2, if also powered by renewable energy, NovoNutrients' plants will be carbon negative, capturing up to 1.9 tons of CO2 per ton of feed produced.
Beyond fish feed
NovoNutrients's technology has been many years in the making, originating as research in 2009 by co-founders biologist Russell J. Howard and biochemist Brian Sefton under the research agency Oakbio from which NovoNutrients was founded in 2017 as Oakbio’s commercial arm.
Australian biochemist Howard and his US peer Sefton co-founded Oakbio in 2009, and remain its chairman and president, respectively. The co-founders have decades of scientific research and entrepreneurship behind them. Howard has written over 140 peer-reviewed publications. He has more than 30 years of experience heading up several pharmaceutical research companies and in research, mostly within the area of malaria.
Upon the founding of NovoNutrients, Tze, an economist, was hired as CEO. Sefton, the CTO at NovoNutrients until April this year, created the startup's core intellectual property. He has over 15 years of management experience in pharmaceuticals and early tech startups in the mid-1990s. Tze was co-founder and managing director of Aquacopia Ventures, the first VC wholly dedicated to aquaculture that raised over $200m in 12 years. He also helped fund NovoNutrients’s launch.
NovoNutrients may have bided its time before launching NovoMeal but is convinced of international success following commercialization. “We won't have to market our NovoMeal... it will be judged by its numbers on performance and will win every time and be adopted extensively and rapidly,” Tze said.
In the future, NovoNutrients aims to produce more than just fish feed for aquaculture; it also wants to also supply the processed-food industry for humans and animals. "What we're doing has the potential to change not only the food system but also the way other goods are manufactured," Tze added.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Skretting, the fish feed producer partnering NovoNutrients.