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INTERVIEW: Unibio’s Qatari Partnership Moves Forward; Company Pulled Back from Russian Project

Source: Feedindo Logo Final

23 November 2022- Early last month, Denmark’s Unibio provided an update on plans of its partner and technology licensee Gulf Biotech to build a single-cell protein plant in Qatar.

The two companies will now be embarking on the Front-end Engineering Design stage for this project. As explained by Unibio’s CEO David Henstrom in a conversation with Feedinfo, this is the last stage of the engineering process, focused on providing a capital estimate allowing for confident investment decisions.

“We’ve done a preliminary engineering study already before commissioning this. This is the final phase, if you will.”

Henstrom estimates that groundbreaking on the project will happen in around the first or second quarter of next year. Then, if all goes to plan, in the last quarter of 2024, the facility will be ready to begin production.

It will produce 9,000 tonnes per year of Uniprotein, a microbial biomass which is around 72% protein, and which can be used as a feed ingredient. The main input for the process is methane.

Existing production

This will be only the second commercial-scale Uniprotein facility in the world. The first is that of Protelux, which licenses Unibio’s process in order to make this bio-protein in Ivangorod, Russia, near the border with Estonia.

Unibio’s first commercial-scale sales of Uniprotein made at this plant took place in late 2021. According to Henstrom, “it was great. Our customers loved the product. And they want more, they want to continue to expand, not only in the applications they were testing it in, and then using it in for commercial sales, but to expand that out.”

However, he explains, after the war in Ukraine broke out, the company “decided to pause on purchasing and selling the product from that facility ourselves.”

“We understand that that plant is continuing to operate and it’s continuing to sell to customers within Russia. That’s the status today.”

Beyond that, the company also has a demo plant in Kalundborg, Denmark, where it does development and early-stage testing work. This plant, interestingly, is supplied by locally-produced bio-methane recycled from the agriculture industry, rather than conventionally-mined natural gas.

Market opportunity

Of course, this is only the beginning for Unibio, which has the ambition to help the world meet its growing need for feed protein.

“The rising middle class and a growing population are driving a significant increase in the amount of food that [will be] needed in the next 20-30 years. We’re trying to be a part of that solution, using a process that has no arable land used for its production, has 40% less water usage than, for example, incremental soy protein production. We really think that our protein has a significant place in helping [combat] food insecurity in parts of the world.”

Henstrom describes Uniprotein as “a highly dense protein” which potentially allows formulators to offset other sources which are less protein dense. “It also has eight of the 11 essential amino acids as fishmeal, and fishmeal is looked to as a gold standard in many feed formulas.”

Given this profile, Unibio is targeting applications where quality or sustainability attributes are especially important, such as starter feed, aquaculture, or pets. According to Henstrom, within the context of a global feed protein market of about 360 million tonnes, these three applications alone represent about 30 million tonnes.

“Our intention is that we’ll be selling over a million tonnes of protein, once we scale this out over the [coming] years.”

The question of what price that protein will eventually be sold at is a tricky one; first, because scaling up a new process like this is a costly business, and second, because putting a price tag on the sustainability benefits (lower water use, virtually no arable land required for production) is a complicated endeavor.

“In our discussions with our customers, it’s application-specific on what the value is that it is providing for them, in shrimp, or trout and salmonids, or pet food, etc. So I wouldn’t say there’s one kind of clearing price on it, because there can be different products that we’re using [in existing formulations and that Uniprotein would be replacing] … we’ve seen in our discussions with our customers that we can certainly be competitive as we deliver the value that our product offers in different applications.”

Still, without disclosing the unit economics of the company’s production, Henstrom was able to offer this observation: “If you look at a lot of different alternative protein sources, you sometimes see people entering at the food area, the pet food area, and trying to then, over time, come down into the starter feeds, aquaculture, etc., and compete ... Our strategy, and our ability, because of our scalability [and] cost profile, we can go into the feed market and serve the feed markets that we’re starting with … [and then afterwards] scale into food in the future. ”

Meanwhile, he asserts that Uniprotein can provide value to a wide array of feed producers, not just those producing ultra-high-value, ultra-sustainable products. “You’re going to have customers from across the whole [spectrum]. You’ll have the big compound feed manufacturers who are constrained by the access to sustainable growth of their feed, wherever they’re [looking to expand]. Just take, for example, shrimp in Ecuador, Vietnam, or other places…people need access to more feed, to more protein… [and beyond that] you do see some people who really want to take advantage of leveraging the sustainability footprint which we have today…and they want to take part in that in how they position their products. We’re seeing interest from both.”

And all that is even before getting into the advantages that this unique process can provide to regions which are rich in natural gas but poor in arable farmland, as is the case for Qatar. “There’s food insecurity issues which the GCC faces, and that’s one thing that this can [help address].”

Future partnerships

Before Unibio’s single cell protein can reach feed manufacturers, though, the concept requires industrial partners for its scale-up.

Henstrom says “we don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach” to these partnerships, but admits “we certainly have a model: we’re doing the market development and the technical development, and then bringing that to our partners in the discussions and determining what’s the best way for us to go to market in that part of the world.”

In principle, Unibio expects to be what Henstrom calls the “commercialization engine” behind Uniprotein, as a natural extension of its work on the animal science side. “We’re continuing to invest in that, to show the benefit of what our product does and provides, and then cultivating customer partnerships on behalf of our licensing partners or joint venture partners which will be announced in the future.”

Going forward, he says, the market can expect further announcements from Unibio in three categories. First would be the completion of even more trials in different species and applications. “We announced one trout study which came out preliminarily in the spring of last year. We have others on shrimp and weaning piglets, and other results which we’ll be publishing in the next weeks and months.”

The second would be “announcements on additional partnerships, which we [are building] to roll out our technology.”

And the third would come after those partnerships have brought commercially-relevant volumes to the market. “You can also expect, as we have these facilities start up over the [coming] years, that there will be a lot of traction commercially, on selling the product globally and achieving the vision which we have to reduce food insecurity by providing the world with a sustainable source of protein, in addition to what’s there today.”