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An Israeli company thinks microalgae is the future of food... on Earth and in space

A researcher from the Department of Energy examines algae growing in a bioreactor.
Image Credit: Flickr/Department of Energy

The three brothers who founded Brevel, a five-year old Israeli company that's developed a new way to grow microalgae, believe that their goop could be the future of food.

The nutrient-dense, protein-rich algae that Brevel's system grows use less water and less land than the peas and soybeans that provide the nutrients for most meat alternatives on the market, according to company co-founder Yonatan Golan.

"With a single system of ours we can produce more protein than 14,000 square meters of soy," Golan 'said. "We are already at industrial scales. We’re now just in the process of building the first commercial factory here in Israel."

The protein industry is huge. Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and most of the other plant-based meat alternative manufacturers depend on a mix of beans, peas and soy to make their tasty tasty meat-free food. The problem is that climate change is making farming more difficult and constrained resources mean that we need to find alternative ways to grow the nutrients we need.

Enter Brevel. The company has found a way to combine the efficiency of outdoor growing with the productivity of indoor fermentation methods to create microalgae that can provide more than just protein.

Brevel co-founders and brothers Ido Golan, Yonatan Golan, and Matan Golan standing in front of a bioreactor.
Brevel co-founders and brothers Ido Golan, Yonatan Golan, and Matan Golan: Image Credit: Brevel

"The challenge with doing what we do with fermentation and light is that if you want to add sugar to that process, you need to work in a completely sterile environment," said Golan. "Having a high concentration of light inside the reactor means that you have a very high risk of contamination. No one has been able to do it beyond lab scales… my brother had to develop specific elements that enable cleaning and sterilizing the reactor… without human intervention... This is where we have our patents… specific valves and elements that enable efficient cleaning and sterilization."

And the additional products -- high value emulsifiers and pigments -- that Brevel can harvest from its microalgae mean that it can sell proteins at a similar cost to the company's competitors, according to Golan.

"The technology enables us to sell protein at cost levels and make all of the profits from these complimentary fractions," Golan said. "This is how adding light -- which should increase the cost -- enables us to produce more from the same microalgae."

Since the company's working at cost parity already, the question is how quickly it can build up its operations.

To help, investors like FoodHack, Good Startup VC, Tet Ventures and Nevateam Ventures, have poured $8.4 million into the company so it can grow.

The company's first commercial factory can make about 120 tons of protein per year, and that's used in everything from cheese, yogurt, milk, and egg alternatives, Golan said.

"We believe that we can expand and provide additional functionalities that can provide functional properties for fish proteins and seafood proteins," Golan said. "At the moment we’re solving the protein content for ingredients that need a mild protein input. Several years from now this is when micro-algae will be able protein produced for a land area and for greenhouse gas emissions."

For Golan and his brothers, Matan and Ido, the mission is a personal one. Matan, a doctor, was worried about human health and the ability to make proteins at scale to the feed the world. Ido, an engineer, spent years working in the micro-algae space designing growing facilities for some of Israel's largest producers.

"I’ve been vegan for the past 11 years… and both from a moral standpoint and the fact that have three small children who are also vegan and i’m very concerned about what the world will look like for them when they grow up and what they’ll be able to eat," Golan said. "I’m also a physicist i came from a pragmatic perspective… When I was most worried about these concerns my brother came up with the idea with a leapfrog in technology development."

The innovation has implications for life beyond this planet's boundaries as well, according to Golan.

When we cololonize mars, we will not grow potatoes ro rice or corn," Golan said. "This is the most efficient food source… NASA has been experimenting with micro-algae since the 60s. [And] if it’s the most resource efficient for Mars it will be the most efficient on Earth as well."


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