Linda Grant, a Solarvest laboratory technician from Brudenell, and Sean LeBlanc, a Solarvest development technician from Alberry Plains, test algae growth and sterility inside a company clean room at its Summerville, P.E.I. facility.
Local residents sometimes knock on the front door of Solarvest (P.E.I.) Inc.’s new Summerville facility, wondering what is happening inside.
Acquired in 2013, the 30,000-square-foot building houses production and R&D operations, with laboratories and administrative offices for the staff of 10. Visitors learn Solarvest has created the first organic-certified, chemical-free Omega-3 fatty acids in the world, as well as breakthrough technology to generate hydrogen as fuel for future cars.
More intriguing is the discovery that the foundational ingredient for these landmark innovations is algae — “nature’s workhorse” according to Solarvest chief operating officer Garth Greenham.
Among the oldest forms of life on earth, water-based algae, including seaweed, use photosynthesis to turn light, carbon dioxide and a few nutrients into oils, carbohydrates and proteins. Oxygen is emitted in the process.
“Everyone focuses on the Amazon rainforest, but algae produce 70 per cent of the world’s oxygen,” says Greenham. “We wouldn’t be here without them.”
Solarvest has created an inventive system utilizing a specific algal strain to grow and produce EPA DHA Omega-3 oil under controlled conditions. The result is certified organic and vegan/vegetarian since it bypasses algae-consuming fish, a traditional source of Omega-3 oil.
The product is free of toxins, solvent residues and fish odour, making it a highly desirable nutraceutical for food uses and human and animal health. The meal residual, algae flour, serves as a bulk active protein.
The need for quality Omega-3 has never been greater.
“It’s disturbing that 78 per cent of Canadian children are Omega-3 deficient. They aren’t eating fish twice a week or taking cod liver oil,” says Greenham. “Our technology ensures a sustainable source of Omega-3 regardless of the world’s dwindling fish supply.”
Promoting cardiovascular health, brain function, and anti-inflammation, Omega-3 products worldwide are projected to exceed $15 billion in value by 2015.
Algae, originating some 1.7 billion years ago, can offer an alternative “green” fuel to meet today’s environmental challenges. With a proprietary technology platform utilizing a metabolic “switch” — developed by chief scientific officer Dr. Raymond Surzycki — Solarvest can alternately prompt algae to discharge hydrogen gas, as well as oxygen, while consuming carbon dioxide.
A single photo-bioreactor harvesting hydrogen can serve a small facility or large distribution centers. Its efficient, affordable energy will also generate fuel cells for vehicles, electronic devices, and other industrial/domestic needs, as global demand for clean energy and sustainable economic growth increases.
The management team behind these innovations, including CEO Gerri Greenham, has enduring P.E.I. connections. Greenham was instrumental in the 1980s buyout of veterinary vaccines from Connaught Laboratories, creating Cobequid Life Sciences and ultimately attracting Novartis Animal Health to P.E.I.
The commitment continues with this new venture.
“P.E.I. offered the most support and was helpful in the tough early years,” says Michael McDougall, team engineering lead, a UPEI and Dalhousie University graduate who heads up the company’s operation here.
“We’ve developed a stable talented workforce — many living locally in Alberry Plains, Cardigan and Brudenell — and engage with local contractors and suppliers. We hire Holland College and UPEI graduates, and collaborate with both institutions.”
Solarvest is also a proponent of the P.E.I. BioAlliance, with Garth Greenham a former member of its board of directors.
All levels of government support Solarvest’s promising R&D. This includes three Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grants for university research collaboration, plus a combined total of $2.8 million in fully-repayable ACOA and Atlantic Innovation Fund grants to advance the scale-up of the operation.
What also differentiates Solarvest is its pledge to minimize environmental impact and invest only in initiatives that improve health or replace “dirty” technologies.
“We’re a green company,” says Greenham. “We’re looking for B-Corp certification, meeting the highest standards of global social and environmental performance.”
The company, a subsidiary of Solarvest Bio-Energy Inc., headquartered in Vancouver, will expand production in Summerville as it begins delivery of algae-based Omega-3 products to customers. For Greenham, that’s an important next step in the emerging global algal industry.
“As a species, we’ve evolved close to the oceans. It makes sense that we turn to them again as we continue to sustain our lives.”