University research spinoff bets on protein play for whole algae power

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

University research spinoff bets on protein play for whole algae power

Related tags: Nutrition

Startup Triton Algae Innovations is betting on a whole-cell protein positioning for an algae species that has been researched for years for its nutraceutical and pharmaceutical ingredient production potential.

The San Diego, CA-based company passed a significant regulatory milestone recently with self affirmed GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status for its wild-type algae Chlamydomonas reinhardtii​. The company said that after a rigorous evaluation of a comprehensive dossier of scientific safety studies and characterization data, an independent panel of experts determined this algae powder to be safe for its intended use as an ingredient in various foods and beverages, such as snack or nutritional bars, cereals, yogurts, fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, and sports or energy drinks.

Our focus is on bringing safe and healthy new products to consumers, who are increasingly interested in the nutritional content and sustainability of the foods they eat,​ said Xun Wang, PhD, president and CEO of Triton. We are excited to have this external scientific validation, which opens up multiple potential commercial pathways for our algae, whether as a specialized nutritional supplement product, or as a source of healthy plant-based protein in various foods.

Triton says its non-GMO and vegan algae powder is rich in omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, Vitamin A/betacarotene, and iron, and is an excellent source of highly nutritious protein. This has rendered it of growing interest to major food companies in search of non-traditional sources of protein which can be produced sustainably and affordably.

Long research history

C. reinhardtii ​was first isolated in 1945 and has been used as a model organism for research into fundamental questions of cellular biology. The organism also proved to be amenable to genetic manipulation, which allowed development of its potential for vaccine production and as a renewable source of hydrogen. Miller Tran, PhD, Triton cofounder and director of R&D, told NutraIngredients-USA that the company emphasizes its ‘wild-type’ positioning to differentiate its ingredient from these genetic modification development modes.

Triton was founded in 2013 as a spinout from the University of California San Diego,​ Tran said. The company was founded on research done in a lab headed by UCSD professor Steve Mayfield, PhD, who did his doctoral work at Berkeley on the organism and is also the company’s chief scientific officer. Mayfield has been a scientific adviser to Rincon Pharamceuticals, which works on the production of pharmaceutical ingredients from algae and has also been involved with algae biofuels firm Sapphire Energy.

Protein play

So Triton has all of the family tree traits of other algae firms, with fuels and pharmaceuticals in its background. Tran said one of the near term goals for the company is to deliver on another of algae’s promises, that being a sustainable, scalable source of high quality protein. Like many other algae strains, the organism can thrive either in a photosynthetic production setting or heterotrophically, in a fermentation-like production mode. Triton is pursuing the latter course, Tran said.

The species itself has been studied for 75 years or longer. We have our own proprietary strain. The more we learned about it the more we became convinced this is something that could be used directly in the human food chain like spirulina or chlorella,​ Tran said.

Triton’s particular strain has the advantage of mild taste, Tran said.

Some other whole algae ingredients taste, well, gross,​ Tran said. Our algae has a taste that most people say is something like parsley.

Tran said that Triton executives believe that protein will be in growing demand in the future, and not only because of population increase. The company cites recent research that suggests elevated CO2 levels in the future will depress the protein content of staple crops​, such as rice, wheat and barely.

We are definitely looking at the protein play. Right now we are working with a couple contract manufacturers that have capacity to grow our strain. There are food manufacturers the world over looking at future protein shortages and how are we going to supply the worlds growing population with enough amino acids. They are looking at things from algae to insects,​ Tran said.

The obvious initial targets would be things like energy drinks, sports beverages and other functional beverages,​ he said.

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