However, direct comparisons between market leader Martek Biosciences and new entrants Aurora Algae and Algae Biosciences are difficult, as each have different microalgae strains, different technologies and slightly different end products.
Market leader Martek – which is best-known for DHA but has just launched an oil from a strain of algae containing EPA and DHA – produces DHA via a heterotrophic (in absence of sunlight) batch process via fermentation in big vats to which sugar, water and salt are added to help the algae grow before it is harvested.
AlgaeBio and Aurora, by contrast, use different species of algae that grow via photosynthesis (autotrophic process) in salt water benefiting from all-year-round sunlight.
Aurora, which will grow its pale green cultivar in open-air seawater ponds in Australia, will produce a highly concentrated 65% EPA-rich oil; while AlgaeBio will produce an EPA/DHA oil grown in ‘pristine’ saline groundwater from a site in Arizona where an underground salt dome interacts with the Coconino Aquifer: an underground sea.
Martek: Heterotrophic process has ‘considerable advantages over photosynthetic process’
Not surprisingly, all three claim to have identified the winning formula for cost efficient production.
Martek – now part of DSM – claims its “manufacturing efficiency and experience allow us to maintain a competitive advantage in terms of cost".
It adds: “The level of quality and efficiency with which Martek is able to develop, manufacture and formulate large volumes of microbial DHA from algae gives Martek a competitive advantage over any competitors which may attempt to enter the market.
“Because we grow our algae heterotrophically, we also have a very sustainable, controlled manufacturing method that has considerable advantages over a photosynthetic process."
Aurora: ‘We’re not using one commodity to create another’
Aurora vice president, business development, Leslie Van Der Meulen, however, argues that by using sunlight and carbon dioxide rather than sugars for the algae to feed on, Aurora’s production process will be more efficient and more sustainable.
“We don’t have to buy in sugars or other feedstocks. We’re not using one commodity to create another.”
AlgaeBio: ‘There is room in this market for multiple providers’
AlgaeBio chief executive Andy Ayers says he will “not make judgments about competitors' value propositions” butadds: “We believe AlgaeBio will produce superior EPA/DHA blends because the AlgaeBio production platform uses pristine aquifer water with no pollutants or heavy metals. AlgaeBio can dial-in the EPA/DHA ratio to maximize the desired health benefits to consumers.”
In all likelihood, however, there is "room in this industry for multiple providers”, he predicts. “Each will develop specialty products that maximize benefits to their target consumers.”
Where is the omega-3 market going?
One thing they all appear to agree on is that microalgae will account for a much larger proportion of the long-chain omega-3 supply in the future, although the commercialization of oilseed crops genetically modified to produce EPA and/or DHA is also expected to add a new dynamic to the market.
While his comments will be hotly disputed by krill oil, fish oil and oilseed suppliers, which all defend their sustainability credentials, Ayers predicts algae will ultimately “replace most of the omega-3 currently harvested from unsustainable sources such as sardines, krill, or genetically engineered oilseed crops”.
He adds: “Consumers are sensitive to removing vital small fish from the ocean. Consumers also prefer an omega-3 source that is naturally biodiverse and not genetically engineered.
“Algae are the natural source of omega-3s in the food chain and consumers consistently prefer natural organic sources to industrial fishing or monocultures such as omega-3 oilseeds.”
It is hard to predict how the market will change, says Aurora’s Van Der Meulen. However, it will definitely get more crowded, he predicts: "We know our potential customers are being approached by other companies that say they are about to enter the market.”
However, talk is cheap and until rival algal facilities are up and running, it is hard to gauge who is serious, he says. Meanwhile, plants engineered to contain EPA and DHA are still some way from commercialization.
“All I can say is that we believe we are going to be very cost competitive. No one else is doing this on the scale that we are.”