By now it’s almost impossible that you haven’t heard of omega-3s. You most probably know they’re good for you and your pet if you have one. What they do exactly, how most are produced and why there is a big problem with their production is probably a bit fuzzier I bet. Let’s go into it to understand why the Investbridge AgriTech fund just invested into MiAlgae.
There is a substantial body of research on omega-3s which points to the fact that they seem to be directly involved in brain cells signaling. Somewhere between 5 and 10% of the mass of the human brain is docosahexaenoic (DHA) omega-3 fatty acid. This would imply that a healthy amount of omega-3 fatty acid in the brain causes our brains to work faster and is beneficial to the nervous system more generally. The importance of DHA for an healthy brain development also underpins the EU’s Regulation 2016/127 which mandates that, from February 2022, all infant formula sold in the EU must contain DHA at ~0.33%-1.14% of total fat. Eicosapentaenoic (EPA) omega-3s, another important kind, have been linked to a better ability to manage inflammations and particularly cardiovascular ones. This explains why EPA and DHA are growing in popularity as dietary supplement in both human and animals.
The snag is that humans, land animals, as well as the majority of marine animals can’t produce omega-3s on their own. They need to include them in their diet to get enough of them. You may be surprised to hear that the omega-3s in fatty fish like mackerel, salmon and herring don’t come from the fish themselves. They too need to ingest them from another source: the phytoplankton and microalgae they eat. These are the original source of the precious fatty acids and the heroes of today’s post (together with the MiAlgae team of course).
You may have started this blog thinking you’d be spared another long exposé that kicks your climate anxiety into high gear but we need to talk about climate as well so let’s go straight to the point. Global warming is neither good for phytoplankton nor microalgae. It’s in fact very bad. So yes, we have (another) problem here. Depending on which studies you look at, it goes from serious problems to catastrophic ones.
Now that we’ve crossed this of, another thing you must know apart from where omega-3s originally come from and how our supply is threatened, is how most are extracted. A large quantity sadly comes from wild caught fatty fish which are processed into oil. Peru is the largest producer of fish oil in the world, producing about 20% of the total output, mainly from anchoveta. This is all sorts of problematic for the environment as you might’ve guessed. Thankfully, there are now stringent quotas that have been implemented but we need urgent alternatives.
At this point, I hear the plant-based community shout: what about omega-3s from plants? Yes, plants can provide part of the solution, though with limited efficacy. In plants, omega-3s are typically found in oily seeds such as flaxseed, linseed, chia seed as well as nuts to a lesser extent. They however contain α-Linolenic acid (ALA), a fatty acid different from DHA and EPA. The flaw here is that ALA is far less bioavailable than EPA and DHA and needs to be metabolised by the body, first into EPA and then DHA. Only a small quantity of ALA gets converted, around 7-10%. The ALA conversion is true in both humans and animals so basically, the “real” stuff works much better.
Too Good To Be True (Almost)
When we heard about what Douglas and his team at MiAlgae were doing, we couldn’t quite believe what he was telling us because it simply seemed too good to be true. You see, not only have the team managed to find microalgae strains that produce tons of omega-3s, but they’ve also found a really clever way to make them grow fast by feeding them side streams of the whisky industry. One important variable input you may not know because it’s pretty niche knowledge: distilleries in Scotland are facing headaches about how to deal with all the pot ale and spent lees they produce as co-products of their distilling process. Some of these side streams get spread on fields but this is now severely limited, and you can’t get new licenses to do it. Part of it is trucked to anaerobic digestors and treatment plants but capacity is also limited, trucking costs money and it pollutes. Another part is simply let it evaporate.
By working together with MiAlgae, distilleries get to have their own treatment plant. Once the algae have eaten all the nutrients, not only does the water come out clean enough to be put back into streams without threat to the environment, but disposing of the co-products is now transformed from a cost centre into a revenue stream because the distillery now produces valuable microalgae. Distillers and MiAlgae make money, omega-3s offtakers like pet food manufacturers and aquaculture feed companies get the sustainable supply they’re clamouring for, less fish die, everybody wins. It’s magic!
Needless to say, we’re incredibly excited about the company and its potential. The whole Investbridge AgriTech VC team can’t wait to support MiAlgae capture the great opportunities open to them, not only in Scotland but also in the US, New Zealand and Australia. Welcome to the portfolio!