Blog written by Thought For Food’s Rachel Lee

Algae, a diverse group of photosynthetic organisms, have long been recognized by scientists and researchers for their unique characteristics, adaptability, and ability to convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into valuable biomass. As our world grapples with a climate emergency and resource scarcity, what if we could unleash the potential of these tiny powerhouses in order to provide sustainable solutions to our most pressing agrifood and climate challenges?

Meet Spira, a San Francisco-based startup known as “the algae company.” They are a global leader in algae biomanufacturing, creating carbon-negative products from microalgae cultivated in controlled environments. Via a global network of farming partners, the company cost-effectively produces algae-based biomass at scale that contains high concentrations of proteins, lipids, and other compounds. They then process this biomass into stable ingredients that can be used for a variety of applications across many industries, such as food, cosmetics, and textiles.

The backstory

Founded by the ever-energizing entrepreneur Elliot Roth, a long-time friend and supporter of TFF, Spira is dedicated to addressing several global problems through the power of algae.

It all started when Elliot was at university and had to resort to “dumpster diving” – e.g. using food discarded by local supermarkets – as a way to save money and ensure he had enough to eat. He saw first hand that food insecurity wasn’t just a problem for the developing world, but also impacted hundreds of thousands of students like him across the United States.

That’s when he discovered spirulina, a nutrient-dense, fast-growing blue-green algae. Spirulina has long been used as a food supplement, but sometimes faces issues with consumer acceptance due to quality concerns (it can become contaminated) and taste (it can sometimes taste and smell fishy). Having studied biotechnology, Elliot set out to apply Crispr gene-editing techniques to silence the genes responsible for the fishy taste. The first product he developed was a gene-edited spirulina food ingredient that was tasteless, odorless and high in protein and micronutrients. This garnered him attention and funding from the likes of the World Food Programme and NASA.

Elliot soon realized that spirulina had so much more potential beyond food supplementation and nutrition. Due to its unique ability to quickly capture carbon dioxide and convert it into biomass through photosynthesis, spirulina could become a plant-based manufacturing platform to produce all kinds of sustainable, natural products. The best part is, the manufacturing process itself would sequester carbon from the atmosphere, making it carbon-negative!

Algae cultivation has significant environmental benefits, acting as a powerful tool for carbon capture and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Algae can consume large amounts of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, while simultaneously producing oxygen and improving air quality.

Furthermore, algae cultivation does not require arable land or freshwater resources, making it an attractive alternative to traditional agricultural practices. Algae can be grown in various environments, including wastewater treatment plants, where they can help in nutrient removal and water purification.

By integrating algae cultivation systems with industrial capabilities, Spira could not only positively impact the quality issues facing spirulina, but also scale up production of high-quality spirulina that is rich in proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Spira’s algae cultivation facilities are designed to operate efficiently, minimizing water usage and reducing the overall environmental footprint.

Spira has scaled its manufacturing solution all over the world, working with farmers in developing communities to completely change the foundation of their supply chain, all the while showing that it is possible to rapidly scale the production of algae through decentralized systems.

Spira’s farmer network now includes 83 farms from Ghana, to Indonesia to South Korea, which cumulatively produce 500 metric tons of algae each month. This partnership provides farmers with a reliable income source, provides communities with vital nutrition, and benefits the environment, since the growing algae feeds on carbon and then replaces carbon in everyday products. Truly a win win!

The platform approach

Spira’s innovative approach to algae biomanufacturing has resulted in the development of a variety of sustainable products. One of their key achievements is the production of algae-based food ingredients.

Spira’s algae-based ingredients are rich in nutrients, including essential amino acids, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids that can be incorporated into various food products, providing a sustainable and nutritious alternative to synthetically-derived ingredients. Spira currently offers spirulina powder made from natural and nutritious blue-green algae found in freshwater lakes around the world, including products like Spira Green, Spira Blue, Spira Red and Spria Yellow, which serve as an alternative to artificial colors in the many food and beverages.

Moreover, Spira has ventured into the production of algae-based biochemicals. By extracting and refining valuable compounds from algae, such as pigments, antioxidants, and bioactive molecules, the company is enabling the creation of renewable and environmentally-friendly chemicals.

Finally, Spira has pioneered its solutions for specific projects, but has now made them available for everyone, including companies, startups and individuals. Spira offers services including CO2 capture, mineral accumulation and wastewater treatment, utilizing its innovative technology and algae to further its impact across all domains and geographic locations.

What’s next

Through continuous scientific research and technological innovation, Spira aims to optimize the carbon capture process, enhancing its efficiency and expanding its implementation across various industrial sectors. By offering this sustainable solution, Spira contributes to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

Spira is also investing significant efforts in exploring the diverse applications of algae-derived compounds in mineral accumulation, textiles, and cosmetics. By harnessing the bioactive properties of algae, Spira aims to develop innovative products that contribute to human health and well-being. Their dedicated team of scientists and researchers conduct in-depth studies to uncover the potential therapeutic benefits of these compounds and develop effective formulations. Through their cutting-edge research and commitment to scientific excellence, Spira strives to unlock the full potential of algae in various industries, offering sustainable and impactful solutions.

Spira’s pioneering efforts in algae biomanufacturing have attracted collaborations with academic institutions, research organizations, and industry partners. By working together, these collaborations aim to unlock the full potential of algae and expedite the development of sustainable solutions. Spira is actively engaged in ongoing research and development initiatives to further enhance the efficiency, scalability, and commercial viability of their algae-based processes.

Looking ahead, Spira envisions a future where algae-based products are widely adopted, creating a positive impact on the environment and human health. The company aims to expand its operations, increasing the production of algae-based ingredients and biochemicals to meet the growing demand for sustainable alternatives. Spira is currently developing new products ranging from pharmaceuticals, to plastics, to proteins. Spira’s ambitious goals align with the urgent need for innovative and sustainable solutions in a world grappling with climate change and resource scarcity.