C-Combinator is a Caribbean-based biorefinery turning Sargassum into a range of high-value products. A year ago, we interviewed them on their innovative project combining environmental clean-up with profit. Here, we speak to SVP of Innovation Jason Cole for a follow-up on their work.
C-Combinator stand-out features:
· Uses an under-exploited bio-material feedstock
· Deploys a value-maximising cascading model biorefinery
· Draws on values-aligned investment sources
· Pursues social and environmental targets
Wide Sargasso C
In the 1966 classic novel Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, the Sargasso Sea is a sprawling metaphor for dislocation and entrapment. Rhys chose her symbol judiciously. Devoid of wind and currents, this infamous ocean gyre off the Caribbean coast has long been known as a graveyard of ships. Its otherworldly reputation also rests on the seaweed that floats upon its surface. Clotted mats of the brown algae Sargassum span thousands of square miles.
Recently, Sargassum has more than lived up to its fearsome reputation. Ten years ago, a completely separate bloom from the Sargasso Sea started appearing in the Caribbean and mid Atlantic Ocean – stretching from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico. This bloom, called the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt, has led toC thousands of tonnes of the brown algae washinged up onto beaches across the Caribbean beaches. The decomposing mass releases putrid chemicals that kill coral, fish, and the local tourism industry.
C-Combinator saw a business opportunity in this. The company began collecting it as feedstock for their patented processing technology that turns macroalgae into high-value, carbon-neutral products. “Our goal is to manage the Sargassum bloom responsibly, and to avoid the environmental impacts it has had in the Caribbean.” Instead of rotting away, the Sargassum becomes bio-stimulants for cultivation and ecosystem restoration, emulsifiers for pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and bio-leathers for fashion, apparel, and interior design.
Jason gives us a run-down on C-Combinator’s current and upcoming algae products. “Our plant-based emulsifiers are in trials with select global partners in the cosmetics industry. They perform as well and is priced similarly to existing emulsifiers that have plastics, petro-chemicals, or other environmentally challenging ingredients. It’s the first seaweed emulsifier so its natural characteristics are exciting. Our plant-based leather is in initial development and we hope to have it in the hands of designers within 3-6 months. This also has no fossil fuels, no plastics, and no harmful chemicals while being strong and workable from a sewing and quality feel perspective.”
Product demand is strong, a trend set to continue. “Market demand for sustainable inputs is coming from a wide range of industries – cosmetics, chemical industries, fashion, energy, and agriculture are the most interested. The challenge for the industry will be to scale both sides of the equation.” Of their many offerings, Jason is most excited about C-Combinator’s biostimulant: “Our naturally-extracted biostimulants are already on the market, with significant pre-orders in place and final certifications nearly complete. It performs extremely well, with yield increases of up to 40% and good drought resistance in a number of crops. We think this can have a major impact for local farmers, improving farm finances and decreasing pressure on tropical forests.. ”
Macroalgae biomass isn’t a new industry. For millennia, macroalgae have been used as a natural fertiliser. A sophisticated soda-seaweed industrial complex developed in Europe for hundreds of years, reaching its zenith in the early 1800 before synthetic alternatives were found. For millennia, macroalgae have been used as a natural fertiliser. What makes the current industry unique are the products being made and the scale of manufacture. Feed, food supplements, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, and third-generation biofuels are now hitting the market. In 2016, global production hit around 32 megatons, double the figure ten years earlier.
In this booming algae biomass sector, C-Combinator stands out from the competition in several ways. The global algal biomass industry overwhelmingly draws on cultivated seaweed. Wild seaweed like C-Combinator’s Sargassum is responsible for only a minuscule fraction. “Sargassum is severely underexplored compared to cold-water seaweeds like Kelp. We are the first company to figure out how to make high value products from Sargassum through our proprietary and patented processes.”
C-Combinator also bucks industry trends through its “cascading” manufacturing model. Jason explains what this means: “each step or sequence creates a valuable product. So, besides our current product line, we are also developing additional products in biofuels, chemical inputs and agriculture. Our cascading biorefinery models means our whole process is sequentially designed to get the most value from the seaweed possible, in both monetary and environmental aspects, while minimising costs and waste.”
The cascading model ensures seaweed parts with lower market value are not simply discarded, as would normally be the case. C-Combinator appreciates that monetary value does not always reflect a natural product’s ecological value. “We use every part of the seaweed to create three products, all with a differential cost advantage. Some products create high profit margins, while others maximize carbon capture or displace emissions. We’re ultra-focused on a truly sustainable company, where long-term environmental restoration is sustained by a market-redefining manufacturing model.”
This does not mean that C-Combinator sacrifices profit. “By using a cascading biorefinery approach, we can create more value per ton of seaweed than others focused on a single product. We utilise more of the available biomass, reducing waste and increasing the incentive to remediate Sargassum inundations of shores. We carefully design our products to minimise environmental impact, which also enables us to attract customers focused on sustainability – in fact, we’re well into the process to be carbon offset certified. And finally, by focusing on a circular economy model, where Sargassum collected regionally can have significant local impact as an industrial input or environmental remediator.”
Remarkably, C-Combinator has achieved all this without taking the conventional financing routes. “We have been funded, and will continue to be funded, by values-aligned venture investors who are both institutional and profit focused, but who believe – as we do – that companies can profit by doing good for the world.”
Into the future
We asked C-Combinator what progress has been made since our last interview with them in 2020. “We’ve come a long way with our product development. Our biostimulants team has done amazing work developing a new product in a challenging field. Our research scientists have developed a new method for extracting useful products from Sargassum, and we’ve improved our understanding of what makes Sargassum unique compared to other commercial algae. Some lessons learned: don’t be afraid to start again with product and process design, everything takes longer than you want it to, and balancing biomass supply with product demand is a key challenge.”
Despite the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt’s’s morbid reputation, C-Combinator is injecting life into the local economy and participating in the global sustainability transition. With all these achievements under their belt, what next for C-Combinator? “In 5 years, we will have expanded our offerings in agriculture, cosmetics and textiles, as well as new products in areas such as human health, packaging. and energy. We aim to have regional collection projects for areas affected by sargassum that integrates sustainable products, food, and energy into regional solutions that turn the sargassum influx into a regional advantage. Longer term, we are working with partners on larger scale supply chain solutions that create globally significant biomaterial, carbon, and human health solutions.”