This article was originally published on Forbes on April 12, 2021 by Nav Athwal
With a growing population, climate change, failing soils and water challenges, agriculture is constantly battling for survival. Sustainable farming and agriculture have thus, not surprisingly, become critical to helping agriculture and our food supply survive and hopefully thrive.
Contrary to popular belief, farmers are very focused on sustainability and taking care of the ground that helps feed the world. Accordingly, these farmers are focused on how to grow more pounds of food per gallon and ounce of fertilizer applied to their soil and crops. These farmers are even keen to try new products and technologies if it means decreasing their impact on the environment and preserving valuable natural resources.
However, despite their interest in soil health and water conservation, these farmers need to be convinced that the technology makes dollars and sense to them before they completely change their current practices. And technology pioneers that hope to achieve success with these farmers should understand this very basic but important thought process these farmers go through to determine how to spend their hard-earned dollars.
I had the privilege of sitting down with one such technology pioneer focused on soil sustainability, TrueAlgae. TrueAlgae is a U.S. based biotech company focused on providing micronutrient dense algae products to nourish the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. Angela Tsetsis, TrueAlgae’s Chief Commercial Officer, is a lifelong algae enthusiast and she gave me an inside view into the company’s mission and focus.
1. Tell us about your background and why algae?
As a child I was always the one who went against the grain. When someone said girls don’t do that, I did it. So, it wasn’t a big surprise when I decided to study mechanical engineering in the 1980s. After graduating, I worked in machine tool design for the automotive industry. As a woman in STEM, before it was called that, I was seeking opportunity for advancement and believed biotechnology would offer more options. Always the risk taker, I packed up my slide rule in 1992 and made the move to Martek Biosciences, an innovator in algae for high value nutrition applications. I have been in love with algae ever since. I met the team at TrueAlgae almost two years ago and believed the technology would allow for broader use of algae and knew I could help make that happen.
2. Why the name “TrueAlgae”?
TrueAlgae comes from our mission to bring the best of what algae has to offer to the world. Algae contain all of the components needed to sustain life. Our technology grows microalgae in an efficient, scalable, closed-loop system providing a clean, economical supply of this valuable and environmentally friendly resource. This growth system is unique in the industry because of its low cap-ex, ease of operation and minimal energy usage. Because of this economical and clean production system, we can provide algae-based products for agriculture, dietary supplements, food ingredients, animal feed and aquaculture.
3. Can you explain the process of how your material is created?
TrueAlgae’s initial use for this algae growth platform isn’t to use the algae itself. We use the water the algae grow in. As the algae grows, it expresses potent phytonutrients into its surroundings. These nutrients support further growth and multiplication of the algae cells. And these same powerful compounds are also important for land plant growth and proliferation. TrueAlgae carefully separates the algae biomass from the nutrient dense water and sells this cultured water, TrueSolum, to farmers. The farmers incorporate it into their standard irrigation to support their crops.
We are also developing uses for the algae itself including nutrition applications for humans, animals and fish. The beauty of our system is that there is absolutely no waste.
4. Why is TrueAlgae beneficial to farmers, consumers and the environment?
TrueAlgae’s agriculture product, TrueSolum, helps to regenerate soil. Soil is the basis for all life. It provides the growth environment needed to produce the fruits and vegetables we eat, as well as grazing lands for the animals that supply our meat, dairy and eggs. If our soil is healthy, our food supply is able to provide the right nutrition for us to not just live but thrive. TrueSolum has also been shown to allow for the reduction of harmful chemical fertilizers that deplete the soil and run-off into our waterways and oceans, creating many of the long-term environmental issues we face today.
In addition, algae are incredibly environmentally friendly. They use harmful CO2 to grow and release life-giving oxygen into the environment. In fact, algae are responsible for 50% of the oxygen on the planet. Imagine using the phytonutrient dense water produced from growing algae to increase agriculture productivity as well as using the algae biomass to help feed the world’s growing population. Algae is an excellent source of all the macronutrients we require to live, as well as many of the micronutrients that help us flourish. Plus, algae are a renewable resource that requires minimal energy to reproduce.
5. What crops have you tested the product on? What have been the results?
We have used TrueSolum with strawberries, raspberries, watermelons, cantaloupe, peppers, avocado, table grapes, tomatoes, and even cannabis. It has been shown to increase crop yield, quality and shelf life. As mentioned before, we have shown that even with a 75% reduction of traditional fertilizers, the addition of TrueSolum supported nearly 9% increase in crop yield versus control. We have also exhibited an improvement in microbial count and diversity in the soil, thus giving the farmer a better platform for their crops.
6. What are the company’s goals over the next few years?
TrueAlgae currently has over 35 trials on-going or soon to be initiated in a variety of crops from potatoes to cannabis. Our goal is to convert as many of these trials into paying customers and to continue to add other crops and customers to further increase our reach. In addition, we are working globally to license our technology in the largest agriculture markets. Because our system is simple to operate, it is completely feasible to build and train local entities to grow the algae and produce TrueSolum for the local agricultural community.
Beyond agriculture, we plan to bring products to market that utilize the algae biomass. This biomass is about 50% protein and can be used in many nutrition applications. It also contains anti-oxidants, polyphenols and other micronutrients of value. Whether maintained as the whole algae cells or separated into its many useful components, algae can help feed the world.
7. How are you funded?
We have raised $3.5 million to date, starting with professional contacts at the angel level and now moving to institutional investors. We continue to seek additional funding to expand sales and increase our R&D to better understand how our product works for different crops and soil conditions.