The Montana-based aquafeed ingredient startup was one of 13 companies picked to take part in the 2019 cohort for the Hatch Aquaculture Accelerator program.
The program, founded by the aquaculture-focused venture capital Alimentos Ventures, provides participating companies €50,000 in financial support along with training, office space and mentoring for startups with scalable ways to address problems in aquaculture. This year’s program runs through early December.
One interest in taking part in the program is to expand awareness of the work Montana Microbial Products (MMP) has been doing for aquaculture producers in Europe, said Clifford Bradley, co-founder with Montana Microbial Products.
“We needed to get in front of people in Europe – that’s where there’s both barley and a lot of aquaculture,” he told FeedNavigator. “We’re working with Hatch to turn over some opportunities to build production in Europe – either plants we participate in owning or licensing or any number of potential business structures to do that.
“That’s the real opportunity we see where there’s a lot of fish, salmon in particular, and a lot of barley production,” he added.
Company background and development
The company was founded following work with Rick Barrows, fish nutritionist, to develop an improved soy-based ingredient for use in aquafeed, said Bradley. However, the feed ingredient developed was not palatable to fish and the group started development work with barley.
“It doesn’t have the antinutritional [elements] in it,” he said of the reason barley was picked. “It’s grown in places where you can’t grow much else because of climate or short [growing] season, it’s a very low input crop and it looked like an ideal source for protein – we just had to figure out how to go from 12% to 65% protein.”
A process was developed to generate barley protein concentrate that could be used in aquafeed as an alternative to soy protein concentrate, he said.
“The basic process [is] we use enzymes to dissolve the carbohydrates and recover the protein – that’s the simplified version,” he added.
Another advantage to working with barley is that there are no approved genetically modified strains of the plant on the market, Bradley said.
There also has been interest in developing new uses for the glucose generated as a by-product of the protein ingredient, he said. The production process produces about three tons of glucose for every ton of protein.
“The original idea was to convert that into ethanol and we still can,” he said. However, there are other, and potentially more high value uses for the glucose.
“We’re looking at everything from using that as an energy source in dairy feed or feedstock for antibiotic fermentations and feedstock for organic acid production,” Bradley said. “That’s another area we’ve been working in.”
The intention, at this point, is that the development of commercial facilities in the future also would provide a market for glucose-based products, he said.
Barley protein feeding trials
MMP has a pilot plant in production that can generate about a ton of barley protein a day when running at full capacity, said Bradley. The facility has been used to generate the protein ingredient needed for feeding trials.
The company ran a two-year feeding trial with Idaho-based Clear Springs Foods, which fed trout from “fry weight to market weight” using both diets with barley protein and conventional feed, he said. The test included about 375,000 fish.
“One of the real advantages of the barley to other plant proteins, especially soy, is we can feed it at a relatively high inclusion rate,” he said. “The trial fed it at a 30% inclusion rate – and we’ve gone as high as 45% without any adverse effects, and you can’t do that with soy, not with trout and salmon at least.”
Fish receiving the alternative diet were found to be “indistinguishable” from those fed the conventional feeds in terms of production measures including growth rate and feed conversion efficiency, he said. Adding, “And they still tasted like trout.”
The company has done feeding trials with multiple species including carnivorous species like trout and salmon, Bradley said. “Any place that has used soy protein could use the barley to advantage, we think, but we have focused on salmon markets because that’s where soy is limited by inclusion rates and sustainability issues.”
“For a variety of reasons that high-end salmon and trout market seems to be a place where we can compete competitively, but we’ve done feeding trial in eight different species of fish,” he said. Feeding trials have been run in the US, Canada, Scotland and Japan and protein samples were sent to Norway recently for trials there.
Currently, MMP is in discussions to build a commercial plant in North America, said Bradley. The deal also includes looking at a market for the sugar byproduct.
“The best way to reach Asian aquaculture markets is from North America, or maybe Australia,” he said. “Japan and Vietnam don’t produce much barley, and what they do all goes into beer – that’s a strategy to serve Asian markets by expanding in North America.”
However, there is interest in developing a commercial production facility in Europe as well, he said. The goal would be to establish a facility that could generate about 30,000 tons of barley protein using locally sourced barley.
“From the time we actually put together the business structure and capital it would take about a year to year and a half to actually build the facility, so we’re hoping to identify investors through the Hatch program and be able to negotiate some sort of deal in the first half of next year,” he said.
The feed ingredient has regulatory approval for use in the US and work is ongoing to have it approved in other countries, Bradley said. “We have most of our international patents approved now, besides the US and Canada, it’s patented in Japan, Australia and Mexico, and just recently all the claims were approved, but it hasn’t issued, in the EU.”
“We’ve tried to nail down all the patents on the process and the composition of the protein in any place where there’s lots of aquaculture or a lot of barley,” he said. The work has been ongoing in addition to seeking regulatory approval.
Going forward, there has been interest expressed in using the protein in feeds for other species including calves and companion animals, he said. Adding, “Any place that 65% soy protein concentrates go now we could compete in those markets – we just took on aquaculture first.”