Since around 2011, an unwelcome new ‘season’ has become an annual fixture for many coastal communities across the Caribbean. It is not the arrival of an unwelcome migratory animal, nor the presence of particularly raucous or challenging tourists but the influx of huge quantities of Sargassum, a free-floating seaweed. Until the last decade, Sargassum was a blessing rather than a curse, accumulating in the North Atlantic and providing a hotspot for biodiversity in the Sargasso Sea – a “golden floating rainforest of the Atlantic Ocean” as described by legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle. But now across the Caribbean, a separate 20 megaton annual bloom of Sargassum has arrived annually from west Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, washing up on beaches and releasing toxic hydrogen sulfide and methane as it rots, trapping marine life, killing coral reefs and fish.
Research into the cause of this phenomenon is currently underway, but fertiliser washed into the Amazon from the farms displacing rainforests and swirling north, allied with rising sea temperatures are both acting as accelerators. This Sargassum crisis is damaging not just the environment but also local economies often highly dependent on tourism, where a beach full of noxious decomposing seaweed is very bad for business.
A major problem needs a big solution.
And I had the opportunity to interview the team at C-Combinator who have an answer.
They are developing a unique technology to extract high-value products from this problematic seaweed and turn this Sargassum challenge into a huge opportunity to create both sustainable products and support and grow communities across the Caribbean. Not only that, but they’re also spearheading the development of a new technology called Marine Permaculture, which allows them to grow and harvest different types of seaweed in places they normally don’t grow.
Geoff Chapin, Founder and CEO of C-Combinator tells us more about what has led to company to working with Sargassum; “The technology behind what we are doing began being developed 6-8 years ago, with the business being launched last year out of the Climate Foundation as a Public-benefit Corporation, so allying private investment with a commitment to delivering positive public results. The whole team has a passion for mitigating the effects of climate change, and we see that -marine-based biomass harvesting and processing – particularly through marine permaculture – is the most natural, scalable and beneficial solution that we can apply our time and effort too. Our mission is to develop solutions for the climate and oceans, deliver value to the island communities and build a commercially success business.”
“Our fundamental proposition is our unique IP which has found a way to extract useful, high value products from seaweed and make sinking CO2 & replacing petroleum–based products with bio alternatives an attractive commercial proposition. And the scale of the problem that the Sargassum bloom gives, in being so big, is that when we harness it, it offers huge quantities of feedstock, making our offer to industry immediately scalable. Many customers we speak to, say, we would love to switch to a more sustainable solution but we haven’t seen a scalable, reliable source that can guarantee enough product. But that is exactly what we have,” adds Chapin.
As C-Combinator ( @c_combinator ) move more into a big of year of commercial development and fundraising, their model offers two initial opportunities; the creation of high value products from Sargassum, worth up to hundreds of dollars per kilogram and to build large scale grids for growing seaweed, called Marine Permaculture Aarrays, where half is harvested and the other half is sunk and the carbon from it sequestered.
Jason R. Cole, PhD, EVP for Innovation, tells us more about where the business is now as we move towards the end of 2020; “We are committed now to the commercialisation stage, and have partnered with one of the largest Sargassum collection companies in Mexico that gives us access to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it. Whilst the nature of our process allied with the abundant feedstock mean that we have a lot of potential products we could work with, we’ve focussed on carefully selected key areas. We are engaged with biostimulants for agriculture, bioplastics – that biodegrades in the ocean, nanocellulose for use as a moisture barrier for packaging, hydrogels for cosmetics, skin care and agriculture and finally aerogels for clothing and other applications.”
I wasn’t fully aware of the immense problems that the Sargassum bloom was causing for island communities in the Caribbean, and was shocked in seeing some of the images of seaweed sodden beaches but the passion for this solution is clear when speaking to the team even over a Zoom call.
John-Paul Doughty their VP, Global Business Development a Bermuda native and Jorge Vega, Program Director for Puerto Rico, both hail from communities already affected by climate change and most at risk at the further deterioration of our fragile eco-system and speak fervently about the fact C-Combinator is actively focusing on coastal economies, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS), as they’re at the forefront of research and investment in resilient infrastructure and climate adaptation.
The communities in which the C-Combinator technology will work, and the benefit beyond just the removal of Sargassum – namely, mass carbon removal and sinking – is at the core of their plans and as Ben Ellis, who heads up the team’s finance and operations side, points towards the public support they are receiving from island governments, with Puerto Rico being a particularly strong advocate of the solution.
As our interview comes to an end, there’s a clear excitement about the potential of what the C-Combinator team are bringing to market. They are helping solve a major ecological problem, whilst their business-savvy management offering clear, robust commercial opportunities across multiple products and industries plus potential carbon sequestering. And whilst the massive quantities of Sargassum blooming annually are at the root of the problem, it offers scale of production – something often sorely lacking in the bioeconomy.
We’ll leave the final word to Geoff Chapin; “The science is advancing. The products are being field tested. We have the partnerships to produce the seaweed derivatives we’ve set out to produce, including our priority products and are now scaling our operations. So now is the time to speak to us, learn more about how we can partner together and be a part of the 2021 harvest!”