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Cells are versatile biological modules that can be transformed into powerful factories for a variety of compounds – with a little bio-engineering. A group of biotechnologists are tapping plants for valuable skin regenerating compounds, are making life-saving blood thinners in microalgae and are building self-powered water treatment systems using plants.

Which industries are these startups looking to disrupt?

Once cellular factories have been validated and optimized for scale-up, they can find commercial applications in a wide range of industries, from cosmetics and health to renewable energy and agtech.

Three startups are unlocking the power of plant and algal cells to solve global challenges in cosmetics, agriculture and medicine. At the same time, they offer viable approaches to pave the road towards a more sustainable, circular bio-economy.

Hacking the plant cell to unlock hidden treasures

Two members of the Alternative Plants team, Elza Kaktina and Anna Ramata-Stunda (CEO), and their work in the RebelBio lab in Cork.

For the past seven years, the co-founders of Alternative Plants  have been providing cosmetic manufacturers with in vitro testing services to help them find which natural compounds are best to use in their products, particularly for skin-lightening, anti-ageing and anti-allergy properties.

Now the Alternative Plants team is tapping into the rarest of all plants and has found a way to produce these elusive compounds at large scale, sustainably – with  their optimized plant stem cell cultures. The Latvian founders are working relentlessly to make their approach commercial and save endangered, wild species from over-exploitation – all by taking small samples of tissue for lab culture to build a stem cell bioproduction platform. This makes the mini-plant factories a more future-proof alternative to traditional cultivation, as it saves on water, energy and solvent use – not to mention land!

Re-wiring algae to make medicines

Hemoalgae is also working on a better alternative to produce compounds with high commercial and in this case, clinical, value. Using their own strain of microalgae in a bioreactor, the team is developing an innovative production process for hirudin, a blood thinner naturally produced in the saliva of leeches.

(From left to right) Co-founders of Hemoalgae Luis Barboza, Diana Mendoza, and Myrka Rojas (Image: Myrka Rojas)

Rather than milking a tank of leeches, though, the bioengineers have inserted the leech gene into microalgae to grow at low cost in a small bioreactor, instead.

The three co-founders met each other when working in the microalgae research group of the Biotechnology Research Center of the Tecnológico de Costa Rica. From there, the team took first place in Costa Rica’s SynBioThon and began the validation process for their idea, before taking their venture into RebelBio.


An early concept for NuLEAF’s integrated systems (Image: NuLEAF)

Engineering high-tech ecosystems

Meanwhile, NuLeaf Tech uses Biomimicry, solutions inspired by nature’s best designs, to unlock powerful ways to reuse and recycle one of our most valuable resources -water.

NuLeaf ‘s self-powered modules contain engineered wetlands, which are artificial, compact ecosystems and plant-microbial fuel cells to treat and clean wastewater. These technologies are paired with vertically-oriented hydroponics to let you grow veggies, fruits or crops for space-conscious sustainable agriculture. By creating compact, modular units for residential and industrial use, these systems can revolutionize wastewater treatment.

The plants and bacteria within these systems work together to guzzle solid and liquid waste to purify water and generate electricity. Together, these systems take the idea of in situ bioremediation and phytoremediation, the removal of waste products using living organisms, to turn thousands of liters of wastewater into a resource.

Ari Ochoa and Rachel Major as team NuLEAF.

These “high tech ecosystems” cost less in construction, operation and maintenance than traditional waste treatment plants, and the team has already had interest from breweries, wineries, farms, and off-grid living residents.

The team came together in 2015 when Rachel Major, CEO of NuLEAF, brought the idea of bridging biomimicry and sustainable technology to an internship at the NASA Ames Advanced Studies Lab in California. The project was so successful that the internship was extended and expanded to a DIY project with co-founder Ari Ochoa. From there the team moved to Cork to found NuLEAF Tech and accelerate the development of their complementary technologies as a startup at RebelBio.

RebelBio is one such space for these biohackers to accelerate such game-changing ideas. The synthetic biology accelerator offers biomakers and scientists from anywhere in the world a launchpad to develop their ideas into world-changing businesses.

Demoday 2017 is approaching fast and investors can get the last seats via Eventbrite.

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