99% of the tropical microalgae spirulina on the market is powder from China, which has a specific pond aroma and taste. Fresh spirulina, on the other hand, has no distinct taste or aroma. SpirulinaNord, a biotech startup founded by researchers at Riga Technical University (RTU) based on a tropical microalgae cultivation system adapted to cold climates, is the only company in Northern Europe to offer fresh spirulina to consumers.
Agnese Stunda-Zujeva, co-founder of SpirulinaNord, researcher at the Faculty of Materials Science and Applied Chemistry at RTU, and Doctor of Engineering, says that the company’s growth has been relatively slow so far, as with each new bioreactor the team built, they tested and improved the technology.
“Now the technology has been perfected and tested, we can start to develop faster. Our plan is to reach a turnover of around three million euros in a year’s time, with an investment of around 600,000 euros,” says Stunda-Zujeva.
The company sees its development not only in a more powerful production facility and a Latvian market, but also in exports to Germany and German-speaking countries.
An idea bubbling away since 2017
SpirulinaNord has grown from an idea and a laboratory to a popular product on the Latvian market in just a few years. The idea of growing tropical algae in a cool climate was born in autumn 2017. To develop the business idea, the innovators participated in RTU’s pre-incubation programme IdeaLAB and used the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) support tools offered by the RTU Science and Innovation Centre, Labs of Latvia previously wrote.
In 2019, as part of the EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator Latvia programme for rapid business growth and value creation, the company was founded, and at the end of the year the first bioreactor prototype was launched, and product production and sales started. Funding for the development has also been attracted from several programmes of the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia and the (ie)dvesma grant programme for young entrepreneurs, organised by SEB Bank and the municipalities of the Pierīga region. The industrial-scale reactors and the existing pilot plant were developed with the support of the Buildit acceleration programme and an investor with experience in the food sector.
The spirulina is grown using a cultivation system developed by Stunda-Zujeva and fellow RTU scientist Kristīne Veģere. The algae are grown under controlled conditions in bioreactors: they are provided with optimal light, temperature, and nutrients to ensure consistently high quality throughout the year. The scientists have researched the optimal conditions for a closed system themselves, as 99% of spirulina worldwide is grown in open ponds, where weather fluctuations and air pollution are major challenges. Growing algae in a closed system consumes significantly less mineral and water resources, eliminates contamination of the products, and is much more compact and feasible in urban environments.
Earlier this year, the ninth bioreactor for spirulina production was installed in the company’s pilot plant. The company is increasing production capacity as demand grows, but, occasionally, demand still exceeds supply, and a waiting list takes shape. This is why the company plans to expand. SpirulinaNord is looking for investors with industrial and export experience to support the setting up of the new plant and the significant increase in capacity.
The company is also considering licensing the technology, offering customers abroad not only the finished product but also the possibility to produce it themselves. “Spirulina production in closed systems is possible in many parts of the world, including markets that are not easy to conquer. At the moment, no one else offers climate-independent bioreactors specifically designed for spirulina. Sunlight-based reactors are mostly available, but climate change is making cloud cover and heat waves increasingly unpredictable, which has a significant impact on the ability to grow microalgae. We are therefore considering franchising the technology to manufacturers abroad, leaving the localisation of marketing to them,” says Stunda-Zujeva.
Stunda-Zujeva says that due to spirulina’s high nutritional value, demand for it is growing rapidly worldwide. She says the algae is one of the most nutritious foods in the world, containing all essential amino acids, huge amounts of antioxidants and vitamins, and is therefore considered a superfood. Moreover, its cultivation is environmentally friendly. For this reason, it is recognised by NATO and the UN as the food of the future.
“Not only in China, but also in most of Europe, where spirulina is grown, it is dried because of its microbiologically unsafe composition, so our fresh product will continue to have high potential and relatively low competition,” says Stunda-Zujeva.
The SpirulinaNord range includes fresh spirulina in apple juice, quince, or cranberry syrup. “The products are not pasteurised to preserve all the biologically active substances as much as possible. We also still offer fresh-frozen spirulina, which was our first product and is still very popular with independent customers,” says Stunda-Zujeva, stressing that such products are not produced anywhere else in the world.