Mike Velings, co-founder of that Dutch investment fund, told FeedNavigator about the benefits the technology can bring to the fish farming sector and feed producers.
One of the firms the fund has financed is Proteon, a Polish company comprising about 25 scientists that has developed bacteriophages to target infections in fish and in poultry in a way that doesn’t create resistance; the phages work as alternatives to antibiotics.
“We had been looking for something like this for years,” he said.
Some 70% of antibiotics sold annually go into animal production but unlike broad-spectrum antibiotics that kill all bacteria inside the animal’s gut, bacteriophages “only target specific bacteria and they are fully natural so animals don’t have to be into quarantine [after treatment],” said Velings.
Proteon’s product for aquaculture, Bafador, is designed to fight two common pathogens responsible for mortality in farmed fish - Pseudomonas and Aeromonas.
“Proteon’s phage technology doesn’t affect the [animal’s] immune system. All the presumptions and development around products such as probiotics are also based on that idea - ensuring good gut health so you have better growth and less disease.”
Because they are highly specific, scientists also believe phages have limited effects on environmental bacterial ecology.
From R&D to commercial stage
In terms of why Aqua-Spark chose to invest in Proteon, in particular, Velings said:
Aqua-Spark lead Cryoocyte’s Series A funding round of US$4m.
To date, Cryoocyte has raised a total of nearly US$6m.
"With this latest investment, Proteon received a total of €3.5m," said the Dutch fund.
“There are that not many companies active in this space. We only identified a handful globally - spanning Korea, China, Western Europe and the US. There are not than many, frankly, and even fewer with actual products in the market.
“We started looking at different companies and really liked the team that Proteon has. If you examine the actual challenges around phages - how to produce them at scale and prepare them for use in one million chickens or in one million fish, and then find a way to administer them – we believe that Proteon can [get around such challenges].
“Now, after 10 years of development, they are finally at a moment where they are commercializing all of their work. This is a great time for us to get in and help them change from a purely science based research company into a commercial operation.”
Velings said he hopes more companies will move into the phage space and that they will be successful. “There are a lot of predictions that, by 2050, if we don’t come up with good alternatives to current antibiotic strategies, millions of people will die from common diseases that we won’t have any weapons against any more.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US says that at least two million Americans are already infected with antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and at least 23,000 die as a direct result.
Velings said Proteon will use the funds to commercialize its products globally and develop production capacity. “It is in the process of getting its products registered in the EU and it has already started selling into the Asian market.”
Feed is a good platform to administer phages prophylactically for certain diseases and, in doing so, increases the value of the feed, he said. Integration of phages into feed would provide added value for feed mills, he added. "Phages survive processes such as pelleting and drying to still be effective.”
Aqua-Spark is also supporting US headquartered, Cryoocyte, a firm behind fish breeding technology.
Velings said the fund had been in discussion with the provider for a number of years, before making the investment. He said it is a small, internationally focused company with great potential.
“They have two products – one that is still at the fairly early stage and another one that is on the market right now – that one is based on extending the lifespan of fish eggs for cold-water species. So if you look at salmon eggs for example, you currently have about 24 hours to start working on those eggs, and start breeding, etc., which is not a lot of time to carry out good selection. Selective breeding programs take a massive amount of time and multiple generations to get the best brood stock you can get for growth, for feed efficiency and for disease resistance.
“The technology at Cryoocyte and the services platform that it has built around extends that lifespan period to work on eggs to around two weeks. All of a sudden, based on genetic markets, you can afford not to just genotype the males - a current industry practice - but you can also genotype the females, screen their eggs for diseases, etc. You can decide which females and males should be mated."
"We think it [this technology] is going to bring major changes to the farming of salmon and help breeding companies to get a better result.”
Cryoocyte is also developing cryopreservation technology for the fish eggs of tropical species to enable backup of genetic stock or by also enhancing output through better selective breeding programs.
“With cryopreservation, you can freeze [the eggs] and bring them back to life, which means you safeguard your brood stock. In the case of disease, you can put your eggs in the freezer and keep them safe. You can also transport the material across borders. You have an almost infinite time to work on eggs and do all sorts of genetic testing for traits that you want to have in terms of feed efficiency, disease [resistance] or growth.”
As the technology can speed up selective breeding processes, it will also help ensure biodiversity in terms of the fish species used in farming operations globally, a factor that will assist in future food security, added Velings.
Aqua-Spark fund history
Since 2015, the Dutch fund has made 15 investments in 10 complementary aquaculture focused SMEs. Apart from Proteon and Cryoocyte, the others include:
Sogn Aqua: A Norwegian Atlantic Halibut farm.
Calysta (Three investments): A biotechnology company developing methane gas derived bacterial meals.
eFishery: A technology for monitoring fish feed.
Chicoa Fish Farms (Two investments): A fish farm in Mozambique.
Matorka: a land based, geothermal Arctic Charr farm in Iceland.
Indian Ocean Trepang: A sea cucumber farming operation in Madagascar.
Love The Wild: A US-based company that produces ready to prepare seafood kits.
Protix: An insect protein producer.