Eugene Wang, co-founder and chief executive of foodtech company Sophie’s Bionutrients, explains the potential of microalgae as a sustainable food ingredient
By Murielle Gonzalez
Ingredients are in the spotlight and they have become an area of focus for CPG food manufacturers because consumers demand clean label products. Today companies are looking for ingredients that can comfortably pass that ultimate consumer scrutiny on taste and sustainability.
One start-up at the forefront of this challenge is Sophie’s Bionutrients, a foodtech company based in Singapore that uses microalgae to produce pure protein flour that can be used in food and drink applications. The company debuted this year the world’s first burger patty and milk alternative made with the microalgae-based ingredient.
Eugene Wang (pictured above) founded the company 10 years ago in California under the brand name Sophie’s Kitchen – it began making plant-based seafood using potato starch and pea protein. His entrepreneurial spirit was ignited when he found out that his daughter Sophie is allergic to shellfish. He then started to find ways for people to get the nutrients from the ocean without using the animals.
“I understand people think seafood is healthy, so for them to give up seafood, we have to come up with something better,” says Want. “Then I thought, fishes and shrimps got their nutrients because of microalgae, and so I started a microalgae research.” Fast-forward 10 years and Sophie’s Bionutrients is an award-winning foodtech company.
Wang rebranded the business and established the headquarters in Singapore in 2017, following a grant awarded by the government to continue its microalgae research. Two years later, the company won the grand prize at The Liveability Challenge with Temasek Foundation, and today, it continues to work at full throttle, developing research and optimising processes to produce food with the cleanest and most sustainable ingredient.
“Microalgae has the best and most complete nutrients among all the different microbes, and has all the complete essential amino acids,” says Wang. He notes microalgae also provides a range of vitamin B and that one of the strains the company uses contains vitamin B12, which is not seen in most plant-based protein today. “When compare with most of the commercially available fish products, our amino acid contents are far better,” he adds.
Sustainable food production
Sophie’s Bionutrients is a cell-based company and production takes place in bioreactors. Wang explains: “We first grow a small amount of the microalgae cells in bioreactors, and we harvest the biomass once there is enough volume of cells in the tank. We then process the biomass and isolate for high purity protein flour for sale.”
The company’s fermentation process uses food waste to reduce cost and create a circular economy, producing a sustainable alternative protein from microalgae with absolute minimum input and footprint to create the maximum nutrition and economic output.
Sophie’s Bionutrients operates a business-to-business model and plans to open a small-scale fermentation facility in the coming months. “The plant will house two 20,000-litre bioreactors, which is small but still good enough to produce demonstration products,” says Wang.
The company is in talks with investors as it gears up for a pre-Series A funding round, seeking to raise $10 million to cover the cost of the facility.
Wang says burger patties is the application he is most excited about. “Because of my background, people think microalgae can only be used on plant-based seafood. When we created the world’s first burger patty and then the milk alternative we demonstrated that this microalgae-based ingredient is as versatile as soy and can be used on any application,” he says.
For Wang, the sky is the limit when it comes to the market potential of the microalgae – and he is interested in partnering with aerospace company Space X to bring microalgae production to Mars. “If there is water, there are microalgae,” says Wang, noting there are an estimated 300,000 to 1 million
species of microalgae on this planet and one strain, known as NJ-7, has antifreeze capability, tolerating temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius below zero, which paves the way to grow the microalgae in extreme conditions.
“We believe we can grow microalgae on Mars out in the open to produce foods. And compact bioreactors can be installed in the spacecraft to travel to Mars. All in all, if we prove that we can sustainably produce foods on Mars and in the spacecraft using this technology, we prove that we can produce foods even more sustainably on Earth. It will be a big statement for us,” he concludes.
Date published: 3 May 2021