The company, Kuehnle AgroSystems (KAS), is the brainchild of Adelheid Kuehnle, PhD, who has a long history in agricultural technology. After completing a PhD in plant breeding at Cornell University, Kuehnle had a stint in academia as a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“After a stint as an academic I went out on my own,” Kuehnle said. Kuehnle began working on the ideas that became KAS almost as soon as she arrived in Hawaii in the late 90s. She transitioned into business full time in 2008.
Boost from biofuels
Like many in the algae sphere, Kuehnle’s activities got a boost from the big push to develop biofuels from algae. In particular, she worked on the projects run through the San Diego-based defense contractors General Atomics and SAIC that was funded with an initial $35 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2008. This was an effort to secure fuel for the engines in aircraft, ships and other vehicles that was immune to strategic worries about overseas petroleum supplies. Kuehnle said some of the high lipid production algae strains she had developed were validated at the million liter scale in this program.
In addition, Kuehnle said her company has also collaborated on other algae biofuels projects including algae-to-biofuels projects including those funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Hawaii Renewable Energy Development Venture (HREDV)/US Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Cost considerations have plagued the whole biofuels movement. The technology has been validated, and a jet fuel produced from alternative sources has been used to power the engines in a Navy fighter jet. But the fuels have yet to be able to compete on a cost basis with good old petroleum, especially as the fracking revolution, which started about the same time, made much more domestic petroleum production available. While development work on the fuels continues, it’s unlikely that algae biofuels will become a common product anytime soon.
But Kuehnle said the experience gained in the fuels projects can be put to good elsewhere and KAS is now ready to take the next step in the development of nutritional products from algae.
“After years of working with photosynthesis we realized we needed to get into fermentation,” Kuehnle said.
Wide ranging patent to provide springboard
The company has now announced the granting of a patent on its so-called ‘dark fermentation’ processes, or the heterotrophic cultivation mode. In this, the algal cells are fed on a carbohydrate feedstock in the absences of light, growing much as yeast cells would. It also requires a specific proprietary strains of the algal species. Not every strain can be tossed into a tank with a feedstock and be successfully cultivated via this approach, Kuehnle said.
Astaxanthin, while commonly thought of as an algal ingredient, has long been produced synthetically and used as a colorant for aquaculture feed. It’s what gives the flesh of farmed salmon and trout its healthy-looking red hue. It’s this market that will form the biggest near term opportunity for the company, said Claude Kaplan, PhD, commercial director for KAS.
Before the pandemic upended the farmed salmon market as it has so many others, global production was steadily increasing. The FAO estimated that despite some price volatility salmon farmers produced 2.6 million tons of fish in 2019, a 7% increase over the year before. And global production increased 5% in 2018. Experts expect that trend to reestablish itself once the crisis is over. Kaplan said using astaxanthin made via the KAS process could give the marketers of farmed salmon a valuable differentiator in the restarted market.
“This will enable feed manufacturers and vertically integrated operations to boost branding and to address consumer backlash from using synthetic astaxanthin, or GM or mutagenized bacterial or yeast sources,” Kaplan said.
The patent also covers KAS’ technology in dark fermentation product of Chlamydomonas species, normally grown photosynthetically. This production can be aimed at a mild tasting, flexible protein ingredient. In addition, the patent applies to the use of dark fermentation algae for the production of natural pigments.
Kuehnle said the resulting protein is both high quality and potentially more cost effective, because the KAS process yields some production advantages.
“As a whole food, KAS’s microalgae contains greater than 60% protein while delivering minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and other components valued for foods, beverages, and nutraceuticals,” she said.
“Tests show that Chlamydomonas protein in particular can be of higher quality than other algal sources with better nutritional amino acid profile and excellent digestibility without the need for cell pulverization,” Kuehnle added.
Kuehnle and Kaplan said the company is now engaged in an active search for partners to help in the scale up of the dark fermentation processes.