Entrepreneurs

Our Energy-to-Food Future

As climate change seeps into every aspect of our food chain, including our oceans, there is an imperative to pivot to alternative sources for nutrition to keep up with the needs of our population. One example is the use of algae in omega-3 supplements instead of fish or krill oil because it prevents overfishing and also goes straight to the source of the nutrition (fish get their omega-3’s through what they eat!).

I recently spoke with Corinna Bellizzi, Head of Marketing & Sales at biotech firm VAXA, a global food-tech company about their new new scientific approach to sustainable and eco-friendly production of microalgae andtheir recent product line launch in this vein – Örlö Nutrition.

Corinna described to me how the company’s circular, carbon negative process is the next frontier of food production: “When terrestrial nutrition became unsustainable, technology enabled us to advance from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Vaxa’s technology is creating a similar technological leap with oceanic-based nutrition. It is the first commercial installation in the world that integrates geothermal energy production with algae cultivation (Energy-to-Food).”

For more on Vaxa and my interview with Corinna, please read below for an edited excerpt from our discussion.

Christopher Marquis: Tell me a bit about the facility in Iceland – how does it work, what do you grow, what technology do you use?

Corinna Bellizzi: We have developed a circular economy platform to harness the nutrition potential of microalgae without seasonal disruption. Our production facility in Iceland is a controlled, indoor aquaculture planthouse. This means we are able to provide an excellent source of omega-3 and protein for fish and people year-round without seasonal inconsistency or worry of faltering supplies due to environmental constraints like worsening storms and warming oceans.

Our platform combines advanced biotechnology and machine learning to create the first bio-secured indoor, controlled, optimized, and scalable photosynthetic microalgae production facility in the world. Our technology utilizes clean energy of a geothermal plant and its waste streams (hot/cold water, geothermal CO2) to produce optimized microalgae with exceptional nutritional value including protein with full essential amino acid profile, omega-3, vitamins and minerals that boost immune systems.

Our process also has a negative carbon footprint, utilizing 99% less land and water resources than that used in conventional microalgae production. Vaxa’s technology is reducing production costs by approximately 80%, while improving yields 10-fold. It creates a catalyst for the aquaculture and food industries to widely adopt algal-based sustainable omega-3 and protein. VAXA means Grow in Icelandic.

Marquis: Can you explain a bit more about how your technology differs from others?

Bellizzi: When terrestrial nutrition became unsustainable, technology enabled us to advance from being hunter-gatherers to farmers. Vaxa’s technology is creating a similar technological leap with oceanic-based nutrition. It is the first commercial installation in the world that integrates geothermal energy production with algae cultivation (Energy-to-Food). We use clean energy and pristine Icelandic water to grow our algae while providing the exact balance of natural fertilizers and light the microalgae need to thrive. By optimizing their growing conditions with the power of artificial intelligence (AI), they grow exponentially, doubling their mass each two days while consuming CO2, and creating oxygen as a positive byproduct. Since we are using a closed system (not an open pond), and since we control growing conditions, we don’t need to worry about the potential for contamination of our algae with other undesired algae strains, amoebas, or other pests that would consume our algae – hence we don’t need to use any pesticides or herbicides. Concerns of seasonality are erased. This means that in the end, the algae we grow has consistent and optimal nutritional value. As a result our algae has higher levels of omega-3s and other phytonutrients (e.g. essential amino acids, bioavailable iron and vitamin B12) that can create a bounty of nutritious products.

Furthermore, by producing a solution that isn’t reliant on open pond growing systems, or our ocean ecosystems, concerns of omega-3 supply due to warming waters, and increases in ocean acidification are circumvented. Given the carbon-negative nature of our technology, we are providing a solution that can both solve omega-3 and protein supply concerns and contribute to global cooling.

Marquis: Why algae? Why vertical farming? Why supplements?

Bellizzi: Fish get the highly bioactive omega-3s EPA and DHA from the algae they consume, bioaccumulating these important fats, along with environmental toxins, as we go up the food chain. We can cut out the “middle fish” and go directly to the algae for these powerful nutrients without disrupting sensitive ecosystems. Omega-3s derived from photosynthetic algae contain polar lipids, and do not create that typical fishy aftertaste.

Vertically farming the algae in our aquaculture planthouse enables us to control the conditions in which the algae are grown, while minimizing water consumption and areal footprint. We minimally process and extract the algae using only water and organic alcohol, resulting in a superior product that retains its core nutrients and preserves the omegas in their polar, highly bioavailable, lipid form. This ensures superior absorption to fish, or algae oils in their triglyceride or ethyl ester forms, and given the presence of polar lipids, including phospholipids and glycolipids, even higher absorption than krill oil.

Supplementing with omega-3s is a quick and easy way to ensure that you’re getting enough EPA and DHA in your daily regimen. To get enough of these essential fats you could consume fish 2-3 times a week, or you could take a gram (2 small softgels) of Örlö Omega-3 or Prenatal DHA each day. By taking a supplement you’re getting the benefit of the omegas without the worry of environmental toxins, and without damaging sensitive ecosystems.

Marquis: Why has oceanic sustainability become such a hot topic now?

Bellizzi: As the ocean continues to absorb more atmospheric carbon its acidity levels are climbing. With the rise in acidity its life-supporting conditions are changing. Out-of-control algae blooms, the result of both changing acidity, farmland and wastewater runoff, kill off entire schools of fish that later wash ashore. With rising acidity some species of mollusks are even having a harder time creating the shells that protect them in their larval stage. Coral reefs are dying. These realities are well documented and will continue with our rising ocean temperatures and acidity levels. We need to alter our consumption habits, mindful of our current reality as it will take time for our oceans to rebalance their ecosystems.

Marquis: What other sustainability measures is the company taking?

Bellizzi: The packaging we’ve worked to create is high-quality reusable Miron Violetglass, which both preserves natural products better than other packaging and which is recyclable. Given that the glass bottle is designed to be refilled, we are using less material overall. Refill pouches are made from post-consumer-recycled plastics that retain recyclability for a third life potential. Our shipping boxes and envelopes are made from post-consumer-recycled paper and are printed with algae-based inks. These inks reduce our reliance on petrochemicals and are much more environmentally friendly. These inks are a cradle-to-cradle solution, as the algae ink is made from algae product waste stream. We even print our organic cotton tees, which are cut, stitched, and printed in California with algae-based inks. We preferentially ship via ground logistics from our centrally based fulfillment house in Texas, reducing the logistics carbon cost in reaching our customers. Additionally, the logistics for every purchase are carbon offset, ensuring our impact remains carbon-negative. This demonstrates our commitment to pro-planet health.

One unique set of work that is aligned with our mission is a podcast we have introduced. Podcasting provides a long-form education avenue for us to have conversations critical to supporting one’s health through great nutrition without compromising the health of the planet. As one example, we have already had the incredible opportunity to feature Dr. William Li and his New York Times bestselling book, Eat To Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. Hosting conversations with people like Dr. Li, and also climate scientists like the lead author of the Nobel Prize winning IPCC report, Professor William Moomaw, helps us move important conversations forward while driving the knowledge base of our customers. Collaborations reveal themselves, and we can reach consumers who have little time to read but may enjoy listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube interview with a thought leader they respect. It’s our belief that podcasts democratize access to knowledge and can influence real and lasting changes in our habits and our health.

With Örlö, our goal is to prove to the world that creating a regenerative brand, with circular economic principles at its core is possible. We can create solutions that are both pro-health and pro-planet health at the same time, and which produce healthy profits to sustain the long-term health of a business. We hope he impact of the brand will be far-reaching, beyond our own success as we inspire others to create similarly responsible products and brands. This is the new wave of brand building. We hope to make this the norm.

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