Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Nov 06, 2020

Traditional Indian agrichemical companies have always imported innovations from the West and introduced it to local farmers to enhance farm production. However, there has been limited innovation by Indian companies to produce new molecules and products that could benefit the local farmer.

Sea6 Energy: World’s first ocean operating system for bio-sustainable products

ORF: At a time when the whole world was focused on biofuels, how did you differentiate Sea6’s value proposition and grow your product catalogue?

Sri Sailaja Nori and Sowmya Balendiran: Initially, we started as a group of students and professors at IIT Madras focusing on producing biofuel from microalgae. But we quickly realised that though the solutions were technically possible, the real issues were the economic feasibility and scalability of raw material (biomass).  India has always had a scarcity of fertile land and water. Most of the biofuel technologies visualised large areas of land to be farmed for producing biofuel. This also involved an enormous amount of water. But considering our growing population and limited resources, we understood there was a need for a radical solution.

We turned to the oceans as a potential source of scalable biomass. This circumvented the issues of the ‘food vs fuel debate’ and gave rise to the possibility of automated large-scale farming. Sea6 Energy became a pioneer in ocean farming technologies and using a versatile product range from sea plants. Over the years, we have developed farming technology to make it robust, scalable and sustainable. We have also developed novel products for agriculture to enhance growth and control viral attacks that cause huge losses to farmers. We are currently in the process of developing food ingredients, feed solutions, bioplastics and biofuels based on ocean biomass. Sea6 Energy has a portfolio of four granted patents and three additional patents filed for the future product portfolio.

ORF: Tell us about your unique ocean operating platform and journey building a proprietary biomass harvester that can operate in the middle of any ocean in the world.

SS and SB: The SeaCombine has been designed to efficiently seed and harvest tropical red seaweeds while on the sea. Traditional systems require a lot of the farming activities to be done on land, which increases the transport time and cost involved in the process. Not only this, the seaweed unnecessarily spends a lot of time outside the water during the process, which leads to loss of quality. Using our proprietary equipment, we can do a lot of the farming while on the sea, increasing labour productivity and allowing farmers to farm much larger areas of the sea.

The journey has not been an easy one as we were looking to build a solution that was robust enough to use on the sea and yet versatile enough to handle the variation between different sea plants.  We had tried several different approaches, and it was especially difficult considering that the seaweed would behave just a little differently at various sites and seasons, which led us to make several versions of our designs. However, the final design is quite robust and can work across sites and seasons with ease. This system will enable farmers to effectively farm several hectares in the sea compared to earlier systems, which allowed less than few square meters per day. This provides a solution for scalable high-quality biomass production.

ORF: In an area where India traditionally imports patented products, how did you turn the proposition around to market your patented products internationally?

SS and SB: Traditional Indian agrichemical companies have always imported innovations from the West and introduced it to local farmers to enhance farm production. However, there has been limited innovation by Indian companies to produce new molecules and products that could benefit the local farmer. Also, the impetus to research on high quality organic/biological formulations has been scarce.

When Sea6 started focusing on interventions that can impact farmers, we realised that there is a need for scientifically proven organic productivity-enhancing products. So, we continued our research in this field for five years and then launched our patented product Agrogain, which enhances plant growth. We are the only company in the world today to have a patented a seaweed-based biostimulant.

We were also awarded a special mention in the Best Biological products category at the Agrow Awards, marking the first time an Indian company had won in this award. We continued conducting multiple trials across the world with leading research institutes and contract research organisations to validate the product. We also built strong scientific evidence to support the use and efficacy of our products.

With all these attributes, we approached global market leaders like FMC Corporation and Summit Agro (Sumitomo Group) and partnered with them to sell our products globally. We already export to many countries, including the US.

ORF: India has built extensive infrastructure around agricultural research. How were you able to leverage this and what are your thoughts on the new structures the government must invest in for the country to become an intellectual leader and solutions provider in the field?

SS and SB: India has an extensive network of research institutions dedicated to agricultural and animal sciences research under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

When Sea6 Energy started exploring applications of sea plant extracts in agriculture in 2014,  we were able to leverage this network and sponsor research projects with ICAR institutions specialised in crop-specific research to evaluate the efficacy of biostimulant and plant health products. The access to animal science research institutes also enabled Sea6 Energy to develop applications of sea plant extracts to improve health and alleviate stress in shrimp, poultry and livestock. For those of us at Sea6 with minimal or no experience in agriculture and animal sciences, the interactions with scientists from these institutes have been an amazing learning experience.

The government should create clusters/centres where industry and academia could focus on solving relevant problems using an interdisciplinary approach. The implementation of modern technological practices at the farm level has to be pushed through policy. Access to funding for initial idea is available from the government, however, growth focused funds are not available for startups to commercialise their technology. Grow-out spaces for startups are also not available.

ORF: Having perfected the processes for producing biomass at scale, what is next for Sea6? How will you leverage this core proposition to expand into the multiple markets that utilise massive quantities of raw biomaterials?

SS and SB: Sea plants have yield potentials exceeding 100 dry tonnes/hectare per annum and they represent a scalable and versatile raw material for multiple industrial applications. Our vision is to harness this potential of sea plants to create a sustainable bioeconomy.

While we have commercialised the applications from sea plants (biostimulant and plant health products) with raw material available from traditional cultivation methods, we have also demonstrated processes that can convert sea plants to food, feed, plastics and fuels.

Biodegradable plastics and biofuels are large volume applications and manufacturing them requires millions of tonnes of raw material and this would be enabled by our proprietary SeaCombine technology.

Over the next three to five years, Sea6 Energy will expand its ocean farming operations and demonstrate biodegradable plastics production at pre-commercial scale. We will also launch products focused on sustainable food ingredients and animal health.

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Sowmya Balendiran

Sowmya Balendiran

Sowmya Balendiran is co-founder and director of business development at Sea6 Energy.

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Sri Sailaja Nori

Sri Sailaja Nori

Sri Sailaja Nori is co-founder and director of research and development at Sea6 Energy.

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