Australian biotech firm Provectus Algae is at the forefront of a synthetic biology breakthrough, using precision photosynthesis to develop speciality ingredients for food and beverage and other industries. Kim Berry talks to founder and CEO Nusqe Spanton about the technology and its potential. This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Food and Drink Business.
There are more than five million algae species in the world, with around 2000 of them studied and only about 10of them reproduced or farmed at any scale. For CEO and founder of Provectus Algae Nusque Spanton, this is a “wickedly exciting” situation, with algae offering a new and sustainable way of creating speciality ingredients.
“Every day we are making discoveries that open our eyes to what algae is capable of and its potential. Thanks to algae, we are able to benefit from a 3.5-billion-year head start in producing some of the world’s most coveted ingredients,” Spanton says.
Provectus has developed proprietary hardware, software and machine learning that use algae’s single cell format as a factory.
“The sheer diversity of algae species available, means each one has the potential to produce vastly different ingredients, flavours or speciality compounds,” he explains.
“Let’s say a manufacturer is looking for strawberry flavouring. We haven’t found a naturally occurring algae that tastes like strawberries yet, but there are algae species that have what we call a metabolic pathway that is very similar. We can home in on that pathway in that particular alga and engineer some genes to manipulate it into producing strawberry flavour. So now you have a micro-organism that can be grown 24/7, in a sealed tank, and supplied in the required format that tastes just like strawberry.
“And that can be done for vitamins, minerals, nutrients, supplements, pharmaceutical grade ingredients. The opportunities are endless, particularly in that we can do it all naturally as well. That is a big driver for corporations on a global scale looking to convert to more sustainable production systems, shift from synthetic chemicals to natural ones, and move to naturally based product formats,” he says.
The technology autonomously micromanages the growing environment using LED lights, sensors, and artificial intelligence to provide optimal growing conditions. Tests have shown up to a 500per cent increase in biomass over a seven-day period using the company’s proprietary lighting technology when compared to an industry leading lighting system.
“Our biorefinery platform can precisely control light, CO2, nitrogen and input media. This gives us the ability to formulate different recipes and generate predictable results across different batches, producing a variety of compounds at scale,” Spanton says.
Spanton uses the specialty flavour nootkatone, derived from grapefruits, as an example of how Provectus can circumvent issue of supply chain disruption while also addressing environmental impacts of traditional farming for such ingredients.
“It takes around 400,000 kilos of grapefruit skins to get one kilo of nootkatone. Every product you’ve ever tasted that has that particular tang to it – not sour, not salty, not sweet – has nootkatone. So, imagine the impact of a severe climate event, or global pandemic or other disaster on the supply chain for that critical ingredient.
“Now imagine you had the technology to house a stainless-steel tank in your warehouse. It runs 24 hours a day, and all you have to do is deliver light and CO2 to guarantee a continuous supply of the ingredient.”
Scale up & fast
Currently, the company’s product pipeline includes two recombinant proteins developed and a suite of natural products in development, with one already under a commercial agreement with a global food and beverage ingredients supplier.
In July, the company won a Marine Bioproducts Cooperative Research Centre grant to advance its R&D and commercialisation program.
Provectus will share in $59 million of cash contributions from the federal government over the next 10 years towards its synthetic biology stack and allowing the company to deliver high-performance, sustainable products and sought-after specialty ingredients globally.
The sheer diversity of algae species available means each one has the potential to produce vastly different ingredients, flavours or speciality compounds.
In August, it announced the opening of its second facility which will house the production of high-performance food colourings. The site will have a 200,000-litre production facility, as well as an expanded R&D operation to support early-stage product development and partnerships with the food and beverage sector.
Its original facility will be converted to support the commercial production of a of a high-value product that is currently undergoing testing. A one million-litre facility is also planned.
“The beauty about our business model is that we have a continuity of technology, all the way through from bench scale to large scale manufacturing and that that then allows us to not only validate the large-scale production but it also allows us to develop new products and facilities rapidly. It is a new way to look at manufacturing, even for bio-manufacturing.
“There’s so much scope and the opportunities are endless. We want to infiltrate every vertical market used in daily life from food and beverage ingredients across to pharmaceuticals and therapeutics, agricultural products, and everything in between,” he says.
From one of the oldest living micro-organisms on the planet to an entire new food production system might be audacious, but Spanton and the team at Provectus are making it happen.
The considerable shift the technology could have on the supply chain by reducing risk, and the reduction in environmental disruption through its more sustainable production systems is immense.
“We have developed a practice that changes the scope of how products are produced. What we are able to achieve for our commercial partners is simply not comparable to any other offering in the marketplace,” he says.