• Vivian Leung

Like Turning Lead into Gold

eniferBio can turn your Waste Side Streams into Fish Feed

Author: Vivian Leung

A long time ago, in a land far, far away… east of Westeros and just to the south of Santa Claus’s home … a revolutionary, game-changing food producing technology existed. A technology so magical that it was like turning lead into gold.

Except in this case, the “lead” was spent sulfite liquor, and the gold was pig and poultry feed... and the magical technology used was microbes.

Pig and poultry feed? That’s the equivalent of turning lead into gold? Really? Indeed, it is hard to envision… but who can really place a value on turning what is normally a pollutant into something that can be fed to animals, and then in turn fed to us in the form of a yummy dinner?

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, this is exactly what the Finnish Pulp & Paper Industry was doing. They produced a side stream called spent sulfite liquor as a result of their industrial processes. To minimize their waste, the engineers came up with an ingenious solution: they placed the spent sulfite liquor into a bioreactor, where a specific microbe would purify it. Then, the leftover microbes would be dehydrated and sold as pig and poultry feed. Not only did this result in less waste, but it also supported food production. It is the kind of win-win solution that many big industries are wanting today. For 15 years, the Pulp & Paper would use this process, called the Pekilo, to purify their side streams to prevent waste and produce animal feed for all of those happy pigs and chickens (and eventually happy people).

But alas, like the Silmarillion, the knowledge and technology of the Pekilo process soon became obsolete and was lost. The pulp & paper industry had adjusted their processes so that they no longer had any side streams. Therefore, the magical technology wasn’t needed. And so the wonderful knowledge was buried deep in the recesses of the VTT research archives, coded in the secret language of ancient Elvish Finnish where no one could access it. As for the magic microbe, it too was deep-freezed and stored in the ancient VTT archives. Together they laid there for decades, collecting dust.

The Ancient Book of Knowledge: An old manual explaining the Pekilo process

That is, until researcher (and biotech wizard) Simo Ellilä unearthed the technology and, along with his co-founders, breathed new life into it.

For the longest time, CEO and Co-founder Simo actually had no idea the technology existed. He and his colleagues (also biotech wizards), Joosu Kuivanen, Anssi Rantasalo and Ville Pihlajeniemi had studied and worked

in the BioTech industry in Finland for years, and no one had uttered a single word about it to them. Moreover, even when they did uncover it, they were not quite sure what to do with the technology yet. It was only when their future co-founder Heikki Keskitalo came knocking on VTT’s door looking for solutions to the fish feed industry challenges that the light bulb started to turn on.

Eating fish is often seen as a much healthier, more sustainable alternative to other traditional proteins such and cows, pigs, and poultry. However, cultivated fish is still not without its own significant carbon footprint. Switching to more “environmentally-friendly” solutions can often be a double-edged sword. And in this case, that double-edged sword is the fact that an increase in fish and cultivated fish consumption means an increase in volume of food to feed those same fish. Up until this point, that main source has been soy feed. With the popularity of soy demand on the rise in all kinds of products, this crop has been responsible for ½ of the global deforestation from products imported into the EU between 1990 and 2008.

When it comes to a sustainable food future, it’s not just about what you eat, but what your food eats.

Together the 5 future co-founders realized they could use this “ancient” Finnish technology to solve that problem. Simo and Joosu, frustrated that much of their research often ended up sitting in archives collecting dust along with Pekilo, were eager to apply their knowledge to real-life problems. And so they acquired the rights to use the Pekilo technology. They then upgraded the process to Pekilo 2.0 (the process now produces 65% protein instead of 50% protein), and hopped onto the VTT incubator to help develop their business.

The 5 eniferBio co-founders from left to right: Ville Pihlajaniemi, Anssi Rantasalo, Heikki Keskitalo, Simo Ellilä, and Joosu Kuivanen

VTT incubator launchpad is a program which is targeted towards researchers wishing to become entrepreneurs. The biggest perk of the program was that Simo, Anssi, Joosu, and Ville were allowed to take the program during working hours. The timing couldn’t have been better. And as if some magical fairy had waved their wand and lining up all their ducks. From the program, eniferBio was born. Shortly after that, they were accepted into the EIT FAN Helsinki 2020 inaugural program.

As a team primarily made up of researchers, one of the biggest challenges they faced was switching to the entrepreneurial mindset. As an academic, you tend to only hang out with other academics. The EIT FAN was a fresh change from that, as they were working with other like-minded entrepreneurs. As a bonus, they were primarily spending time with other food entrepreneurs, in comparison to the VTT launchpad which was not industry specific. As a result, it was an opportunity to learn, grow, and really share best practices with their peers.

In addition to that, having the EIT FAN accelerator online ended up again, being good timing for them. Since they were working 2 jobs, it made it much easier for the team to manage their work while still attending the accelerator. The 1-1 mentorship and workshops were invaluable to the team, and the network they were able to establish was priceless. They couldn’t have asked for a better program to attend at the time that they did. The learning curve was steep, but the growth they experienced was enormous. In fact, they did so well that they ended up being selected as one of the top 2 finalists to represent the EIT FAN Helsinki Hub at the EIT Food Venture Summit.

Shortly after graduating from the EIT FAN program, they were able to secure their first round of funding and have now left their careers as researchers behind to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors full-time.

The team is super excited to be taking their next leap forward. They believe with the upgrades they have made to the Pekilo process, it will be a true game changer in the fish feed industry. Not only is it a high quality, fully renewable, and circular feedstock solution, but it is also cheap to produce. This means that it is profitable as well. This is something that, as far as the team knows, no other competitor has been able to achieve yet. Even better is that they plan not only to apply the process to industrial side streams, but agricultural side streams as well, further reducing the carbon footprint of our global food chain. Right now, they are working on setting up their first commercial plant and hope to launch it sometime in 2025

For more information on eniferBio and its innovative solution, check out https://eniferbio.fi

For more information on the EIT FAN Helsinki program, check out https://eitfan.eu/helsinki

FoodTechies Finland is also proud to support Food and Beyond in their mission to create a collective of food thinkers and doers. For more information on Food and Beyond, check out https://foodandbeyond.eu/