Biomedical engineer Elliot Roth has long been passionate about entrepreneurship: finding environmentally friendly ways to meet people’s basic needs. Five years ago, this mission led him to found Spire, a Los Angeles-based startup that uses an algae called spirulina to make carbon-negative raw materials. Spirulina, Roth says, “It’s like manna.”
“We are trying to create materials that help people and the planet,” he says.
The first products of the company are pigments, with proteins for food in preparation. The goal: to create a decentralized and localized way of producing raw materials that do not use petrochemicals or substances of animal origin by using genetically modified algae.
While studying at college for a biomedical engineering degree, Roth worked in a lab where, he says, he became increasingly frustrated with the less difficult tasks given to him. So he opened up a lab space in a funky garage in Richmond with his friend Surjan Singh, who also became a co-founder of Spira. Through a mix of donations, trash digging for equipment and other activities, they built a laboratory over three years, focusing on a mission to create things that meet people’s basic needs using self-replicating material.
After graduating in 2016, Roth worked as a consultant. But some of his clients didn’t pay him, so he ran out of money. To get by, he started surfing on the couch in friends’ apartments. For food, he studied how NASA fed astronauts in space.
This is how he came across spirulina. Seaweed, considered one of the oldest forms of life on the planet, is also considered a super food.
When Roth started growing algae in old aquarium tanks, it was a revelation. It might be a way to solve the hunger, he thought.
But the seaweed also tasted bitter. So, using CRISPR gene editing techniques, Roth worked to eliminate the bad tasting flavor. In the process, he learned that if he extracted the pigment, he ended up with a tasting protein that was tasteless and perfectly harmless.
Another discovery: There are many small algae farms all over the world, from Kenya to Chad via Thailand. In collaboration with the World Food Program, Roth identified farmers who could provide the algae. Then he got a grant from the National Science Foundation to find out why the algae companies working on biofuels had failed. One of the reasons, he learned, was that algae was better suited for different uses, such as forming pigments. He also found that algae was very effective in capturing CO2 and treating wastewater.
With that, Roth and his team decided not to grow the algae themselves. Instead, they could pay the farmers, who would receive a living wage for doing so. Plus, “we realized the pigments were where we needed to start,” he says. Their target market would be food companies looking for alternatives to petrochemical-based artificial colors. Then they could turn to cosmetics, textiles and other businesses. After the pigments, the next product would be the protein from the seaweed that they would sell to food companies.
Moving to Los Angeles
In 2018, Roth secured an unexpected investment from the founder of alternative food and drink company Soylent, who had heard about the company through a report. He was looking for ways to grow algae to make Soylent. The team moved to downtown LA, where they worked in a warehouse lab, before moving two years later to a location closer to the Port of Los Angeles.
In 2019, Roth and his team released the first pigment (blue). Since then they have worked with a large number of food companies and are now going into cosmetics businesses. They sell to about 1,000 customers, most of whom are food companies, according to Roth. And they put out a red pigment, while also raising money to produce and market protein. The company previously raised $ 485,000 in a pre-seed investment round. The income is approximately $ 350,000.
The 36 farmers who supply the company with seaweed are mostly located in desert environments, where they do not have access to other crops. The company pays them a living wage, Roth says, in addition to helping them grow their businesses.
Roth started seven businesses at the age of 17, when he created an app to connect people in bars. This ran into problems when police seized the fake ID he was using to search the grounds.