Nutreco challenge: Cheap edible aquaculture vaccines take top spot

© istock/phototechno

Ireland based start-up, MicroSynbiotiX, is the winner of the final of the Nutreco Feed Tech Challenge event.

The jury chose the company, co-founded by molecular biologist Antonio Lamb and biochemical engineer, Simon Jegan Porphy, out of a shortlist of 10 finalists.

US headquartered alternative protein producer, KnipBio and Slovenia based probiotic developer, EKO-GEA, were the runners-up. 

The jury saw the winning start-up’s product as a potential game changer: “Disease outbreaks in aquaculture result in losses worth over $10bn each year, which accounts for over 5% of global production. Currently, vaccination is done manually. This is not only cumbersome and costly, but also impractical, as it requires the fish or shrimp to be of a certain size and maturity. MicroSynbiotiX offers a new and more efficient oral vaccination method.”

The tech challenge jury, headed up by Professor Daniel Berckmans of the University of Leuven, said MicroSynbiotiX had the best fit with the challenge profile. The start-up, which is headquartered in Co Cork with an R&D facility in California, is developing a cost-effective delivery platform for vaccines to combat diseases and infections in aquaculture and help eliminate antibiotic use. It does so by locking the vaccine in edible, genetically modified (GM) microalgae, 

“MicroSynbiotiX is several stages away from commercialization, it is just out of the box, so to speak, so it is high risk, but its vaccine system is really a fantastic innovation, both from a production efficiency and delivery mechanism point of view. The antigens in the vaccine are protected. Furthermore, microalgae are a natural part of fish diets,” said Viggo Halseth, chief innovation officer at Nutreco and one of the jury members. 

Research alliance

Nutreco will now work with MicroSynbiotiX to get proof of concept as the start-up is deemed to be not quite ready for a validation trial, the prize for the winning company. “It is not there yet, so it will be a research based collaboration between Nutreco and MicroSynbiotiX to start with,” Halseth told us.

“The theory has been proven in the academia setting. Nutreco is strong on the application side, so MicroSynbiotiX can leverage both our fish knowledge, and our general animal nutrition knowledge, as well as our network to establish proof of concept. Once it has that, it is ready to scale up production and trial validation will follow – I see that happening in around two years’ time, but time to market is always uncertain with innovation.”

He noted technical challenges for the product will be a lot easier to overcome that the regulatory hurdles. The vaccine is loaded into a genetically modified microalgae carrier - with the FDA having already approved spray dried algae products, registration in the US is the priority, said the innovation lead.

The developers see the microalgae potentially acting as an oral delivery mechanism for vaccines targeting several bacterial and viral diseases, he said.

MicroSynbiotiX vaccine delivery system

Antonio Lamb, chief operating officer and cofounder, MicroSynbiotiX, said the award gives it a real ‘money-cannot-buy’ opportunity. Apart from winning the final, he said the company got a huge amount out of the interaction and collaboration with Nutreco specialists, the jury members and the other start-ups. 

Overall, the challenge was a great success - the expectations of everyone involved were exceeded, said Halseth.

“We will repeat the event in the same shape or form, not perhaps in the next 12 months, but certainly within two years. There were a lot of surprises. It was incredible to see these young, creative entrepreneurs – CEOs at 24 years of age - with new ideas, and new approaches to problem solving.”

Halseth reckons all parties can learn from each other: “We want to do more in the start-up arena. A large corporation usually has 15 to 18 NPD projects on the go but a start-up is 100% focused on one product and needs to be extremely dedicated to reach milestones regularly or it won’t survive.”

Competence, skill base

Nutreco wants to develop relationships with some of the other finalists, and it will hold more detailed discussions with the two runners-up to determine which one might be more in line with its current product development priorities: “Prebiotics and alternative proteins are both very interesting for us.”

The competence and skill base observed within some of the other start-ups in the shortlist is also something Nutreco may look to leverage, said Halseth.

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