Forward Food Tech Podcast

Algae as a Cost-Effective, Carbon Net-Zero Biofertiliser - TrueAlgae

July 29, 2021 ForwardFood.Tech Season 1 Episode 8
Forward Food Tech Podcast
Algae as a Cost-Effective, Carbon Net-Zero Biofertiliser - TrueAlgae
Show Notes Transcript

Today our guests are Nathaniel Jackson and Angela Tsetsis from True Algae, a company that is at the forefront of innovation with algae bio fertilisers, aiming to increase farmer productivity in a cost-effective carbon net-zero way.

Nathaniel has been CEO of TrueAlgae since 2017. He worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for over 20 years and held several senior positions including Chief of Staff of private sector operations. He is a founding partner of NExT Impact Ventures, an impact fund that made an initial investment in TrueAlgae.

Our other guest today, Angela is the Chief Commercial Officer at True Algae. Angela has been working with algae since the early '90s and her expertise lies in biotechnology, sales and marketing. Angela is a former senior executive at Martek Biosciences, which is arguably the most successful algae company to date. Angela has worked with several start-up companies using various microbial technologies for health and wellness of people and planet. Here is the conversation between Rob, Nathaniel and Angela.

Learn more about True Algae: https://truealgae.com/  
Follow Nathaniel on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nathanielajackson/
Follow Angela on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/angela-tsetsis-07505811/
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Illy Dimitrova:

Hi, welcome to the Forward Food Tech podcast where we explore the future of food and agriculture with the people who are taking us there. Today our guests are Nathaniel Jackson and Angela Tsetsis from True Algae, a company that is at the forefront of innovation with algae bio fertilisers, aiming to increase farmer productivity in a cost-effective carbon net-zero way. Nathaniel has been CEO of TrueAlgae since 2017. He worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for over 20 years and held several senior positions including Chief of Staff of private sector operations. He is a founding partner of NExT Impact Ventures, an impact fund that made an initial investment in TrueAlgae. Our other guest today, Angela is the Chief Commercial Officer at True Algae. Angela has been working with algae since the early '90s and her expertise lies in biotechnology, sales and marketing. Angela is a former senior executive at Martek Biosciences, which is arguably the most successful algae company to date. Angela has worked with several start-up companies using various microbial technologies for health and wellness of people and planet. Here is the conversation between Rob, Nathaniel and Angela.

Rob Ward:

Well, welcome Nathaniel and Angela to the Forward Food Tech podcast. I'm delighted to have this business on board and passionate about this industry. It's really addressing some really exciting new areas of the way agriculture can change. Starting with Nathaniel, tell us about True Algae and what do you do in essence?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Okay, well, first of all, Rob, thanks so much for having us on the Forward Food Tech podcast. I'm a big fan, I listen to all of your podcasts. True Algae is a sustainable algae production company bringing the benefits of natural and regenerative algae to the world. Our patented IP enables us to manufacture high grade algae in bulk extremely efficiently. We can harvest up to 50% every day and we have 70% gross margins. And our first vertical market which we'll be talking about extensively today is selling the algae as a bio fertiliser. It's a huge global market of over $10 billion. And our 100% organic product works with nature unlike chemical fertilisers and, but also returns higher yields per acre, which of course is so important for the farmers. And just briefly in terms of traction, we have a 36 metric tonne production facility in Florida, we have more than a million revenue, and we've raised more than 5 million US dollars today.

Rob Ward:

I can tell you're the numbers man, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel Jackson:

Absolutely, you're gonna have on your fingertips.

Rob Ward:

We'll go into deeper detail in a moment. But Angela, tell us a little bit about your role in the business and what are your day to day challenges you're looking at and opportunities?

Angela Tsetsis:

Sure. So I'm the Chief Commercial Officer here at True Algae and I manage anything that happens commercially. So I work with the sales team and get marketing materials together to help broaden our reach into the farming community. We work with the farmers to help them understand how our product can impact their bottom line. It's not always about productivity, it's really about profitability for them. And we work very hard to fit into their systems and how they do their farming and not create additional work for them.

Rob Ward:

I think this farmer engagement piece is a really critical thing across the whole ag tech space. I really like to unravel a bit of that. But firstly, where did this all come from? Where was the origin of this?

Nathaniel Jackson:

It's a bit of serendipity. My background is basically in sustainable economics. And I worked at the Inter-American Development Bank for roughly 20 years, working on investing in private sector projects, which had a triple bottom line basically financial, environmental, social, sustainable works. And when I retired from the IDB through a bit of serendipity...

Rob Ward:

You're too young to retire, Nathaniel!

Nathaniel Jackson:

Yeah, I know, but I found a small impact fund and our second investment actually was in this really interesting technology which came out of Korea and what fast as we could harvest 50% every day at a high gross margins. It only needed water, sunlight, small amounts of trace minerals and a little bit of co2 and we acquired the the marketing rights outside of Korea to market this globally. So we started in the US and in the state of Florida with a very small test plan of about 0.5 metric tonnes we started testing it with strawberry farmers in Florida, got some good results expanded to 3.6 tonnes. We're able to expand that to sales in California, which in the US is the centre of the fruit and vegetable market and ultimately we were able to raise funds to build this 36 metric tonne plant. So that's how we you know started and gained some traction.

Rob Ward:

Now, I've been to your plants in Florida it was actually a few days before the first lockdown in the UK, right? Ultimately, in the US, it's a lovely place to be, you know, it's like an aquarium without the fish. I could happily watch those bubbles go up vertically every day in a nice relaxing way. I mean, I think you can probably sell it just as a place to chill out in.

Nathaniel Jackson:

Well, that could be another income stream.

Rob Ward:

But when you compare that to the concrete monsters that industrialised fertilisers plants are made from. And you think, God, that this is a complete reversal of everything about the fertiliser industry, you've got something that produces oxygen with almost no industrialization. It's it's a very gentle process. As I said, and this is just almost too good to be true. When you went through some of the numbers on the impact you're having on strawberries. I was originally a strawberry grower, so I'm really passionate about strawberries, but you gave me some numbers. I didn't frankly, believe you. So that's another reason why we got on a plane and went over to come and see you, despite the COVID pandemic that was happening aross the pond. Angela talk us through some of the impact you're having on strawberries as an example, and then I know it's affecting other crops in lots of different ways. But what is it actually doing, this material?

Angela Tsetsis:

So our product is the metabolites that algae produce, while they grow, and they express out these metabolites into their growth environment, and we harvest that water that the algae grows in. And it's dense in phytonutrients. These are the same phytonutrients that the algae themselves use to grow. And as you can imagine anything green we'd like those same types of compounds. So it makes complete sense that we would apply it to other plants and help them grow. What it's really doing actually is, whether it's through drip irrigation, or foliar applications, it helps the microbiome regenerate repopulate in the soil. It increases the microbe diversity in the soil. And that diversity helps to release the nutrients that are in the soil, make them more available for the plant to uptake and help the plant's root system grow to take in those nutrients. And that results in a healthier plant, more flowering, more fruiting. In strawberries, what we see is 20% minimum yield increase, we see improvements in the quality of the crop that comes out the strawberries tend to have firmer flesh, which means they retain their moisture better, which extends their shelf life. So it's not just about yield, but it's also about the quality of that yield.

Rob Ward:

And you also need less fertilisers, normal conventional fertilisers?

Angela Tsetsis:

So we've done some testing that shows we can reduce the more conventional fertilisers by as much as 75%. Our customers right now are using it much more as an additive and in some cases are playing around with reducing their fertiliser. But at this point, because they see the benefits as an additive, and the return on investment is there, they're not yet willing to take the risk of doing what they're familiar with. And so they add it on top, but as time goes on, and as we see the industry changing and moving more towards natural inputs, we believe that we'll see more and more farmers rely on our product to reduce their chemistry.

Rob Ward:

To get to around 20% of lifting yield and longer shelf life without damaging eating quality is a sort of 30 year genetics programme right there! I mean, we were involved in the early 90s in genetic modified strawberries, which were eventually banned in Europe and the UK. The amount of money that we needed to make even slight modifications to improve things. Even with the fast tracking of GM, what you're achieving there is extraordinary. The interesting thing about the nitrogen or the conventional fertilisers that does suggest that the plant and the rhizosphere or the root zone of the rhizosphere is actually using what's there already, because we're not creating fertiliser, we are just using what's better that so must be a monumental amount of waste of nitrogen that is then ultimately washed to the aquaflow, you know, the groundwater. That is fascinating. To optimise the root zone and enable microbes to do their job. I guess what we're learning here across the world in soil health is how that improves plant vigour. So you get a more robust plant, don't you get a plant that is able to deal with extremes, possibly even infections or pest attacks? Do you get a higher root growth, is there a different root volume achieved here?

Angela Tsetsis:

Yes. And we see that the roots are longer thicker, they have more of the smaller roots coming off, seem to reach further out into the soil, which could be part of why you need less fertiliser. Fertilisers aren't specific to the root ball, they're just covering the ground. So the roots are reaching further and able to absorb those nutrients easier and faster.

Rob Ward:

The tough question here now is, you're not alone in this market. So what's your age that you'd say that True Algae provides the farmers?

Angela Tsetsis:

It's easy to use, it's a liquid product that they can dilute into their irrigation water, they can add it with other inputs or applications that they're already doing. We try and fit into the farmers programme. However they're managing their crop, we're just a plug in, I think that's one of the helps. I also see that with our organic nature and the lack of processing of our product, it's more potent. We dilute our product, one gallon in 250 gallons of irrigation water and see these results. So it's a highly concentrated, very rich, organic product.

Rob Ward:

So let's get back to the unit economics is what we always have to talk about this amongst these innovations, Nathaniel. What sort of numbers are we achieving for the farmer. So cost-benefit ratio is what?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Well, it's a sliding scale, really, depending on the type of crop which is being grown and where it's being grown, we typically try to think about it as a return on investment for the farmer. And just to give you an example, a farmer in Florida, the typical revenue per acre is roughly $30,000 to $35,000 a year with normal treatment. Given the fact that we're able to show and demonstrate 20% increase on that, on their ultimate revenue for that, and there are some additional costs because there are more picking costs, but roughly, it's at least 15% extra, when you take it all in. So the return on investment there is roughly, anywhere from five to eight times their investment. In California where the strawberry grower has roughly between $85,000 to $90,000 of revenue per acre, a 20% or 15% bump can result in up to 20x of their investment,

Rob Ward:

I'll give you $1 and you give me $20?

Nathaniel Jackson:

That's the simple proposition. Even though it's an additive, it's a very compelling return on investment for the farmers.

Rob Ward:

Exciting. And of course, it's environmentally unbelievably beneficial, which is hand in hand with everything. It's got to add up financially for everybody, but also it has a big impact environmentally. This is the liquid the algae lives in, the liquid then, it's shelf stable, is it or can you ship it around the world?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Well, there are some shipping restrictions in some cases. But our goal ultimately is to build facilities locally, because it's not cheap to ship the liquids across the ocean, it's much more efficient to try to build plants close to the end users.

Rob Ward:

That makes a lot of sense. And so you're looking for people to work with doing that?

Nathaniel Jackson:

That's correct. Internationally, we have a licencing agreement model. So we already have a licence agreement up and running in Mexico, we have letters of intent with multi billion dollar companies in Japan and Brazil to own and operate their own facilities there. And we're in talks in multiple other countries for setting up facilities.

Rob Ward:

Sounds good. So if you're selling the liquid the algae lives in and that's the product you sell as a treatment. What happens to the algae, what are your thoughts there?

Angela Tsetsis:

Algae is a remarkable organism. I've been working with algae since the early 90s. And just think it's an untapped resource that could do so many things and in my past lives I've worked in human nutrition with algae and animal nutrition. So we have opportunities with our product. It contains a high amount of protein, a lot of phytonutrients that are good for human health, for animal health. We hope to monetize the algae itself in some of these environments. And actually, we recently received a grant to do some studies in the chicken feed arena using the biomass to support egg quality as well as chicken health and the meat quality as well.

Rob Ward:

And so let's talk about the wider remit for other crops in agriculture, Angela, the strawberry market's big but what else are you looking at?

Angela Tsetsis:

Well, you know, we have about 40 trials going on with a variety of farmers, everything from potatoes and other kinds of berries, cane berries and all the way to cannabis and hemp which is an exploding market, at least here in the US. We're seeing a variety of results. We're even working in some of the I believe what you call in the UK broadacre crops here we call them row crops, and seeing some interesting of benefits even with one or two applications because it helps the soil be better and healthier for the plant. We're looking forward to getting results across the board. We're also working on remiss in mentioning greenhouses. So indoor applications and working with a variety of they're very different, these indoor applications, lots of different systems shoots. So we're learning about that and working with different growers and understanding how we can plug in.

Rob Ward:

And I guess that you do the microbial environment to apply your treatment in that glasshouse environment for it to have the impact that it could have?

Angela Tsetsis:

It's certainly more impactful if there's some microbes added into the system. Some of them use a substrate but still include some sort of microbe incorporation in some of the other areas of ohms, or rockwool or something like that. So we're still learning how we fit in.

Rob Ward:

What is the biggest challenge you think you've yet to overcome?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Well, in terms of challenges, I think there's a couple different areas. One, of course, is our ongoing research and development effort. We're constantly trying to learn more about the soil microbiome and the interaction of our True Solum product. With the microbiome. It's basically an organic prebiotic product, we know it works well with probiotic products. And we have plenty of evidence from third party sources that our product works in multiple environments, like Angela was talking about the controlled environment agriculture, as well as in multiple different places like California, Florida, Mexico, etc. But we also have to work with multiple third party companies to try to help us better understand. So we're working with Biome Makers and AgNexus to help us better understand how our product works and the dynamics and to help us better explain to our customers. And I think the other big challenge is how we leverage ourselves, we want to replicate our model in multiple countries. So we're trying to develop partnerships. The challenge is each country has different regulatory environment, different physical environment. So we need to be able to work with local experts and counterparts to help develop the production and distribution in those different countries.

Rob Ward:

So if you could rewind the clock back to the day you started to this, what would you have done differently?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Oh, my gosh, great question! Well, I think we would have focused a little bit earlier on the r&d. We were so focused on getting the company up and running. But I think the continuous challenge which Angela and her team face is explaining exactly why it works. And what we found is it's a very, very complex interaction process with the microbiome. And there's no single answer. It's not like chemistry, where you add one chemical to another. And there's an automatic reaction. This is a very complex microbial community, which has billions of fungi and micro biomes. So it's really a complex interaction. And we're trying to tease out exactly why it works. And not just have the general statements, but really dig into for what's the driving behaviour. And I think we're getting a lot closer to it. But if I were to go back, I would spend more time and energy on r&d initially.

Rob Ward:

I mean, it's fascinating, because actually, often it's the other way around normally. People get stuck in, buried in the science and not commercially out there enough. So I wouldn't beat youself too much. I think it's never a perfect balance. At least you've got customers that are buying it and like it and want to keep it. Let's portray a future in five years time. What do you think that will look like?

Nathaniel Jackson:

Our vision going forward is to leverage the amazing regenerative power of algae to make a net carbon zero bio fertiliser. That would be the ultimate vision in a cost effective way, and then just leverage this around the world. So as we talked about a little bit earlier, we want to find partnerships in other countries. We're building out our own production facilities in the US and are marketing directly there. But we do need to have local partners to build this both in other developed economies throughout Europe and Asia, but also in many emerging markets as well. And so really, our mission based on that vision, is to help growers around the world increase their productivity, which obviously, as Angela was talking about is the key variable for them, while at the same time improving their their soil, their water and reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Rob Ward:

I love it, sounds great. And Angela, the issue that that we see with other technologies in the sector is that once people get started using any technology like this, the farms don't tend to after they started doing it, they can sometimes forget why they've got it. As if they've made that marginal gain, and they may not always attribute it to that technology. It could be a range of reasons it could be weather, it could be could be just how clever they are at farming, and it's one of the biggest challenges is farming is always about a multitude of different touching points that make something work or not. That must be quite a frustration at times.

Angela Tsetsis:

Well, we're relatively early in the process. Most of our growers, we have a few growers that are heading into year four of using our product, but most of them are in year two, maybe year three. And so we still have constant dialogue with them, because they're still learning how to use our product and dial it in to their specific application. As we learn, which Nathaniel talked about, that's certainly something we're working on all the time to help understand how we can better support the farmer. So the dialogue continues. And we right now remain very hands on with our growers, and hope to continue that throughout the years to come.

Rob Ward:

So working with BiomeMakers, they do DNA analysis of microbes. There must be other partners technically that you're interested in working with around the world, what type of partners would you like to meet and or connect with if you had a magic book of lists?

Nathaniel Jackson:

I think both Angela will have responses to this. But basically, those that are on the leading edge of understanding the genomics and the biome. Those are the partners we want to have. Because at the end of the day, we want to build a patent portfolio based on the knowledge that we get from these leading edge companies.

Angela Tsetsis:

Certainly beyond r&d, we're always interested in customers but we'd like to partner up with other like-minded companies in biologicals, looking at opportunities to combine our product with synergistic products in the marketplace. We believe we can amplify some of the impact that some of these other products are having, and they could amplify what we're doing. So we see lots of opportunities for blended products, collaborations in that way. And we'd be very interested in working and creating science around that.

Rob Ward:

Are you looking for investment at the moment?

Nathaniel Jackson:

We're just closing our latest round, so we're not really looking for future investment at this moment, but we will be next year, we'll be going out for a Series A.

Rob Ward:

Sounds good. Thank you for your time today. It's a real pleasure. Looking forward to True Algae and the whole range of farming products that it could have, and in making the impact that it could do with both economics and environment. Congratulations, you'done a great job.

Nathaniel Jackson:

Thank you very much, Rob. I really appreciate this opportunity and best of luck to you and Forward Food Tech.

Rob Ward:

Thank you.

Angela Tsetsis:

Thank you!

Nathaniel Jackson:

Thanks. Bye!

Angela Tsetsis:

Bye!

Iliyana Dimitrova:

Thanks very much for listening! If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, give us a five star review and share the podcast with your friends and colleagues. For more information and takeaways from this episode, please visit forwardfood.tech. See you next time!