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C-CAMP startup Sea6Energy looks to achieve sustainable growth through sea farming

Sea6Energy, one of C-CAMP’s most versatile startups is redefining sustainability by utilizing a commonly available seaweed to produce the world’s first ocean-based solutions for boosting agricultural output. Oceans are not our typical idea of a farm. But some visionary thinking and serendipitous turn of events has led this startup to produce and now market, completely organic, seaweed-derived plant health solutions and other value-added products all geared towards fueling sustainable growth. And in the process, Sea6 have lifted seaweed cultivation from being a small cottage industry with limited scope to being a large-scale commercially feasible farming opportunity.

Red seaweed cultivation has been practised for many years in countries like Indonesia and Philippines. Water and nutrients, the primary inputs in land based agriculture, are available to these sea plants for free. However, traditional methods of farming involve very high labour costs because farmers still physically go out to sea and cultivate the seaweeds. As Nelson Vadassery, Co-founder, Sea6Energy very aptly puts “We are at the Stone Age of seaweed cultivation.’. India with more than 7000 km of coastline at its disposal has the potential to be a world leader in the field of Ocean farming. But the question is how…

Enter ‘SeaCombine’ and ‘Dweep’ – Sea6 Energy’s farming innovations that have enabled them to help increase farmer productivity and solve the problem at its root. The SeaCombine or Sea ‘tractor’ is a revolutionary technology that can seed, harvest and handle harvested seaweed at the same time, mechanizing seaweed farming through and through and allowing farmers to farm larger areas of the ocean surface. The Dweep is an artificial flexible floating island that changes shape dynamically based on simple principles of tension and compression in its constituent parts. The design can easily conform to underlying wave structures and are thus stable even in rough seas. Moreover, its modular structure is scalable and provides the equivalent of a floating land to setup farming infrastructure in previously inaccessible parts of the ocean. Both these technologies are modifiable to suit ocean turbulence, ocean depth and crop type, making the designs universal in more ways than one. Together these two innovations have paved the way for Sea6Energy to develop a scalable source of inexpensive seaweed biomass – which has a variety of applications including plant health, animal health, food ingredients, bioplastics and the like.

The startup’s raw materials are Kappaphycus and Eucheuma species of red seaweeds, being cultivated by local fishermen artisanally for years in shallow coastal waters in and around South eastern coast of India and several islands in Indonesia. Sea6 has used proprietary fractionation techniques on these seaweeds to manufacture biologically active components that stimulate plant growth and promote plant health. Their first product is a seaweed-based biostimulant, AgroGain, that enhances plant growth while also being 100% natural. They have followed it up with a recently launched plant immunity booster called AGFort that provides broad-spectrum protection against a host of plant viruses. These two and other bioactive value-added products built around seaweed have made Sea6Energy the first-of-its-kind sustainable startup in the world.

Initially based in IIT Madras, Sea6 founders had been searching for a scalable source of raw materials for their maiden biofuel venture at the turn of the decade. They zeroed in on red seaweeds as a likely solution to their problem from a newspaper article. Red seaweed derived polymers such as Carrageenans are known for their versatile applications in dairy products, processed meat, pet foods and toothpaste as thickening and stabilizing agents. Even the ubiquitous agar gel in biological labs is derived from some species of red seaweeds. But red seaweeds as a possible source of biofuel? That was still unexplored territory. The right salt-tolerant microbes and enzymes needed for complete degradation of the seaweed were unknown. While still tinkering with the process of breaking down the seaweed cellulose and carrageenan to fermentable sugars, they realized that the seaweed biomass had several plant growth stimulating properties that were largely untapped but could lend themselves well to biogrowth and bioprotective enhancers.

Three years later, in 2012 they permanently shifted base to Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms or C-CAMP in Bangalore to use C-CAMP’s advanced technological infrastructure to identify the core bioactive ingredients in the seaweed and standardize the technology for formulating this biostimulant. C-CAMP’s close proximity to the University of Agricultural Sciences and National Centre for Biological Sciences also meant greater interaction with plant pathologists and agricultural scientists on the ground and speeding up of the product testing process– all crucial factors for Sea6Energy to reach product stage. Based out of C-CAMP today, the startup has now developed a ‘biorefinery’ out of red seaweeds, weaving a veritable logic map of innovative technologies to produce and use seaweed end-to-end for sustainable products.

The first product to debut was Agrogain, a patented biostimulant derived from processing fresh seaplants in its native saline environment, eliminating the need for fresh water from the production cycle, otherwise a staple for biomass processing technologies. While it does not contain any plant growth hormones, it improves plant response to various nutrients by triggering cellular pathways with its biocomponents. Testing across crops and geographical locations have proved that it stimulates plant output holistically in multiple ways. Easy to use and integrable with existing farming practices, Agrogain attracted investors very soon.  Recognizing the potential of the product, the possibility for diversification and Sea6Energy’s 360-degree business model, Tata Capital Innovations Fund invested 35Cr INR in 2015. Close on the heels came the tie-up with Mahindra Agri to enter the market under the brand name JingoNXG. The awards have rolled in as well. In 2018 JingoNXG was selected as Agrow Awards Finalist under Biostimulant category and was highly commended as a breakthrough biological product. This was the first time that an Indian product had featured at the Agrow Awards Finals in London, an internationally acclaimed agritech award for new-age solutions to crop health issues.

While Agrogain is a biostimulant that addresses growth characteristics in plants, Sea6 scientists had observed that with minor tweaks in the degradation process, the same sea-based biomass can boost a plant’s defense characteristics as well. Plant health, especially viral infections and viral susceptibility are frequently regarded as the Holy grail in agriculture. The viruses are many and often very plant specific which compounds the problem. The Sea6 team has now used their expertise in processing seaweed to develop a new product that will boost plant immunity and prevent largescale crop destruction through viral infestations. The technology, a first of its kind in the world has had a soft launch at C-CAMP on 22nd Nov 2018 under the brand name AGFort. AGFort boosts a plant cell’s intrinsic defense capability to provide broad-spectrum protection against plant viruses. It reduces typical symptoms like leaf curling and chlorosis and improves the plant's intrinsic health parameters. This results in improved plant growth and color and size of fruit, contrary to external pesticide use that kills the virus-carrying vectors but affects crop quality and nutritional profile besides leaving behind harmful residues. As Shrikumar Suryanarayan, Chairman, Sea6Energy put it ‘AGFort is a vaccine but for plants.  While pesticide spraying is one way to deal with pest-borne viral infections, strengthening the plant from inside is our way. This way you even keep the crop’s nutritional profile intact.’ AGFort is now ready to be marketed.

Other value added nutritional products like immunity-boosting animal feed and human food additives derived from the red seaweed are in the pipeline, the company’s initial research effort on biofuel generation too has reached proof-of-concept stage for the potential technology to convert seaweed into biocrude. Renewable bioplastics and superabsorbent polymers are also on the horizon.  

Land-based sustainable technologies have come up a dime a dozen, but Sea6 is the only startup with an end-to-end portfolio of innovations that are completely ocean-based. Founded by 4 IIT Madras graduates and a small group of researchers once working out of a very basic lab in IIT, Sea6Eenergy, now based at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms, one of India’s most thriving deep science and deep tech innovation hubs, has broken even with its commercialized products. But its real success lies in being able to identify a new and untested workhorse the red seaweed, d, and diversify all around it - an entrepreneur’s ideal.