Alga Biosciences wants to help climate change, one beef farmer at a time

by Ana Lopez

Cows are a major source of methane emissions, mainly because of their unique digestive system. Dairy and beef cows are ruminants, meaning they have a specialized stomach chamber (called the rumen), which houses billions of microbes that facilitate the breakdown of fibrous plant material. The process is called “gut fermentation,” and as these microbes work to digest the cellulose found in the cows’ diet, methane is produced as a by-product. That’s a problem: The EPA identifies methane as about 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Alga Biosciences jumps to the rescue and creates a new feed for cows that dramatically reduces how much burping takes place.

“Enteric methanogenesis, also known as ranching, is the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the world. During the digestive process of cows, sheep, goats and other ruminants, microbes in the stomachs of these animals break down food into smaller components, such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats. As a by-product of this process, methane is produced and released into the atmosphere when the animal burps,” explained Alex Brown, co-founder/CEO of Alga Biosciences in an interview with “When we came to Y Combinator, we put all our money into academic experiments on live animals to test our product, and found that methane emissions from beef cattle were undetectable with our approach. This is the first time that results of this magnitude have been seen in live animals.”

Reducing burping has a side effect that goes beyond just the environment. Methane is packed with energy and Alga claims that about 12% of all the calories a farmer feeds his cow ends up being wasted in the form of methane burps. This is a huge hidden cost to farmers, and it presents a huge opportunity to divert those calories into meat and milk production. Kelp-based feed additives are theorized to provide a direct path to reducing anthropogenic methane emissions; it can also be a huge economic benefit to farmers.

The company raised a round led by Collaborative Fund and the company has now raised a total of $4 million in funding. In addition to Collaborative, Y Combinator, Day One Ventures, Cool Climate Collective, Pioneer Fund, Overview Capital and others also participated. The company also received a grant from USDA Climate Smart Commodities.

Caroline McKeon (Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Officer), Daria Balatsky (Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer), Alex Brown (Co-Founder and CEO). Image credit: Alg.

“The best climate technology startups will build solutions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions while being cheap, scalable and secure. We are thrilled that farmers like us believe that Alga’s solution achieves that trifecta,” said Tomas Alvarez Belon, Investor at Collaborative Fund. “We are excited to support Alga Bio in this journey to create a methane-free world.”

The company is working to produce its feed additive for larger commercial pilots, and the company tells it can already produce on a scale of tens of thousands per day. There is enough scale for growth; some sources estimate that there are about 1.5 billion cows in the world.

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