KnipBio’s Microbe Technology Creates Better Fish Feed

Company develops new use for ethanol in producing aquaculture feed. This new technology feature appears in the June print edition of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Debbie Sniderman | May 22, 2017

KnipBio, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, has developed a series of microbes that converts low-cost feedstocks into premium, nutritious, single-cell proteins that are an alternative to fishmeal in aquaculture. Its fermentation process yields a protein flour that is laden with immunity-boosting, pigment-enhancing carotenoids to produce healthier, more vibrant fish.

There is a large, urgent need for fish feed, says Larry Feinberg, KnipBio CEO. “Aquaculture is one of the best hopes to meet the swelling protein demands for people. It is currently a $110 billion market, and it is expected to double by 2030. The number of farm-raised fish for every wild-caught fish will double to 2:1 in the same time, meaning the world will need 25 million new tons of fish. All of this production will come from formulated feed. The current market is a global one, with less than 1 percent of fish feed used in the U.S. Although we have harvested more protein for fish farms than cattle worldwide since 2013, there is a looming bottleneck based on a stable, sustainable supply of proteins and oils. We need to grow more feed to support the world we’re moving into, and ethanol biorefineries can figure into this equation,” he says.

The Ethanol Connection
Ethanol is one potential feedstock of the multiple streams that serve as nutrition for the KnipBio microorganisms. All forms of ethanol are being evaluated, including hydrous, neat and beer. Colocating with an ethanol plant would also be advantageous since blending the KnipBio product with DDGS could make a super-feed. “DDGS alone have been examined for fish feed, but are relatively low value,” Feinberg says. “Blending them with carotenoid containing, single cell proteins could make a better overall feed, raising the protein content from 40 to 70 percent.”

“DDGS sell in the range of $150 per metric ton. A ton of our product will range from $1,500 to $3,500 per metric ton, representing the potential to significantly upgrade the value on site and diversify,” he says. “Getting into aquaculture feed offers ethanol producers the opportunity to diversify and increase output. Producing 25 million tons of fish per year will require at least 30 million metric tons of feed. That corresponds to 100 percent of the 15 billion gallons produced by the U.S. each year. Obviously, all ethanol production is not going to fishmeal production, but the point is that the markets are massive. For all these reasons, ethanol colocation makes sense and is part of our scale-up partnership plans,” Feinberg says.

The Technology
Feinberg, with a history in second generation biofuels, founded the company in 2013 with Chris Marx who was an evolutionary biology professor at Harvard at the time. They shared a mutual vision of connecting fermentation and biotechnology to solve the world’s next big problem: how to feed mankind. “Fish protein must play a significant role in this, and with the decline of wild fish in our oceans, there’s a real sense of urgency. Ethanol-derived fish feed can be a fantastic substitute,” he says.

When considering available feedstocks and possible physiological routes to solving this problem, Feinberg and Marx focused on microbial metabolism. In nature, the microbe of choice is able to eat many different alcohols, including methanol, ethanol and glycerol. KnipBio’s process involves using a biocatalyst to make aquafeeds that more closely resemble wild diets in composition of protein, acids and carotenoids.

KnipBio’s fermentation technology produces a single cell protein product with an interesting composition. It contains proteins, amino acids, carotenoids and taurine. Plus, the technology can be tailored to more precisely meet the nutritional demand of fish or shrimp.

Diets aiming to be more sustainable by lowering the use of fishmeal tend to become deficient in other areas, like the amino acid taurine, Feinberg explains. Deficits of dietary sources of taurine can be offset by providing chemically synthesized forms for taurine supplementation. The KnipBio feed product will eliminate the need for supplementation, he says, providing a biologically superior version.
“Carotenoids, which are present in plants, are important for pigmenting fish and maintaining the animals’ good health and immunity. We care about carotenoids because we are accustomed to thinking salmon should look pink, and pinker salmon typically correlate with health,” he explains. KnipBio’s colorful pink bacteria are so core to the company, Feinberg shared the company’s name comes from “pink” spelled backwards.

The origins of the bacteria itself and how it is used is the secret sauce of KnipBio. But, Feinberg says it has created a library full of bacteria with very high conversion efficiencies from both genetically modified (GM) and non-GM lineages. Some GM bacteria are used because they have the ability to derive additional products, and the ability to grow and control the process is part of the overall technology.

Startup Progress
The company was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research award in 2015 and raised more than $4.5 million funding to develop the process, products and complete pilot scale development. Initial microbiology and molecular biology work was done at corporate headquarters in Lowell, Massachusetts. Pilot scale work has been performed at a third-party contract manufacturer.

The company has completed approximately a dozen feed treatment trials for salmon, trout, shrimp, yellowtail tuna and ornamental fish, and Feinberg says the company has a good understanding of the versatility of the protein source and its applications.

Bacteria in general are very efficient at converting feedstocks into proteins. What’s novel about KnipBio’s process is the biotechnology. Feinberg says this technology should scale up well with existing hardware and infrastructure. The process involves straightforward fermentation and simple post processing.

KnipBio is in the process of developing partnerships to head towards demonstrating viability at a precommercial scale, and has made what Feinberg calls significant process on its first commercial-stage pilot package. It is currently seeking partnerships to demonstrate large-vessel scale-up and colocation viability.

On the Regulatory Path
According to Rick Barrows, who evaluates the nutritional value and other aspects of new products for the USDA Agriculture Research Service, new feed products used in the United States need either generally recognized as safe (GRAS) determination or an Association of American Feed Control Officials definition. “There currently is no official AAFCO definition for single cell protein ingredients to be used for animal feed, and no one has approval yet. It is likely that AAFCO will create a new definition, but it is up to them. It’s a slow process that can typically take from one to three years,” he says.

When new ingredients are used in other countries, which is where most aquaculture feed is sold, Barrows says, “each country has its own agencies that regulate what can and can’t be used as an animal feed.”

“Some DDGS are already used in aquaculture, more for herbivores that can handle a higher fibrous content, like catfish and tilapia. The KnipBio product is much higher in protein and is more animal-like than plant-like, with higher lysine and thiamine levels. KnipBio has entered into the process for GRAS determination, and it is likely to be approved,” he says. Feinberg says KnipBio will complete its GRAS determination paperwork in 2017.

Author: Debbie Sniderman
CEO, VI Ventures, LLC