Ascending a Mountain - 2017 Year in Review
In my last blog I compared my company to flying an airplane while at the same time building it. Another analogy I use a lot is that starting a company is like scaling a mountain. When you are starting you have a pretty good idea of where you want to end up- the summit- but no clear idea of how exactly you’re going to get there. There are so many different paths you can take to reach the top of the mountain and picking the right one can be a daunting task.
In 2013 KnipBio started with a big idea: we wanted to create a sustainable and nutritious single cell protein for aquaculture that doesn’t rely on limited (and diminishing) ocean-based food sources. In my climbing analogy, we were at the base camp, or maybe even at a nearby city where climbers buy supplies. We could see the summit off in the distance, and we were anxious to get going. We scoured our maps, plotted a route with the help of industry veterans, and filled up our backpacks.
Our first few years were like the initial ascent up the mountain, seemingly gradual. In fact we were making key decisions on which the success of the entire trip would depend. First, what microbe or group of microbes should we choose? After all, nature has given us an incredible diversity to choose from. We settled on Methylobacterium extorquens, a naturally occuring and safe leaf symbiont that has a number of very intriguing characteristics. For one, it is easily grown using standard off-the-shelf fermentation vessels. There is no need to invest tens of millions of dollars of equipment to understand if the fermentation process is even viable. In addition to being a premium protein alternative, M. extorquens makes a range of immuno-nutrients like antioxidants, carotenoids, and PHB, a powerful prebiotic compound that can potentially offer important health benefits for farmed fish. The microbe can also be made to grow in a variety of low-cost and sustainable feed stocks, including ethanol, methanol, biomethanol, and potentially even waste by-products from fermentation.
As we were learning the secrets of our microbe, including how to nudge it into expressing a range of commercially relevant products, we started to develop a first-class field testing operation to evaluate the efficacy and safety of our protein on finfish and shrimp.
In 2017 we entered the next phase of our journey. The path is getting steeper, a sign that we are getting closer to our goal. Our scientists have now investigated hundreds of versions of our microbe and are actively working on commercializing three of the most promising candidates. We expanded our science team and invested in additional research capabilities. As a result, the time required to evaluate interesting novel strains is being dramatically reduced each month. We are using our new knowledge as the basis of our PROTEINplus strategy- to be a supplier of products offering a variety of important immunonutrients as well as premium protein.
We were privileged last year to work with a variety of commercial aquaculture partners to test KnipBio Meal’s efficacy as a feed ingredient in real world applications. A signature event last year was a taste test done in conjunction with Kampachi Farms of Hawaii. We were able to test whether yellowtail sashimi (Kampachi) fed KnipBio Meal had any off-flavors, discernable color, or texture differences. Learning that our feed has no significant impact on the quality and taste of Kampachi has additionally validated the notion that KBM is a viable protein source. In the 12-month period starting in mid-2018 we expect to have trials running on 5 continents, speaking to the global nature of this industry as well as the market interest.
We capped off 2017 with the successful completion of a key production milestone- scaling-up fermentation using a 20,000 liter vessel. The work was done in conjunction with a major North American contract manufacturer and in the process, we were able to produce enough KnipBio Meal to create ten metric tonnes of feed. This scale-up process did more than simply provide us with product for testing. We gained a clearer understanding of how our microbe behaves in commercial-demonstration size vessels and what we need to do to manage it. We will leverage this information as we continue moving into full commercial scale production over the next two years.
In 2017 we were determined to focus on developing our understanding of our product as much as we focused on developing our product. For example, we entered into a licensing agreement with the University of Ghent to access intellectual property that serves as a basis for the use of the prebiotic compound PHB in improving the overall health of fish, shrimp and other animals. This was on the heels of some additional promising research we conducted separately in reducing mortality in animals exposed to disease and environmental challenges.
One reason I founded KnipBio was a desire to make the world a more sustainable place. In pursuit of this we joined the UN’s Ocean Conference Registry of Voluntary Commitment, pledging to produce 40,000 metric tonnes of our single cell protein by 2020. KnipBio was also invited to participate in a closed workshop hosted by WWF that focused on alternative protein sources for for a variety of feed applications. This workshop allowed companies with different solutions to get together and discuss the future of the industry in a “pre-competitive” setting. We are excited to continue supporting these initiatives and are constantly looking for more ways we can leverage our position to positively impact sustainability efforts within the aquaculture industry.
Now in early 2018, we are beginning our major campaign towards “the summit”. It is in within grasp, but no doubt we need to keep pushing forward. Sometimes it feels like no matter how much we accomplish, we are not making the progress we expect to. However, looking back to the beginning of our journey, it is clear just how far we have come! With each steepening step we take, I am grateful for the team of talented scientists, advisors, and collaborators we have assembled to help us tackle these challenges.