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Co-creating microalgae based F&B applications for human and planetary health in the world's biggest real-world food lab: Bangkok

Working w/ food services & research partners to create delicious & convenient microalgae based F&B applications to feed the planet.

Photo of Ingo Puhl

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Whapow Co Ltd.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Marriott Marquis Queen's Park, Bangkok (large, high end hotel) and operator of one of Asia's largest restaurants and substantial commitment to food sustainability Blue Green Alliance Bangkok (civil society network, committed to making Bangkok green and healthy) Mint Engineering Ltd. (small company, producer of micro-algae using container-based, landless production technology) (Germany) IMB Centre for Solar Biotechnology (Researcher Institution for micro-algae) (Australia) Convenience GmbH (large company, developer and distributor for fresh convenience products for the food services industry) (Germany) International Cooperation Network Micro Algae (other, network of producers, distributors, researchers) (intl) Selva Co Ltd (small company, distributor of super foods), (Singapore)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.facebook.com/whapower/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Bangkok, Thailand

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Thailand

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Bangkok, a city with 8 mil inhabitants that is visited by > 20 mil visitors every year (most visited city on Earth).

What country is your selected Place located in?

Thailand

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Bangkok is probably one of the most competitive and innovative location for the launch of new food and beverage concepts in the world. It is home to "the kitchen of Asia", a large international population, very income diverse, within 3 hours reach (by airplane) of 3.5 bn people across Asia. Bangkok is also the city that receives the most visitors per year: 20 million people who come from around the world. One reason for visiting is the depth and range of food experiences the city has to offer. Bangkok is therefor the perfect petri-dish for us: our vision is to develop micro-algae based food and beverage applications and to position them as the next generation of ultra-sustainable food & beverage applications for the Asian population and the world. 

We are partnering with the Marriott Marquis's Food & Beverage team to develop and test micro-algae based food applications in their flagship restaurant that serves 2000 meals per day to international guests from everywhere. We will use this experience to scale cooperations to other partners and to commercially launch/make permanent the products that are well received.

Bangkok - and surrounding areas - also provide a perfect climate for the growth of micro-algae. In fact, spirulina, one of the micro-algae we are using, is native to Thailand. Bangkok and surrounding areas is also home to a very large agroindustrial / food processing industry and has the associated infrastructure for scaling and export, thus making it an ideal production hub for our product innovations. 

We are also able to find the scientists, nutritionists, food services partners, production partners and other resources required for our research, user experience design and commercialization here and through our international partner network. 

Whapow principals have lived here for more than 10 years or are originally from Thailand.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Feel: Bangkok has a diverse population from Thailand, Asia and the world. It is also the most visited city in the world, hosting more than 20 mil international visitors per year. It is no surprise that it has a food culture to go with this. 

Its hospitality industry is un-matched and visitors are coming to experience its amazing food eco-system. Bangkok has food for every taste, culture, and in every price category. People are willing to experiment and try out new food concepts. Food service providers are accustomed to the taste, flavor and smell preferences of its diverse clientele. 

Bangkok is Thailand's hub for food exports (biggest market is China). The food production industry is dominated by a few large conglomerates. 

Climate: Bangkok is a tropical city, plants grow year round, supplying the ingredients for Whapow’s products year around and in abundance: a) microalgae thrive in tropical temperatures and the sunlight is steady due to Bangkok's proximity to the equator, b) bananas grow year around, they are an amazing food source with a very short planting to harvest cycle, c) other tropical fruit are harvested multiple times per year. 

Social dynamics, traditions, language, diversity: Bangkok is a leading international, open-minded and tolerant city. However, Thai society is also hierarchical, with very high levels of income inequality. 

Cultural trends: Bangkok embraces innovation and aspires to be a modern, global city. Its food services industry (restaurants, hotels, cafes) are world leading, easy to pick up global food trends and ultra-competitive (survival of the fittest). 

The role of agriculture, farming, aquaculture, dominant crops: Bangkok and surrounding areas are an agro-industrial powerhouse but do not operate sustainably. A massive haze covers Bangkok during the harvest season (2.5 pm > 150) as result of over-reliance on traditional crops (lead by sugar and rice) for export. 

Hopes of the people: Bangkok's poor people dream of becoming wealthier while the emerging middle class is very materialistic, having recently escaped poverty. People are placing great hopes in their children, wanting a better life for them and expecting them to be a future provider as the pension system is weak. 

Diets: Bangkok has been embracing western culture ever since King Rama V while maintaining a strong food heritage. However, fast and processed food has proliferated, leading to increasing obesity, especially among the young.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

1500

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

8200000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The Current Food System

Bangkok is already facing severe problems with its food system: feeding of its people, 20 million visitors and massive food experts, deplete its surrounding oceans and lands and pollute its air. 

Agricultural productivity is low, many (especially the small) farmers are poor and often indebted. Young people do not want to become farmers, instead they swell the ranks of the urban poor. Its seafood industry contributes to overfishing and was accused of labor rights violations, shrimp farms infringe on mangrove forests, and its feed industry contributes to non-sustainable land-use, land depletion and very high air pollution levels post-harvest periods from burning of crop residues. 

The current sugar and rice economy contributes to soil depletion, keeps farmers poor as they are spending an increasing amount on fertilizers. 

There has not been substantial innovation in agro-industry ever since the green revolution of the 1960es that brought higher yielding rice varieties to the region (with the Rockefeller Foundation as a key catalytic agency). 

The current policy environment is not encouraging innovation but serves to protect the status-quo.

Challenges for the Future

It is no exaggeration to say that a continuation of prevailing trends will lead to crisis from an environmental, economic, and (in)equality perspective: massive soil degradation, water scarcity, and air pollution will reach critical levels. Combined with the expected impacts of climate change, lack of innovation and weak governance could lead to disaster. 

In addition, diets are shifting: a faster lifestyle drives "snackification", which are mostly designed for gratification and not nutritional value. Last mile delivery of prepared meals advantages fast food, and consumption of meat in an increasingly affluent population is on the rise while innovation in food and food technology is not an important policy objective.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We can not change existing big trends quickly but we can incubate/seed change by example: we can make snacks healthy, delicious, convenient and fast, we can raise awareness about the relationship between what we eat/drink and how our choices impact air pollution, poverty, and climate change every time a person consumes on of our products or looks at a food menu. We can use the voice of our food services partners to amplify these messages. When we have traction, we will get the attention of large food conglomerates and policy makers to see the opportunity in food innovation.

We need to get to the young people and form their food habits early. We therefore need to find a way into the schools and school lunch/canteen programs. 

Environment: Micro-algae are food super-heroes. They are the most resource efficient nutrient source for carbon-based lifeforms on the planet (100 to 1000 times more resource efficient in relation to water, energy and land use compared to other protein sources). They can be used to feed people, animals and contribute to soil carbon enrichment and close the widening protein gap within planetary regenerative boundaries. 

Micro-algae production is resilient to increasing temperatures, they absorb massive amounts of CO2 and replace CO2 emissions associated with the production of protein from other supply chains. 

Diets: Micro-algae are among the most complete food ingredients and provide a broad spectrum of nutrients. We envision to develop food products and snacks that are delicious, convenient, 100% natural, not processed (except for freezing) and designed for functional performance, reducing obesity, diabetes and have anti-inflammatory and gut health improvement related properties. 

Economics: Because of their vastly superior resource efficiency, micro-algae-based food products, we will produce at a lower cost compared to less healthy and less sustainable food products when reaching scale. This allows us to reach lower income households. 

The future of micro-algae production and consumption is decentralized. What the solar PV cell did to the energy industry (decentralization, disintermediation of global energy supply chains and centralized capital formation in large utilities (often with state ownership), micro-algae can do to the food industry. Value chains will be shorter and a substantially larger share of economic rents will remain in the hand of producers. 

Culture: We feed into the mindful consumption trend that is taking hold everywhere. 

Technology: We already envision the customization and on demand production of our products. Micro-algae can be produced on demand. They have a complete nutritional profile. Decentralized production, near demand means supply chains are short and resilient, no waste. 

Policy: We expect that early success will create supportive policies (in Thailand, policy follows, it does not lead innovation).

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Bangkok will be a hub for the launch, market introduction and commercialization of an increasing range of micro-algae based food & beverage applications. We will establish a micro-algae production center, using containerized, decentralized production models that produce on demand nutrition for its diverse population, visitors and for export.

The production of ultra-fresh healthy snacks and small meals from micro-algae will create new market opportunities for small farmers, giving them access to global markets. The broad application of our products in the hospitality industry will show the world the benefits of micro-algae and create massive new export opportunities. 

As snacking becomes more nutritious, the health of the targeted population will improve. The increasing affordability of micro-algae, due to its massive scaling cost reductions, will make the consumption of micro-algae based products available to all. 

There will be less but higher income employment opportunity in agriculture, making working in agriculture more interesting for the young and easing future labor shortage in this sector.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Full Vision

Photosynthetic micro-algae cleaned up the atmosphere for carbon based lifeforms 3.5 billion years ago, reducing CO2 concentrations from 500.000ppm to 250ppm and supplying the original fuel for us to thrive in the form of amino acids, minerals, vitamins, fatty acids. By 2050, they will be back to help us clean up the atmosphere once more....

Massimo Bottura saved the town of Modena and its parmesan cheese after the 2012 earth quake that destroyed most parmesan cold-storage warehouses by creating ONE recipe (one !): “risotto cacio e pepe”, a rice dish, staked with parmesan cheese and asked his food-services friends to make it to save the town: they responded and within 3 months the entire parmesan stockpile that lacked cooling was sold and the revenue used to rebuild the warehouses.

We start in Bangkok in 2020 with ONE chef and his (large restaurant). By 2050, micro-algae will be a cheap and mainstream staple food ingredient in a large range of snacks (crunchy/salty snacks, ice-creams, chocolates, energy bars), drinks (smoothies, energy drinks, juices, soda water), cereals/mueslis, dry powder mixes, pastas, ... replacing the use of currently overproduced crops such as soy beans, wheat, dairy, rice, corn, sugar. As the population increases its use of plant-based diets, micro-algae will become a new source of high quality protein, replacing meat and fish as well. Supermarkets will add micro-algae product themes shelf areas. The commercialization of an increasing number of micro-algae species will also mean that these products will be colorful and meet all kinds of functional nutrition profiles.

More than 50% of the micro-algae consumed in Bangkok will be grown in closed urban production systems in Bangkok. Large hotels/restaurants will have their own container-sized production system on-site, giving them access to fresh micro-algae biomass for use in a large variety of menu items. The next generation of residents will have grown up with micro-algae, first encountering their use in school lunches (green smoothies, ice-creams, snacks) and associating them with super-hero powers, deliciousness and convenience.

As production volumes increase, more and more non-food related micro-algae use cases become feasible: companies in the Bangkok area that are currently engaged in rice- and sugar-milling, production of bio-ethanol and feed production will become operators of micro-algae bio-refineries by 2050 where they will extract their medicinal/pharmaceutical & bio-chemical components, pigments, and nutrients before a residual biomass is converted to liquid biofuel at very low costs, creating a very sustainable convergence between the food, energy and transport fuel industry. 

By 2050, the micro-algae renaissance in Bangkok will have driven massive investment into innovation in these industries, provided high-quality labor opportunities and will have made massive contributions to solving critical natural resources depletion problems (incl. air pollution, overuse of water), and will have contribute to a healthier population. Bangkok will have become more attractive place to live, work and visit.

This green revolution will not go unnoticed and will transform urban food systems elsewhere at the same speed as in Bangkok and only with a slight delay.

The Green Revolution that started in the 1960es had at its core the introduction of high yield crops (mainly rice) to feed an exponentially growing world population. The Green Revolution that will have started in the 2020es will have had at its core the mainstreaming of micro-algae into food production (and other industries) to exponentially reduce the negative impact of our food system on natural resources and the climate.

According to our analysis the following is true: 

- When we double the current production of micro-algae 7 times (the biblical 7) = reach 1.25 mil tons of production, they will compete on cost with mainstream sources of animal feed.

- When we then double production 3 more times = 10 mil tons/year and replace other feed sources at scale we will stop net deforestation.

- Following that, any additional growth of micro-algae production already contributes to regeneration of planetary resources (reforestation, GHG emission reductions.

How long will this take? Micro-algae grow exponentially (replication via cell division). Modern production systems are quasi landless, production and consumption is zero waste, and their resource efficiency means that there are no input bottlenecks to growth. This means that the limiting factor is our ability to create demand for its use.

https://medium.com/@ingopuhl/why-whapow-a-thai-food-tech-company-promotes-the-use-of-photosynthetic-microorganisms-to-make-3b1b6f2c0e7b


We have been able to get some initial high-level visibility for our cause of mainstreaming the use of micro-algae, which is promising:

- Whapow's contribution at a UNFCCC sponsored event on climate friendly diets (first ever): https://unfccc.int/news/food-experts-call-for-climate-friendly-diets and video recording: https://attend-emea.broadcast.skype.com/en-US/2a6c12ad-406a-4f33-b686-f78ff5822208/2d69631e-c903-441e-abd6-dc749a37ee47/player?cid=xezxuifuj2ikc3nd5yezmqhzpjzzn3ms7qyowpqpxerwnzd4pgda&rid=EMEA

- Whapow's participation at "UNFCCC: Innovation in Food Systems" during COP 25 in Madrid together with EAT Foundation, IKEA, Impossible Foods, Max Burger and WHO:

https://attend-emea.broadcast.skype.com/en-US/2a6c12ad-406a-4f33-b686-f78ff5822208/262e3f43-706a-41ec-9058-e793118f2182/player?cid=7t5vsllurjwczqqnf27ppse432ofdgxkwfi7iatcy47o3gdgk2zq&rid=EMEA


How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • A colleague who is working in sustainable food, made the reference

16 comments

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Spam
Photo of Allison Tjaden
Team

Thanks for your work and vision. I'd love to see students at the University of Maryland ( Universities as a Living Laboratory Closing the Food System Loop ) eating these micro-algae food super-heroes too!! Cheers.

Spam
Photo of Ingo Puhl
Team

Your organization is exactly the kind of food services partner we like to work with and your "clientele" exactly our target group (and I used to live in DC and my partner got her PhD from UMD in College Park (so I have been to your campus quite a few times...). We are too small to think about going to the US now but would like to a) get your input on products that you believe might work for your students: we would then make them here in Thailand with our local food services partners and get feedback (and maybe can ship samples to you), and b) keep you informed about the products we develop here (and get your feedback). And you are always invited to come to Bangkok for experience sharing.

Spam
Photo of Allison Tjaden
Team

Yes! (to all of the above). I think we have students and student research projects that might be really effective as getting feedback when you are ready. (Also, what a fun "Terp" connection).

Spam
Photo of Ingo Puhl
Team

Fear the Turtle. Sounds good.

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