At its recent Lisbon launch, Allma director and 20+ year algae farmer and research veteran, João Navalho, said the firm that is a joint venture with Portuguese cement giant, Secil, had spent several years honing production and quality measures and refining algae strains before coming to market.
“I worked with microalgae since 1991,” Navalho said, noting the sensitive Chlorella vulgaris strain presented production challenges at its sun-drenched, closed-pipe extraction facility near Lisbon.
“It is challenging but we are meeting it. The idea is to produce it as it would happen in nature but in a controlled way. This algae is very old. It has survived 2-3 mass extinctions on planet Earth.”
Chlorella may not have the mainstream exposure of fellow green algae, spirulina, but the emergence of a player like Allma demonstrates the potential of a 3-5000 tonne global sector dominated by Asian and Chinese raw material. About 90% comes from there and there have been quality issues.
Allma is going in at the premium end of the market – current annual capacity sits at 50 tonnes - but land is available if upscaling is required. Its prices will come in at around €30/kg compared to existing on-market material as low as €10/kg. Some go as high as €80/kg.
“We’d be lying if we didn’t want Nestlé to come in and buy everything we produce but we are entrepreneurs and we like entrepreneurs and we start with them and then Nestlé will come in and we will build a bigger facility for them,” Navalho said.
For now the main customers are Portuguese gelati specialist, Santini, and Portuguese food technologist, Frulact.
Santini made a 1.3% chlorella gelati called ‘Greenfest’ of which director Eduardo Santini said: “People are increasingly subscribing to the view that ‘green is good’, so a treat like Greenfest seemed certain to be a winner – and it proved to be a real hit.”
Frulact made a ‘bubble tea’. “We are exploring the use of Chlorella in other types of products, such as savoury spreads,” said Pilar Morais, innovation and technology manager.
Chlorella contains vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, protein and polyphenols but claims are only emerging as regulator-friendly science builds, and so most marketing is based around ‘wellbeing’ messaging.
Sofia Mendonça, Allma business development manager, said the company was involved in nutrition research but the main hurdle for the moment was market awareness.
“It is new and so sometimes consumers and even big companies do not always have an open mind. A lot of people are not aware what chlorella is, even what microalgae is.”
Algae extraction has boomed in recent years with the likes of Roquette and DSM-Martek in the area, along with smaller players like Aurora Algae in California.
The biggest existing markets are in supplements in Japan and the US.