We develop innovative micro-algae circular systems to treat aquaculture wastewater and produce sustainable food for inland grown fish.
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The founding team of microTERRA is Mexican and/or has been living in Mexico for the past 6 years, which is the reason why we feel deeply attached and compromised to solve the problems that concern our country.
Mexico represents a strategic place to develop a technology thought for tropical regions. Since we are targeting aquaculture farmers in Latin America, we have designed a technology that exploits the environmental conditions (natural sunlight and weather) to grow the microalgae at a low cost; in order to make a more affordable technology for farmers adoption.
Mexico is a great place to start to change the status-quo of the aquaculture sector, as it is the 6th biggest producer in the world; we want to create sustainable solutions to position our country as a leader in water management for aquaculture practices, taking into account that in-land aquaculture is expected to double by 2050, together with the demand for animal protein.
The Bajío region, the place for which we are developing a vision for, is a very important productive zone for the country, regarding agro-industry activities; reason why we decided to deploy our technology firstly. If it is possible to change the regular productive practices in this region, it would not only have a huge environmental impact, but it would make it easier for this change of practices to permeate to the rest of the country.
Unfortunately, the world’s second largest dead zone is found in the Gulf of Mexico, due to the excess of nutrients runoff, coming from the Mississippi river watershed. These hypoxic environments can be found not only in the ocean, but as well on the inland aquatic ecosystems all around the country, which is the case with superficial waters flowing in the region as they pollute the watershed down its way to the Pacific Ocean. We want to prevent this, by limiting the nutrients at their source.
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.
El Bajío region is comprised of some municipalities of the entities of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Michoacán, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí, and it is located between two major metropolitan areas, Mexico City and Guadalajara City. Due to its strategic geographical location, the region has a great potential for economic development, so an important industrial corridor has been developed. In the region there is a strong presence of industrial parks where a productive territorial network is being formed. Focusing in the State of Guanajuato, where we are located; it has a total area of 30,589 km² and its geographical location gives it great accessibility to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The state is crossed by various orographic accidents whose elevations are approximately 2,700 meters above sea level. These mountain ranges cross the west to the east and occupy 35.20% of the state territory, to divide it into three zones.
The zone of our interest corresponds to the Bajío Guanajuatense, which is a flat region, mostly occupied by highly technical agricultural work. The average annual rainfall is 700 mms., and the lands of this area are considered to be the richest in the country. El Bajío is the most important region of the state and was long considered the granary of the country. The productive trajectory of Guanajuato was presented in three directions: a) large-scale commercial agriculture, with a tendency towards an increase in the production of commercial crops to the detriment of basic products; b) subsistence of the local industrial fabric; c) energy enclaves and attraction of foreign investment.
Regarding inland aquaculture practices in the region, they regularly imply the extraction of groundwater for sourcing the replacement of 30% of the water in the tanks where the fish live, twice a week, as well as the discharge of the wastewater into the nearest aquatic ecosystem. We are focusing our solution on medium-scale aquaculture farmers with low tech farms, being about 200 of them in the region. Their margins are low in comparison to other livestock farmers due to the high cost on fish feed (spending approximately 70% of the variable cost) and the seasonal high demand for their product. Usually, their profits barely meet their expenses. Many of them got started in the business thanks to governmental financing. This financing helped them to acquire the fish tanks but not to support their very high operational costs. They pay a depreciable cost for water since they are the owners of the land and can freely extract fresh water from underground wells. Also, there is not a strict policy for wastewater treatment for them to meet. In this way, they are not only polluting the freshwater supplies but also putting at risk access to clean water for downstream communities and future generations.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Undoubtedly, water stress, which manifests itself in quantity and quality, represents the main challenge in the municipalities comprising el Bajio Guanajuatense. The growing demand for water, associated with economic growth is an important factor in the social construction of the water crisis. The aquifers found in the industrial corridor already show severe signs of depletion due to intensive water consumption, caused by strong pressure from residential, agricultural, industrial and commercial use in the region. A quarter of Mexico’s wells are located in Guanajuato and, due to excessive water extraction, the environment has suffered irreversible damage, reason why the authorities had to decree the absolute prohibition of opening new wells.
The inland aquaculture sector in the region strongly depends on the extraction of fresh water from the underground wells to carry out their productive activities, though these won’t be able to sustain themselves over a long period of time, unless they start to have a sustainable water management; which should not only include water extraction, but also discharge of wastewater.
According to the FAO, aquaculture is the the world’s fastest growing food production sector, and will provide 60% of the world’s fish consumption by 2030, from its current share of just over 50%. Which will be necessary, if we want to deliver healthy and affordable protein to the never ending growing population. Nevertheless, the ‘business as usual’ aquaculture industry is causing huge environmental issues, not only in its unsustainable water use, but also in the marine ecosystems. Industrial aquaculture is plundering the oceans, by the use of wild fish to feed farmed fish. Millions of tons of wild fish are being caught to produce fishmeal, the main ingredient in fish feeds.
According to the UN, the human growing population will reach 9 billion people by the year 2050, which represents a growing food demand as well. Moreover, inland aquaculture is expected to double by 2050, together with the demand for animal protein, imposing a huge challenge on meeting the food demand without compromising our water and ocean resources. In order to do so, technology improvements in the industry have to be made and international and national governments need to establish more strict standards for the sector, facilitating circular solutions and waste management.
We envision that in the coming 30 years, technology management will take place for the Mexican aquaculture farmers, where they will be able to adopt automatized processes for their farms, as they will have to renew their equipments to the newest and more sustainable technologies available, as to have more efficient productive cycles while the resources are scarce and must be used wisely. Mexican Government, retailers, and international organizations have imposed the highest standards, for which the fish farmers will stick to in order to protect the water and land resources.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our Vision will address the two main challenges inland aquaculture unsustainable practices represent: a) water management; b) fishmeal as protein source of fish feed.
With the solution we propose, we are saving water in two ways, one is decreasing its extraction from underground wells, and the other is preventing the wastewater discharge into the ecosystem. After the water has been treated by the system, it comes out clean and can be recycled back to the aquaculture tanks; thus, saving up to 75% of water and preventing the disposal of untreated wastewater.
On the other hand, the biomass of microalgae cultivated from the process, which is a high-valuable protein, can displace 40%- 50% of the farmer's fish feed needs, curving the demand on wild fish sources directly by displacing fish meal, ensuring the security of wildlife in the oceans; and indirectly by improving the efficiency and quality of farmed fish as a sustainable protein source.
microTERRA’s systems also act as carbon offsets, as microalgae's carbon-capturing properties, together with water filtering and the production of alternative protein sources for fish feed disrupt existing constraints in aquaculture. microTERRA does this in a cost-efficient and scalable way, working together with a local Laboratory (CINVESTAV, Irapuato) and with local fish farmers from El Bajío to install technology onsite with clear financial benefits seen as savings in fish feed and increased productivity.
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.
As the main challenges of inland aquaculture get addressed by microTERRA’s technology deployment in the farms, we will be able to appreciate the positive impacts reflected in the lives of the people in the Bajio region. While the inland fish farming industry has a tendency to increase globally, it will reflect a huge growth in the region. It is expected that as sustainable aquaculture goes mainstream, the value of Mexican and Bajio region fish farmers product offered will grow; this growth will be possible, regarding more specific aspects, such as the practices of the industry promoting good water management and sustainable protein source in the fish feeds, which will enhance the opportunity of obtaining a Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification standards for a fish farm, which currently represents the highest standard for the industry and is delivered by the Global Aquaculture Alliance. This certification will give the fish farmers an opportunity to better position their products in the market or be able to integrate to a high-end retailer circuit in the short term, obtaining a higher revenue.
Sustainable fish farming growth in the Bajio region, will provide better quality lives for the people, as the aquatic and land ecosystems get healthier by having more clean water available. The latter will also be reflected as general growth for the region. The visibility of the positive impacts for the success case of sustainable aquaculture practices in the Bajio region, will allow its adoption in other parts of the country, Latin America and eventually in other continents such as South-East Asia where inland aquaculture is growing extremely fast.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
One of the biggest water pollutants worldwide is animal manure runoff from agriculture. It flows into our rivers and eventually the ocean, causing huge environmental damage such as the sadly known dead zones. microTERRA develops onsite water treatment systems with microalgae that transform agricultural wastewater into sustainable animal feed while cleaning the water. Our technology relies on the ability of microalgae to convert nutrients from animal manure contained in wastewater, nitrogen and phosphorous, into high-protein biomass. By turning waste into food, microTERRa’s technology is making water treatment profitable. Our great vision is to prevent environmental damages and highly risked water stress situations by developing circular technology, directly inspired in the magic of the smallest plant on earth: microalgae.
In an environmental aspect, we offer a circular economy solution to stop downstream pollution from inland aquaculture farming to conserve freshwater resources. Moreover, wastewater transformation into protein is the key to reduce caught wild fish used in the production of fish feed. This way, we are producing an organic and sustainable feed for the fish, which represents the best way to develop the inland aquaculture sector in Mexico and offer a more affordable and healthy fish to the local population. In order to grow the protein of the future, we need to start now by upcycling what normally is a residue that pollutes our land and water, therefore affecting our economy; and transform it into a valuable product for the industry.
Positive economic impacts will be reflected as sustainable water management for aquaculture farmers, which is the first step towards sustainable inland aquaculture and means the possibility of gaining international certifications like BAP, thus having access to more high end retailers (WholeFoods i.e.) and a better revenue. Culturally, we will be able to appreciate that the economic incentive will participate in the sensibilization of fish farmers in Mexico, regarding waste and water management, which does not represent a key factor for them today. Since they will have to grow exponentially to meet the needs of the growing population, they will either have to grow sustainably, or face an ecological disaster imposing huge costs for the farmers and the nearby populations.
Hopefully the Technology and the Policy are moving fast enough to offer solutions to the aquaculture sector. It can already be seen in the public policy of El Bajío, where it has been prohibited to open new wells.
In only 18 months we went from developing the technology in the laboratory, to filing a patent and deploying our first pilot in the field at La Esperanza Fish Farm, Guanajuato. We ensure our wastewater treatment technology to be attractive for the farmers, motivated by the perspective of self-producing fish feed, while they protect the watersheds near their farms. Given the fish-farming market size in Mexico, our technology has the potential to prevent the equivalent of 1,800 olympic swimming pools of contaminated water being discharged into the environment, every day. So far, we bootstrapped the company by receiving funds from The National Geographic, Echoing Green, Techstars, The Nature Conservancy and the Tamer Fund from Columbia University. These grants and prizes allowed us to create an amazing ecosystem of advisors, mentors and followers, that go from scientists, business persons, students, water enthusiasts to aquaculture experts. Today we already feel that microTERRA is bigger than us, mobilizing passionate people, not only from Bajío, but from all over the world where water treatment is an issue and where human knowledge and nature respect are used to try to revert ocean pollution and more generally, climate change.
We’ve gained validation from our strategic partners, such as Techstars Sustainability Accelerator program and The Nature Conservancy, Echoing Green, Columbia Business School, FINNOVATEG (public funding for scientific innovation from the State of Guanajuato, Mexico), and National Geographic. When it comes to the aquaculture industry in Mexico and the local specialists in the Bajío region, we are working with them to create a solution truly adapted to the fish farmers needs, as well as answering the environmental concerns of local institutions. As an entrepreneurial project, we can definitely go ahead with the Mexican regulation by applying international standards, and then spreading these best practices through our clients and the local actors. We are on a mission to democratize wastewater treatment systems, in an economically and environmentally sustainable way. Our solution has been very positively received by Sistema Producto Tilapia, the Mexican association of tilapias producers, the fish species we are developing our system for. They showed significant interest to participate in our Research and Development process, and willingness to try the system in their farms as soon as it would be ready to treat the volume of water necessary to make it profitable in terms of fish feed savings. Also, CONAPESCA, the federal institute for fishery, confirmed that our approach was aligned to the public policy it is trying to implement to foster sustainability practices among wild fishery and inland aquaculture farms. We are planning on using these networks to get to our future partners and clients: the tilapia farmers in Bajío, and then expand to the rest of the country. Along with these actors, we are closely related to the biggest biotechnology center in Latinamerica: CINVESTAV in Irapuato, Guanajuato. They opened their doors after we won a state grant to develop our technology, which has been a great opportunity for working on our microalgae consortiums, along with experts from the region and close to the local agroindustry. Finally, big agro companies investing in El Bajío have been thrilled to discover what we were working on, and we are currently in conversations with The Coca-Cola Foundation and Danone, inviting them to participate to the funding of our future systems, that will still be experimental but that represents the fastest way to create a commercially viable system for 2022.
In order to scale from our first pilot installed at La Esperanza, up to installing 4 systems in 2020 and 2021 with farmers in El Bajío, we have been talking to more than 50 farmers to understand their needs and their preoccupations. This is how we realized that the fish feed cost was their main concern, and that there was a great opportunity in self-producing the protein needed to feed the fish, which could be the best solution to clean the wastewater. This prospect led us to meet the owner of a tilapia farm in Apaseo el Grande, Guanajuato, interested in collaborating for the next system’s installation, with a capacity of 25,000 L.
Our vision is to develop circular solutions for aquaculture, to position El Bajío as a leader in wastewater management through potentializing its economy. This is why we want to develop microTERRA quickly and to go-to-market by the end of 2021.
To make that vision come true, here is our plan:
2020: validate our solution at scale.
We will build one new system with a tilapia farmer who already committed to co-invest with us. At the same time, we will be raising funds from water investors. We need to ensure that our microalgae can create at least 2 grams of biomass (that will be used as the fish feed protein) per liters of wastewater treated per day. This research is going to be eased by the creation of a virtual lab, that will monitor the microalgae behavior in our pilot and replicate it through machine learning models. We will then be able to replicate all kinds of microalgae behaviors in order to optimize the operation of each system. The investment will be used to develop the biotechnology, the bioinformatics and the hardware, but the system construction will be funded by strategic partners interested in generating significant impact in water conservation and sustainable food systems.
2021: mature the technology and make it replicable.
We will build three systems of 50,000L, 100,000L and 250,000L capacity, with three different tilapia farmers along El Bajío to improve the design of our system at scale and keep monitoring the microalgae behavior, from the virtual Lab. This information is going to prepare us for the commercial version of the system. As well as the system built in 2020, they will be partially funded through strategic partners, grants and/or prizes.
2022: commercial deployment in the Bajío region.
The business model of microTERRA will be to sell onsite water treatment systems for inland aquaculture. Our customers will be fish farmers producing 100- 300 tons of tilapias per year, in Mexico, preferably in El Bajío. We will offer them the possibility to produce their own fish feed onsite, reducing their main operational cost. While reducing freshwater consumption up to 75%, and stop polluting downstream ecosystems. The savings produced by the use of a 500,000L system will enable the amortization of the system in approximately 5-7 years, according to its savings in fish feed.
2023-2030: Mexican and international growth
After growing significantly in the Bajío region and in the rest of Mexico, we will be able to internationalize the solution and offer it in the rest of Latam, and hopefully in the Middle-East and in Asia where inland aquaculture is demonstrating high growth rates.
In the meantime, our research on microalgae properties will lead us to develop a similar solution to treat the nutrients from all types of animal manure that contaminate livestock production water. Our long term objectives are to stop downstream pollution from fish and cattle farms, as well as protecting wildlife used to make livestock protein and reversing the ecological disasters known as dead-zones.