Climate change and dwindling agricultural land are major challenges for food and feed production. The supply of animal protein is particularly problematic.

The start-up Blue Planet Ecosystems, based in San Francisco and Vienna, wants to shift pisciculture (fish farming) to computerized container systems. The ecosystem is to be simulated in such a way that nature is able to grow in self-sustaining LARA systems (Land-based Automated Recirculating Aquaculture).

“We built everything ourselves, including the hardware,” says Paul Schmitzberger, CEO and co-founder of Blue Planet Ecosystems. We are a team of engineers, biologists and computer scientists. The hardware are LARA systems wherein the three stages of an aquatic ecosystem are reconstructed. From algae (phytoplankton) to zooplankton and then to the final product: fish.

Phytoplankton are phytosynthetic organisms that produce their own food from the energy of sunlight. A further characteristic is their high propagation rate. They can be harvested within four to seven days under ideal lighting and temperature conditions. This is a level of productivity that is far above that of traditional agriculture.

Zooplankton are microscopic and semi-microscopic invertebrates which are found in water. Zooplankton such as Daphnia have brief life cycles that go from the egg stage to maturity within just a few days. In nature, their population explodes when the environmental conditions are right. A condition that Blue Planet Ecosystems utilizes. The environmental parameters are optimized with a sufficient supply of food (microalgae). Daphnia are even more efficient than insects when it comes to converting vegetable biomass into valuable animal protein. This efficiency significantly reduces the environmental impact compared to keeping warm-blooded animals such as cattle.

Fish nourished naturally

Health-promoting nutrients synthesized by algae are bioaccumulated through the natural food chain into the end-product – as in fish. This food chain is interrupted in conventional aquaculture. Water protein is replaced by plant-based (fish meal) and animal-based (blood meal) proteins. Microplastics and other environmental toxins from industry and agriculture are invariably fed to farm animals. As a result, fish largely loses its health-promoting properties. At Blue Planet Ecosystems, the fish diet meets the physiological requirements of the organisms.

Our start-up company is researching the LARA system, which is based on renewable energy. To put it simply, it is a process in which sunlight is converted into fish. The algae unit that CTO Georg Schmitzberger designed has the ability to optimally “harvest” light and make it available for the algae.

The system enables the production of food largely independent of climate-related environmental factors. It avoids any price fluctuations associated with feed such as fish meal. LARA systems are also to be used in desert areas because of their greatly reduced dependence on water.

Paul Schmitzberger in an interview with Innovation Origins:

What motivates you? What problem do you resolve and why is that so important?

We are interested in the topic on an intellectual level – and we enjoy building things. First we researched how biological ecosystems work out of curiosity and then found out that we could resolve a major problem with them.

Over the next few decades, we will have to double animal protein production as the world’s population rises. Humankind is turning ecological treasures into agricultural land as a result of this. We solve this problem by decoupling animal protein production from the usual agricultural value chains. We do not need feed from vegetable or animal proteins which are affected by climate change.

Another aspect is the pollution of the world’s oceans caused by microplastics and environmental toxins such as lead or fertilizer. These toxins accumulate in the food chain and have potentially negative effects on sensitive people and those with health issues.

What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome? Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?

No, luckily we haven’t had that moment yet.

What have been the best moments so far?

We received a pre-seed investment from IndieBio in San Francisco, the most important Life Science Accelerator in the world. When we presented our laboratory scale prototype to 1200 people on Demo Day, it was really wonderful.

What achievements are you particularly proud of?

That we managed to go from a PowerPoint presentation to a prototype within a very short time. And build a good team – and find support for a technically challenging idea.

How difficult was it to get funding?

Funding is certainly the most difficult part of any start-up project. In Silicon Valley it is said that you need 120 contacts with venture capitalists for five Term-Sheets and five Term-Sheets for one investment. We’ve also been in a lot of discussions and have managed that.

How are the conditions in Vienna? Can you imagine a more ideal location for your start-up?

Since August we have been back in Vienna after five months at IndieBio in San Francisco. But we still have a branch in San Francisco. Silicon Valley certainly offers tremendous advantages in terms of location. Yet we also have very good scientists and great conditions in Europe. Above all, Vienna is an affordable location. Silicon Valley is incredibly expensive.

Where would you like to be with your company in five years time?

A stable, prosperous company and a well-functioning product that is well received by the market.

What makes your innovation better/different than other existing ideas?

We believe that the value of industries of the future lies more in software than in hardware. But there has to be coordination between hardware and software – as well as with biology in our project.

What sets us apart is our software. We are building a system that simulates the natural ecosystem and are striving for a solution that is able to learn faster and more independently. Our Head of Data Science is a particle physicist. She spent ten years at Cern working on machine learning systems for Atlas experiments. Using extremely large amounts of data and sophisticated models. With us, she’s not simulating the universe, she’s simulating the ecosystem. Our expert in agriculture has designed fish farms in Sri Lanka, among other places.

Thank you for this interview

Learn more about Blue Planet Ecosystems on this link here.

Are you interested in start-ups? Read more of our articles on this theme here.