by David Schwartz
ounded in 2009 by Pierre Calleja, Fermentalg is a French-based industrial biotechnology company specializing in the bio-production of chemical compounds from microalgae, for use in everyday products. Its patented technologies allow the company to target a range of global markets, from food and animal feed, to specialty chemicals, cosmetics and biofuels.
Fermentalg recently signed its first industrial and commercial joint venture for the production of omega-3 oils rich in EPA and DHA – with a goal of duplicating this model for other industrial groups.
The company has also successfully produced its first liters of biodiesel, conforming with European Standard EN 142141, which permits its sale in France, and with French government standard B72, which means it is compatible with all other cars currently in circulation and is not subject to any restrictions. On December 7, 2012, at a presentation made during the opening of the company’s new facilities in Libourne, Fermentalg unveiled a production model vehicle — with no specific adjustments — running off of their algae biodiesel.
A biologist by training, Pierre Calleja began his career at the Ifremer Research Institute (aka IFREMER – which in French stands for French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), where his work centered on the development of larval breeding techniques in marine farms. In 1992 he created the company Kurios, where he developed an innovative range of larval feed and fish feed nutritional supplements designed to optimize breeding techniques.
From 2000 to 2005, Callejo worked in collaboration with the Ifremer Research Institute on an R & D project for the mass production of microalgae under heterotrophic conditions. In 2007 he filed two patents linked to the farming of microalgae, which led to the creation of Fermentalg in November 2009.
Today Fermentag employs more than 30 employees in 2400 square meters of R&D and scale-up facilities housing their fermentation-based operations. Mr. Calleja, its Chairman, CEO and founder, tells us more of the story of one of the leading algal development operations in Europe.
What is your background and what interested you in creating a business around the potential of algae?
I specialized in microalgae in the early eighties, as a biologist convinced by their strong potential and exceptional properties that could open the way for a lot of applications in a wide variety of businesses. I began my career in Montpellier (south of France) for France Aquaculture, at the Ifremer Research Institute, where my work centered on the development of larval breeding techniques in marine farms. By 1992 my work had started to focus on microalgae.
I then went on to create Kurios where I developed an innovative range of larval feed and fish feed nutritional supplements designed to optimize breeding techniques. By 1999, Kurios’ revenues had doubled year-on-year, with exports accounting for 80% of the company’s sales. In 2000, I decided to sell Kurios to the global leader of the larval fish nutrition, INVE. From 2000 to 2005, I worked in collaboration with the Ifremer Research Institute on an R&D project for the mass production of microalgae under heterotrophic conditions.
In 2007 I filed two patents linked to the farming of microalgae, which led to the creation of Fermentalg, and we opened the laboratory in November of 2009.
What would you say is the biggest accomplishment you have seen at Fermentalg so far?
The fast growing of industrial exploitation of microalgae – our technology optimizes the industrial exploitation of the exceptional properties that are found in microalgae to produce molecules of interest such as the omega-3 fatty acids, coloring agents, antioxidants and biopolymers, etc., that we integrate and use in our everyday products.
We have at the moment eight cells of molecules in the process of development, of which two – we hope – will be under exploitation by the end of 2014. Since 2009 the company filed 16 patent applications, which strengthen our position as a leader in mixotrophy technology. Fermentalg has one of the richest strain banks in the world, made up of over 1300 species from all types. In less than three years, the company has developed a technology, a production, and a world-level of competitiveness.
What is the most important current work being done at the company?
Fermentalg is engaged in several collaborative programs with major strategic industrial groups. In mid-2011 we created Proléalg, a joint-venture with Sofiprotéol – an industrial and finance company in France’s oilseed and protein crop industry – to specialize in the industrialization, production and marketing of omega-3 rich oils derived from microalgae. Working side-by-side, the joint venture will enable the two partners to substantially up their global market share in a medium term.
Tell us about the recent biodiesel vehicle trials.
On Friday December 7, 2012, Fermentalg unveiled a production model vehicle with no specific adjustments that runs off algae biodiesel. The first tests were carried out at the end of November using a French make utility vehicle in the presence of a bailiff.
Fermentalg has already successfully produced its first liters of biodiesel. The 3rd generation biofuel conforms with European Standard EN 14214 permitting its sale in France, and with French government standard B7, which means it is compatible with all other cars currently in circulation and is not subject to any restrictions. Microalgae-based biofuels are an extremely promising 3rd generation solution that offers very high yields of lipids, have limited consequences for the environment and place no pressure on the food industry. In fact, microalgae bred using Fermentalg technology feed off by-products from the food or chemical industries.
The resounding success of our first steps in biodiesel confirms the enormous potential of microalgae in the production of 3rd generation biofuels. We currently have projects and partnerships for biodiesel with Picoty, Avia, PSA, and others; and in biokerosene with partners including EADS, Safran, and Air France.
And beyond omega-3 and biofuels?
The main objective is green chemistry. Thanks to Fermentalg’s proprietary technology for breeding microalgae in predominantly heterotrophic mixotrophic environments, all the molecules of interest produced by the microalgae in fermenters can be fully exploited. Every day Fermentalg continues to process new species to produce new molecules of interest and to develop them in collaborative programs with major strategic industrial groups.
What kind of expansion do you see for Fermentag over the next few years?
Over the next two years our company anticipates a significant growth in its activities in fast-growing markets such as human nutrition, animal feed, cosmetics, green chemistry, and biofuels. The company has already engaged industry leaders and front-rank partners in the areas of scientific and technical, industrial, competitive clusters, financial, regional funding and support.
Fermentalg has the objective to accelerate towards industrialization – with an increase in human resources, increase in fermentation, scale-up and industrialization capacities, development of industrial property, rolling out of identified collaborative programs, and the first stage in the industrialization of Proléalg. Fermentalg is now one of the major players worldwide.
What do you observe as Fermentalg’s role in algae applications development in Europe and how do you view the company’s potential?
Fermentalg is being developed with strong expansion goals for global markets that are worth billions of euros. For instance, the human nutrition’s global market is estimated between 4.5 and 5.5 billion dollars. The potential of the developments is far more important in green chemistry and energy. As a pioneer in autotrophy in Europe, Fermentalg is a leader in microalgae of the 4th generation – we feel even beyond Asian and American developers.