Growing Ideas: From crop waste to fish and chips

BioKind ferments sustainable fish food

Started at Imperial College London, BioKind has ambitious plans to convert agricultural by-product into sustainable, nutritious feed ingredients for aquaculture, pets and livestock.

Aquaculture, the farming of fish and other sea creatures and plants, has been growing between six and nine percent a year since the 1970s. It has now overtaken wild catch as the main source of seafood on our plates. But it has a big problem: the main protein source in feeds – fishmeal – is inherently unsustainable and its production has been capped since the 1990s.

Consequently, the industry has been forced to look for alternatives, with plant-based proteins being a common substitute. But producers of these feeds are under increasing pressure from governments to halt land clearance to make way for feed crops. Aquaculture will need to look elsewhere for feed ingredients if it is to continue to satisfy global demand for seafood.

That’s where BioKind fits in. The start-up, based at Imperial College in London, is developing a high-quality, protein-rich ingredient that will satisfy the aquaculture industry’s feed demand while reducing over-fishing and inefficient land use.

Maxwell Swinscow-Hall: “We harvest and process a protein-rich bacteria to produce a powder that has a similar amino-acid profile to fishmeal. Photo: Thomas Angus”

Plant sugars + bacteria

“Our concept is relatively simple,” says co-founder Maxwell Swinscow-Hall. “We extract sugars from crop waste and grow special bacteria on those sugars. We then harvest and process this protein-rich bacteria to produce a powder that has a similar amino-acid profile to fishmeal.”

The idea was developed when Swinscow-Hall was working on a research project at Imperial College to grow fungi and extract high-value pharmaceutical ingredients. He put out a ‘lonely hearts’-style advertisement at the college seeking a chemist. Co-founder Ryan Lee responded.

“He introduced me to our other co-founder, Chien An Chua, whose family is involved in aquaculture,” explains Swinscow-Hall. “Chien said we should be looking to use microorganisms to produce protein as there was huge demand for it in the industry. When we realized fungi wasn’t suitable economically, we switched our attention to bacteria.”

“We can adapt our process for most kinds of agricultural waste”

- Maxwell Swinscow-Hall, BioKind

Sustainable advantages

While comparatively straightforward, BioKind’s solution has a number of advantages over conventional animal feeds.

“Sustainability is a big one,” says Swinscow-Hall. “We’re making it from inedible plant waste, so we’re outside of the food chain, if you like. We’re also low in CO2 emissions compared with alternatives.

“And while it’s difficult to beat fishmeal thanks to its other qualities, we have a better nutritional profile than all the alternatives.

“Our solution is hugely scalable too – there is so much raw material that we can tap into and we can adapt our process to suit pretty much any kind of agricultural waste, including forestry waste.”

Rice waste

While its process is suited to many types of raw material, BioKind says not all sources of crop waste would work economically.

“The challenge is really the logistics of mobilizing so much to make it economically viable,” says Swinscow-Hall. “It’s not so attractive in Europe, for example, because the cost of amassing the waste doesn’t always make economic sense. So we are investigating using rice waste as it is grown in abundance in Asia and there are two types of waste: straw and husks. With the latter, it’s already at the mill, so we won’t need to factor in field collection costs.”

“Our biggest challenge is to scale up fast enough to meet demand”

- Maxwell Swinscow-Hall, BioKind

Next step: Southeast Asia

Aside from logistics, BioKind has other hurdles to tackle.

“We’re a start-up, so finding funding is often keeping us busy,” says Swinscow-Hall. “But going forward, our biggest challenge will be to scale up quickly enough to meet the demands of our customers. They have extremely large minimum requirements, so we have to show we can meet those needs.”

To that end, BioKind plans to open a pilot production plant at the beginning of 2019 in Southeast Asia to prove its solution’s viability at an intermediate level.

“Our aim is to locate the pilot plant in Asia, as that’s where around 75 percent of the world’s aquaculture takes place,” says Swinscow-Hall. “My co-founders have a good network of contacts in place there and, crucially, it will be close to major sources of our preferred raw material. Not only that, we have secured partner farms in Malaysia to run tests ahead of the pilot production, which should happen before the end of 2018.”

If all goes according to plan, BioKind’s high-protein feed ingredient could be in commercial production by the end of 2020.

BioKind won the Highly Commended Award at FoodBytes! London 2018. FoodBytes! is a Rabobank initiative connecting agrifood start-ups with industry leaders and investors.

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in these sectors.