Heliae makes progress on astaxanthin, pivots to feed in DHA production

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Vegetarianism

Heliae used a cover pond system to grow Haematococcus pluvialis. Heliae photo.
Heliae used a cover pond system to grow Haematococcus pluvialis. Heliae photo.
Algae ingredients producer Heliae has taken steps toward commercial viability with new certifications on its astaxanthin products and launch of new finished products. In addition, the company has reached a supply deal for biomass arising from its DHA oil development.

Heliae recently announced two new certifications on its astaxanthin which is produced from Haematococcus pluvias​.  The products, labeled as TruAzta 10% oleoresin and the newly introduced  TruAzta 5% oleoresin products, have received vegan and vegetarian certifications from Vegan Action and The Vegetarian Society organizations, respectively.

We are taking the steps necessary to make more people comfortable with the products,​ said Len Smith, chief business officer of Heliae.

The company also announced a milestone with teh launch yesterday of an astaxanthin finished product with the TruAzta logo on the label.  The products, called California GOLD Nutrition, will be offered on the iHerb e-commerce site.

Manufacturers have options when it comes to sourcing astaxanthin for their products, but TruAzta by Heliae represents a unique value proposition among astaxanthin ingredients, due to Heliaes unique production method, quality, and pricing. We adopted the TruAztabrand to emphasize these unique qualities of our product and our dedication to balancing natural production methods with purity,​ Smith said.

AzCATI spinoff

Heliae has been developing it proprietary ‘mixatrophic’ approach to algae development at a facility in Gilbert, AZ for several years. The company got its start as a spinoff from the Arizona Center Algae Technology and Innovation (AzCATI), a research institute associated with Arizona State University.  New technologies for both biofuel and ‘coproducts’ production have been pioneered at the center, where the rubber meets the road in terms of reality vs. promise.

Microalgae has been seen as a source of almost unlimited potential for the production of various valuable chemicals, including dietary ingredients. But the promises and projections made by algae promoters have unfortunately seemed almost unlimited, too. While it has been possible to demonstrate at bench scale the production of a number of dietary supplement and food ingredients including carotenoids, proteins and various oils via algae cultivation, scaling these projects up has proven to be a larger hurdle than some developers at first envisioned.  A number of algae companies have claimed repeatedly to be months away from full scale production until they disappear from the map for want of capital. 

Like the technologies tested at AzCATI, Heliae is involved with both photosynthetic and fermentation-like production modes. The company has designed a hybrid production technology, which marries aspects of phototrophic and heterotrophic (fermentation-like) algae, in a plug-and-play way so that it can be quickly adapted to new sites and environments and can also be quickly scaled up.  The company has focused on two areas for the moment: astaxanthin production in covered raceway ponds and the development of a DHA-rich oil from a heterotrophic production system.

Rising demand in aquaculture

This latter ingredient stream has been hot in the algae space recently as the old Martek (now part of DSM) patents expire.  But for Heliae that development has taken a bit of a left turn, Smith said, as the company was offered an opportunity that was too good to ignore.  Aquaculture products specialist Syndel USA, based in Seattle, WA, agreed to buy all of the heterotrophic biomass production from Heliae to use as fish food.  This development points to one of the issues that has complicated ingredient development from algae.  What targets are best for development stage companies?  Do they invest for a long-term goal of stable production of a given ingredient?  Or do they pivot to near-term opportunities that might crop up in an effort to get some needed revenue? At least for the moment Heliae has chosen the latter course in its DHA development program.

We are a little bit delayed because we finalized an off take agreement for all of our production this year in the aquaculture space,​Smith said.

Human nutrition remains ultimate goal

Using oil produced by microalgae as a substitute for fish oil in aquaculture feeds seems to have a bright future.  According to animal nutrition specialist Alltech, which produces feed ingredients from algae at a facility in Kentucky, the aquaculture industry experienced a 12% increase in feed production in 2016, to 39.9 million metric tons.  The comprehensiveness of Heliae’s deal with Syndel would seem to indicate demand in this realm is outstripping supply, and Heliae might find it hard to justify a move back toward human nutrition products.  But Smith said dietary ingredients for supplements and functional foods remains the long term goal.

For us and our backers we are excited about the industry overall. When we built our largest astaxanthin production facility, which is about an acre under glass, we saw improved productivity. We have a nice, stable investor base and they are in it for the long haul.  For the DHA ingredient, we are now looking at into next year before we can launch in the human nutrition space,​ he said.

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