As the world debates and deliberates on how to reduce the harmful effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) on climate change and our environment, a relatively unknown gas is threatening to derail climate change targets.
Methane is the second most dominant greenhouse gas emitted due to human activities. Methane has 25 times greater impact on climate change than CO2 over a 100-year period and rapidly developing economies such as India and China are among the top methane emitters in the world. From being a by-product of natural gas extraction, methane is also generated in by cattle when it belches or passes gas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations global livestock contribute 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gasses and most of it is methane. Although the harmful effect of methane is well understood, no one really knows what to do with it. Up until now.
Vinod Kumar, who teamed up with his wife Ezhil Subbian in 2013 to start String Bio, says the purpose of the startup is to enable next generation ingredients that are sustainable and traceable for all future value chains. These ingredients are manufactured by leveraging methane as a carbon source.
“We are amongst a handful of companies worldwide and the only Asian company to successfully enable methane-based value chain. Our proprietary platform (SIMP- String Integrated Methane Platform) leverages advances in synthetic biology, fermentation technology, chemistry and process engineering,” says Subbian.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but at the same time it is a cost-effective source of carbon. “Methane has not been leveraged extensively to date, largely because of the lack of technologies for methane conversion. On the supply side, our technology platform enables the manufacture of diverse value-added products from methane. The String conversion process occurs at nominal temperatures and pressures. Hence, the platform can be used with even small or medium sources of methane, that are traditionally flared,” says Kumar.
What cutting-edge technology enables String to do is convert methane into something useful – ingredients for the nutrition and agriculture markets. “Our first product, String Pro, a sustainable and high-quality protein will address the huge gaps for proteins in the animal nutrition market. Currently we are evaluating String Pro with customers in the poultry and aquaculture market, while in parallel scaling up our manufacturing,” says Subbian.
In search of protein
Protein is a significant source of energy and there is a growing gap in worldwide protein supply. To elaborate, Kumar says the world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 – 70% of this growth is expected to be in urban areas with high meat consumption.
“The existing protein sources for the animal feed market are both constrained by a number of challenges. Because of the aforesaid challenges, existing solutions in the market cannot provide a 70% increase in output. String Bio seeks to address this challenge by creating a sustainable, cost-effective product with a protein content of 65-70%. In addition, String Pro provides complete traceability, removes the challenges of contamination/pesticides and provides sustainability in the value chain,” says Kumar.
The easiest way to describe the process is comparing it to brewing, where barley is used as a source of carbon for yeast to make beer. In String Bio’s fermentation process, methane acts as a source of carbon for the startups patented bacteria incubated in a well-controlled environment to make protein cakes. “This protein cake, then goes through further downstream processing to convert into protein powder. We can also make other value-added products says Subbian.
String has been granted five patents on the core technology platform and is today are among the leaders worldwide and the only Asian company to successfully demonstrate production of protein from methane.
Along with this Kumar says String provides reliable protein supply that is environmentally sustainable and a cradle-to-cradle solution for a low carbon future.
Strings choice of product makes good business sense. Current worldwide protein feed ingredient market is 200 million metric tonnes per annum and is valued at about $70 billion. The market is projected to increase by 70% by 2050. “We are initially focused on the aquaculture and poultry feed markets for String Pro commercialization. Both are sizeable market opportunities within Asia and India. In the Indian geography alone, the poultry protein demand is at 1,000,000 tons/annum and the aqua protein demand is 400,000 tons/annum. Even at 10% of the overall market, the TAM for String Pro is a significant market opportunity,” says Kumar.
In addition, String Pro can also be used for other animals as well as human consumption. “For humans, the protein has to be further purified. Protein additives for artificial/lab grown meat presents another interesting and novel market opportunity,” says Subbian. According to a Barclays report, lab-grown real meat, produced from cell cultures, is likely to hit supermarket shelves in a decade.
Partner at Ankur Capital, Rema Subramanian first heard about String Bio in 2017 and decided to take a closer look. “It’s an innovative, cutting-edge tech company and was addressing some key environmental problems, such as productive use of methane gas, which would otherwise have been released into the atmosphere. It also reduces overfishing of trash fish and provided alternate proteins for various applications. It is an excellent example of a circular economy,” says Subramanian. invested an undisclosed amount in the startup. Other inventors include, ONGC, Seventure Partners, Kitven and Srinivasa Hatcheries.
String’s work has been validated and recognized by numerous awards and grants. “While we are commercializing the technology for protein, the platform can also be leveraged for production of other products with multi-billion dollar markets. We have validated the product for Aquaculture and Poultry sectors through animal trials. We are in the process of scaling up production,” says Subbian.
The startup will be setting up its first industrial factory in 2020 to cater to the animal nutrition market.
Source Economic Times