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July 29, 2019

Marine algae for pet supplements? Startup rolls out commercial product

Sisitksy and Hara Courtesy / Field Phyto-Nutrients Field Phyto-Nutrients’ marketing manager, Deena Sisitsky, and CEO and founder Hiro Hara are rolling out commercial production of a marine plant-based nutritional supplement for animals.

A Brunswick-based maker of marine plant-based nutritional supplements is now manufacturing and distributing its first commercial product.

Field Phyto-Nutrients, based at Brunswick Landing’s TechPlace, is refining a production process that uses algae as raw material. FPN's first commercial algae-based pet health supplement, SmartZYME, is now in commercial production and being sold to natural and holistic pet centers and veterinarians, according to a news release.

The company’s CEO and founder, Hiro Hara, is a scientist whose work in developing algae for biofuels led to a discovery of the marine plant’s nutritional components for animals.  

His research uncovered a species of brown algae that has a high content of DHA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid.  

Proprietary system

Omega-3 fatty acid is a type of fat essential to health, according to WebMD: The body needs fatty acids to function, and they also deliver some health benefits. 

DHA supplements can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as inflammation in humans. For animals, the benefits include boosting metabolism, reducing inflammation, disease prevention and memory improvement, according to the release.

Field Phyto-Nutrients has developed a process to continuously produce the algae in a unique sterile system. FPN cultures the cells and harvests indoors under strict quality controls, using a proprietary, patent-pending system of highly engineered plastic bioreactors. 

Other DHA and omega-3 products on the market are susceptible to oxidation as they age, Hara said in the release. Once oxidized, the molecules can cause a reaction inside the body that is neurotoxic.

By contrast, the enzymes in SmartZYME remain intact due to FPN’s proprietary process.

From biofuel to supplement

Hara, who grew up in a family of veterinarians in Japan, was previously working in Connecticut as an independent consultant, developing algae for biofuels. 

But he was intrigued by algae species that contain nutritional components. His work led him to a species of brown algae that has a very high content of DHA, but that is difficult to grow because it needs a different energy source than sunlight to flourish. This led to the design of a unique sterile system to grow and harvest algae culture using glucose as an energy source.

Hara and his marketing manager, Deena Sisitsky, identified Maine in general and TechPlace specifically as a good match for their interests, due to Maine’s growing marine product and aquaculture industry, Sisitsky told Mainebiz.

“Maine & Co. was instrumental in helping us get this location,” she said, and credited the Portland nonprofit’s Ashley Pringle in particular.

Maine & Co. provides free and confidential consulting services to businesses looking to relocate to Maine or expand within Maine. Pringle told Mainebiz that Maine & Co. started working with Field Phyto-Nutrients in 2015. 

Crossing sectors

“They were looking to move to Maine and expand their company here,” Pringle said. “They’re unique in that they cross several sectors: aquaculture, technology and pet care. We’re seeing a lot of activity across the state in those three industries.”

The startup's parameters for location, she said, included access to the business community and to marine science partners, access to ocean water and an incubator space where they could start small and scale up. 

Field Phyto-Nutrients moved into TechPlace in 2016. It now occupies a 4,000-square-foot production lab, with a staff of two. Hara told Mainebiz he expects to reach a production level of 1 ton per month within a short time; the system’s current capacity is 5 tons. He said the lab now contains four bioreactors but he plans to add more. They grow the algae on site.

“We grow it, take the water out so it’s in paste form, and preserve it with sterilized sea salt,” Sisitsky explained. “Then we package it in oxygen barrier packaging and freeze it, and ship it frozen to retailers. When consumers get it home, they should keep it refrigerated. We like it to be thought of as a fresh product.”

Each bioreactor can produce close to 10,000 packets of product per month. For the pet market, the product is packaged in 10 one-teaspoon packets per pack. 

“It’s a functional food rather than medicine, so you can’t overdose,” she said. “We have a ‘how to use it’ demo on our website. It’s easily mixed into any wet or dry food.”

Field Phyto-Nutrients has been rolling out its product for pets and ornamental fish over the past month, and is looking into marketing the product for horses with certain types of metabolic syndromes, said Sisitsky.

“We have about 100 customers throughout New England,” Sisitsky said. The company has sold about 2,400 packs over the past month.

The product has potential as a nutritional supplement for human consumption, too, she added.

Startup operations have cost about $750,000 to date, with funds coming from self-financing, an angel investor and Maine Technology Institute development loans and grants, she said. 

Field Phyto-Nutrients is now seeking additional investment of about $750,000, according to Sisitsky, which will go toward capital expenditures and continued marketing and logistics. 

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