The Mexico-based biotech company essentially builds onsite water treatment systems with microalgae that transform wastewater into a sustainable protein source and clean water.
The start-up opened its first seed round at the end of February to support the ongoing development and maturation of its technology, said Fanny Villiers, chief operating officer, microTERRA.
The longer-term goal is to be ready to take the company’s technology to market at the end of 2021.
microTERRA is developing a bioreactor system that uses microalgae to clean wastewater generated by fish production through removing excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, she said. The nutrients are used by microalgae in the bioreactor that can then be processed to provide protein for use in fish feed.
“It was a true environmental passion and a mission to create solutions to preserve freshwater,” she told FeedNavigator of the system’s development.
The bioreactor systems are created for producers and attached to fish production tanks on an existing facility, she said. It takes about a month to install the bioreactor and is constructed using commonly found building materials.
“The idea is it will be easy to maintain and easy to use for the farmer,” Villiers said. “The wastewater is dumped out of the tank and passes into the bioreactor and is exposed to sunlight – the sunlight stimulates the microalgae that we put into the bioreactor, the microalgae grow and eat the nutrients that come from the fish manure.
“After three days, we can separate the microalgae from the clean water, and the clean water can be reused in the tank, because now it is free of the nutrients that normally would be lethal to the fish, and we collect the biomass,” she added. “This biomass, we dry it, and [extract] the protein.”
The wastewater cleaning system provides producers a way to generate some of their own feed, she said. The biomass produced has about 40-50% protein content.
Producers can carry out on-farm supplementation of their feed using the protein but microTERRA is also in discussion with aquaculture associations and feed companies about potentially selling the biomass directly to feed producers, she said.
“We’ve been in conversation with all the big fish feed producers so they can test our biomass and start analyzing the quality of our protein,” she said.
The biomass generated could potentially provide an alternative protein source to fishmeal for use in aquaculture feeds, she added.
The scale-up process and market
Currently, microTERRA has a bioreactor system that can clean about 5,000 liters of water every three days, said Villiers. The company has applied for patents on its technology in Mexico and will be seeking international patents in the future.
The pilot 5,000-liter system generates about 38kg of dry biomass monthly and the larger site would produce 1 ton a month, according to company information.
“In June, we’ll build one that is five times bigger and then we will scale to 10 times bigger,” said Villiers. “The plan is to keep growing the capacity until we get to a system that will be able to treat 500,000 liters in one day.”
Aquaculture producers with multiple tanks can generate about 500,000 liters of wastewater on a daily basis, she added. “This is why our main objective for the end of next year is to be able to treat that volume.”
The development process is working along two lines – one is to build larger bioreactors to manage larger quantities of water, she said. The other path is to improve the efficiency of the microalgae so that it cleans the water more quickly and generates its protein biomass faster.
The company is at work in the lab, at the moment, focusing on improving the efficiency of its microalgae, she added.
Going forward, the market focus is on working with mid-range producers working with fish like tilapia, said Villiers. “They’re producing a lot and they’re struggling with economics and they can’t afford any wastewater system because they’re not big enough,” she added.
The system would eventually be able to pay for itself by reducing a producer’s feed costs, she said.
The initial focus is producers in Mexico, followed by an expansion into other countries in Latin America, she said.