We spoke to John F. Diener, Co-Founder & CEO at Akualogix about the priority technologies to help advance the aquaculture sector, opportunities for cutting-edge start-ups and the benefits of operating a multitrophic system.

John F Diener - Akualogix - Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit
John F Diener, Akualogix

What technologies do you see as a priority to support the growth we’re seeing in the aquaculture sector, and what opportunities does this create for start-ups and other players throughout the value chain?
Aquaculture’s role in the world’s food production will accelerate in the coming years driven by strong demand from middle class growth particularly in Asia. To support that growth the industry urgently needs to find solutions to sustainability, disease and other production challenges. In the past, aquaculture innovation tended to focus on replacing fishmeal/oil and functional additives for feed. These continue to be important areas of innovation in pushing sustainability and performance in aquaculture nutrition. However, we’re now seeing the scope of innovation expand to the entire aquaculture value chain using a broad range of technologies.

As open farming struggles to overcome pervasive disease challenges, we see a strong movement towards innovation in inland, controlled environment recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS). RAS mitigates or even eliminates many of the disease and environmental sustainability issues of many open farming operations. RAS also intersects with a broader agri-food tech trend towards decentralized agriculture for certain foods – a topic that is now top of mind after vulnerable supply chains threatened food security during the pandemic. RAS provides consumers with local, healthy and sustainable seafood choices which are currently lacking in many markets. RAS can recreate almost any environment and we are starting to see developments in new species such as sea urchin. I expect momentum in inland RAS systems to accelerate dramatically in the coming years. With that expansion, RAS systems themselves are stimulating demand for technology innovation in other areas in aqua tech.

One of those areas is the acceleration of start-ups applying digital technologies to aquaculture. The scope of these technologies extends across the value chain with innovations like blockchain traceability platforms, sensor driven algorithmic feeding, computer vision diagnostics, and cloud based market access and farm management apps. We’ve just scratched the surface of the total potential for application of advanced digital technology in this industry. Along with RAS, this should be an area of intense start-up and investor activity in the coming years.

As with digital technologies, there is a parallel acceleration of start-ups working on molecular biology applications in aquaculture. Breeding programs are adopting the latest technologies in genomics and bioinformatics to accelerate genetic gain in their offerings. Other companies are working on oral vaccines and novel pathogen mitigation strategies using advanced biotech methods. I’ve seen some interesting research in proteomics, metabolomics and other ‘omics which could significantly improve overall productivity in aquaculture systems. As this research matures, we can look forward to interesting developments in the aqua biotech space.

The last area I would mention is building momentum in algae culture. In the past, a lot of algae culture focused on microalgae to produce oil for biofuels. Now the focus has shifted to algae for food and includes a renewed focus on macroalgae. For example, there are start-ups working on macroalgae as a feed ingredient to reduce methane emissions in cows, others are developing algae as a superfood to add flavour and texture to salads or to eat directly. I think algae innovation will emerge as an important new focus for start-ups and investors in the coming years.

What benefits are there to operating a multitrophic system in aquaculture?
We focus on two benefits from our multi-trophic system at Akualogix. First, the fish and algae we grow generate additional revenues with minimal input costs. Instead of treating organics from the primary production as “waste” to be eliminated, we use it as nutrition to feed our fish and fertilize the algae. This eliminates a lot of mechanical filtration and the waste streams they generate, enabling Akualogix to operate as a zero discharge facility. We also save the capital and operating cost of those mechanical filtration systems.

The second, and potentially most important, benefit of a multi-trophic system is the increased resilience resulting from greater microbial diversity. We’re all aware of our gut microbiome and the impact it has on our health. If you expand from your gut to your entire body, you are now looking at your holobiont – all the microbes that live in an around your body. Each of us has a unique holobiont and the human holobiont generally is different from that of other animals. If we keep pets at home, their holobiont will interact with ours and the result is increased diversity for both human and dog. Studies have shown that people who grew up on farms tend to have a more diverse microbiome and get sick less often. Now think about this in a RAS system where three species are sharing the same aquatic ecosystem and their holobiome contributes to the greater microbial community. This diversity reduces the likelihood that any particular microbe can dominate the system, making it more robust. This allows for more consistent production in our system. It’s a massive impact.

What outcomes do you hope will be achieved at and following on from the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit?
We are starting a pre-series A fundraising round at the end of the year, so creating awareness around Akualogix and connecting with investors is obviously an important goal. At the same time, I also want to build excitement around aqua tech for start-ups and investors in agri-food more generally. There is a lot happening in this space, especially here in Singapore, and the summit is a great opportunity to showcase that.

More generally, agri-food tech involves such a broad range of technologies, it’s always interesting to listen to the new innovations others are working on. Even though it won’t be face to face this year, I do also look forward to networking with various contacts.

Join John online at the virtual Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit and watch his panel discussion on ‘Tech-Driven Aquaculture as a Sustainable Protein Source’ during the dedicated Feeding Asia’s Cities: Scaling Vertical Farming and Urban Aquaculture Systems to Make Cities more Food-Secure track on November 19.