Richmond startup hopes spirulina algae is key to success of its new drink

[USA] Spirulina is known as dihé to the women harvesting it near Lake Chad in central Africa. NASA scientists found that it could be an ideal food to support humans during long-term space travel.

Virginia native Elliot Roth wants you to drink it.

“It’s a highly efficient food source, and it can grow practically anywhere,” said Roth, a 2015 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and founder and CEO of Spira, a biotechnology company with a goal of getting spirulina to market and in the hands of people who need it — even if they don’t know they need it yet.

Spirulina is blue-green algae that boasts an impressive nutritional profile. Frequently sold on the retail market in powdered form as a dietary supplement, it contains huge amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and antioxidants.

Some studies show that the algae may be able to boost the immune system, curb allergic reactions and “have antiviral and anticancer properties,” according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Spira is a drink that features spirulina algae as its main active ingredient.
Spira is a drink that features spirulina algae as its main active ingredient.

Now, Spira is attempting to harness that nutritional benefit to make it widely available to the general public.

The 8-month-old company has created a drink — also called Spira — that features spirulina as its main active ingredient.

Spira Inc.

Founded: March 2016

What is it: A biotechnology company that is developing a drink using spirulina, a blue-green algae

Product: The bottled drink is not available yet. But the company expects it will be sold at local farmers markets initially starting in September with hopes of getting placement in local grocery and natural food stores

Executives: Elliot Roth, founder and chief executive officer; Trevor Nicks, chief scientific officer; and  Hunter Casbeer, chief technology officer

Roth and other Spira executives developed the beverage while in Cork, Ireland, where they spent three months participating in IndieBio, a synthetic biology accelerator that works with companies attempting to meet the world’s challenges through biology.

Spira is back in Richmond, this time enrolled in locally based Lighthouse Labs, a business accelerator program that offers grants and mentorship to new companies, for a three-month stint. The fall program, which began Aug. 15, is being held in the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s 1E small-business collaborative workspace.

Along with $20,000 in capital, Lighthouse Labs will provide Spira the chance to find out what the U.S. public thinks of its drink — and start brainstorming other ways spirulina could help those in need throughout the world.

Virginia native Elliot Roth, a 2015 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and founder and CEO of Spira, sets up lights during a demonstration in his former laboratory space.
Virginia native Elliot Roth, a 2015 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and founder and CEO of Spira, sets up lights during a demonstration in his former laboratory space.

“The drink is just the beginning,” Roth said over a webchat in July while he, chief scientific officer Trevor Nicks and chief technology officer Hunter Casbeer were in Ireland.

“We’re looking into the possibility of solving a global problem by enabling access to food and solving needs for people through a company — and using scientific background to make that happen.”

Roth launched Spira in March, soon after he first learned about — and began eating — spirulina.

He was living in Richmond, tinkering around in IndieLab, a local space that Roth co-founded while at VCU pursuing his degree in biomedical engineering.

He describes IndieLab as a do-it-yourself laboratory. It’s basically a garage converted into a place where scientists have room to play around with their ideas until something sticks and becomes a startup.

Roth’s idea struck when he was trying to figure out how to eat something healthier than the meal replacement beverages he was consuming at the time without breaking the bank.

“The two major costs are rent and food,” he said. “I thought, if you could reduce the cost of living, you could spend all your time pursuing any great pursuit you want to. If you could eliminate the cost of food and grow food very effectively, there’s nothing stopping you.”

He had stumbled upon spirulina when he read a 1988 NASA study that found that the algae is so densely nutritious that, if the right growing conditions are created, it could sustain astronauts’ “long-duration tenancy of celestial vehicles and planetary bases.”

Elliot Roth (center), with systems engineer John Moody (left) and mechanical engineer Surjan Singh, said Spira will work to fight malnutrition on a global scale.
Elliot Roth (center), with systems engineer John Moody (left) and mechanical engineer Surjan Singh, said Spira will work to fight malnutrition on a global scale.

Or it could sustain a recent graduate looking for a big idea in a science lab, as was Roth’s case.

“Spirulina is an amazing organism — 60 percent protein by weight, it has tons of vitamins and minerals in it, and we can grow it in a bunch of different ways,” Roth said.

And Nicks, the company’s chief scientific officer, said it is relatively simple to produce. A rising senior at William Jewell College in Missouri, Nicks met Roth through the University Innovation Fellows program, a national program encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation in college students.

“It grows under sunlight and C02, so technically we’re drinking spirulina to help fight climate change,” Nicks said. “Since the main ingredients are sunlight and air, the product itself is very simple. And when it’s alive, it has a very neutral flavor profile. So our goal is to deliver it to you while it’s extremely fresh.”

With all this in mind, Roth in January ordered a spirulina starter kit that consists basically of a spirulina culture. He put it in a 20-liter fish tank and found that, not only was it nutritious, it just tasted like water.

It grew so quickly that he soon moved it to a 40-liter tank.

He started building Spira in March, pulling together other scientists he had worked with at VCU, met through the University Innovation Fellows network or who simply stumbled across his company online.

Spira quickly got off the ground. Soon after its launch, it was accepted to IndieBio, which meant it moved its operations to Ireland from the beginning of May through the end of July. The program doled out $100,000 to the young company, half of which was dedicated to program fees and the other half was capital for Spira to use to launch.

“The great part about (IndieBio) is the network in the other companies involved,” Nicks said. “Since we’re young, it’s fantastic to work in a lab where there are Ph.D.-holding individuals with other companies that you can talk to.”

L-R, John Moody, Surjan "Surge" Singh and Elliot Roth of Spira, at their former Henrico lab.
L-R, John Moody, Surjan “Surge” Singh and Elliot Roth of Spira, at their former Henrico lab.

Though it is already participating in its second accelerator program, Spira is still in its early stages.

Roth and his team are looking around Richmond for a greenhouse space where they can actually grow spirulina to produce more beverages, though Lighthouse Labs is providing it with office space.

Eventually, he said he hopes to work with the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park in downtown Richmond to find space or partners, both of which could help his team learn more about spirulina and the best way to get it to the public.

In the next month, Roth said the company will reach out to farmers markets. John Moody, systems engineer with Spira, said they will have to apply for space at most local markets or find a vendor that is willing to share a table with them.

Currently, Roth and the other employees are buying bottles themselves and filling them with their homemade spirulina recipe. They hope to sell those bottles for between $2 and $4, depending on what customers think.

“Part of the reason coming back to Richmond is really beneficial is because of all these craft breweries around here,” Roth said. “Everybody knows other bottlers, and they can help us get these in the hands of people.”

The drink itself has only a handful of ingredients — spirulina, carbonated water, lime juice, sugar and xantham gum. Eventually, the company will create more flavors, “because not everybody likes lime,” Roth said.

“One of the great things about spirulina is that, because it has a neutral taste profile, adding any flavor means (the drink) has that flavor,” he added.

But even as they test different recipes, spirulina will always be the main active ingredient, he said.

Spira’s drink has about 2 grams of the algae in it. That’s much more than most other health drinks that have spirulina, such as Naked Juice Co.’s green machine juice smoothie, which has 1,335 milligrams of spirulina, according to the company’s website.

Roth said he plans to eventually add even more spirulina to Spira drinks.

There are a few other drinks on the market with spirulina as an ingredient. Many are available in Europe, Roth said, while most of the drinks available in the U.S. are made with spirulina extracts or spirulina substance.

Growing microbacteria spirulina.
Growing microbacteria spirulina.

The difference between Spira and the competitors, he explained, is that Spira aims to keep the spirulina alive while in the bottle, making it a probiotic with more nutrition.

But the company is still attempting to join a rapidly growing segment of the beverage market. The market intelligence agency Mintel reported last year that in 2014, dollar sales for nutritional and energy drinks reached $11.5 billion. That could grow to $14.5 billion by 2019.

But for now, Spira is largely unique in terms of how it is using the algae. Spirulina is usually sold in powdered form as a health supplement that tastes terrible, according to Roth, which presents its own challenge in convincing the public that it can taste good.

For Roth and the other six Spira employees, the drink is only the first part of the plan.

Almost all the employees — including the executives — are fresh out of college, or still in college, such as Nicks; mechanical engineer Surjan Singh, a rising senior at VCU; and bioengineer Carter Allen, a Richmond native and a rising junior at the University of California at Los Angeles who found Spira online.

But that has not stopped them from thinking of a variety of ways that they can use spirulina to meet the world’s challenges.

Eventually, Spira will expand into the business of helping people grow their own spirulina and work to combat malnutrition on a global scale, Roth said.

“In order to enable access to food,we’re developing some tools to enable people to take spirulina and do things with it themselves,” he said.

Food sustainability is becoming a global concern. The Centers for Disease Control’s website states that “the production, processing, packaging and transportation of the majority of our food are highly dependent on the use of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers.”

According to a report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013, the livestock industry is responsible for “14.5 percent of human-induced (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

“We estimate, based on a couple of other studies, that spirulina is 200 times as effective at producing protein as cattle, and it produces double the amount of protein as cattle per weight and per gram. That’s 200 times as effective in land usage, energy usage and water usage,” Roth said.

“They’re little powerhouse cells,” Nicks added.

The dihé that women living near Lake Chad harvest is just one example of how people have been using spirulina for centuries.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization helped the women more efficiently harvest and sell the produce, proving that it can be a nutrient-rich addition to diets.

Roth said he hopes to expand Spira to the developing world to allow people facing nutrition deficiencies to grow a more sustainable food themselves.

That’s just one of the plans he and the other executives have for Spira. But first they are starting in Richmond and hoping the market here responds to the beverage.

“We’re trying to get people back to the basics, back to the way things used to be done,” Roth said. “It kind of makes sense that we go back to the old way of using one of the world’s most efficient food sources right now. Especially if we can make it tasty.”


Photo: Elliot Roth, CEO of Spira, is developing a drink made from the living microbacteria Spirulina. MARK GORMUS/TIMES-DISPATCH

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