Algae may not be synonymous with mealtime, but Back of The Yard Algae Sciences (BYAS) is working on changing that. With a closed-loop, zero-waste production mission, BYAS grows spirulina and chlorella based at The Plant in Chicago, IL. From dozens of massive tubes filled with algae to lab-grown meat, BYAS is on the cutting edge of sustainable technology to fuel the plant-based revolution.
Joey: Len, so we're at Algae Sciences. Len: Welcome. Joey: Thank you, this is... What do we have here? We got all these contraptions, and green juice going around, and... What do you do here really? Len: Well, actually that's blue/green juice. Joey: Blue/green juice, yes. Len: It looks green, but it's blue. That's an algae called spirulina, and it's one of the most well-known algae. Algae are like pond scum, but this is good, but this is good pond scum. And our core business is around taking out the blue from the green. And we're going to show you all sorts of products, and we're going to show you this particular color that we take from this algae. Joey: And spirulina is amazing in the antioxidants, and high in protein, and so you're using all sorts of different products? Len: It's mostly the blue and spirulina that has the antioxidant and all the health benefits. So this thing is called a photo-bio-reactor what it does is that in order to grow algae, you need two things: You need light and you need carbon dioxide. So this gives it light through these light panels over here. And the carbon dioxide comes all the way from the brewery downstairs through a pipe, which runs all along here. So this is a zero waste production instead of the carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere, it comes over to us, and that's what the algae need to grow. Joey: Algae's growing from beer. Len: Yeah, basically. So if you come along this way- Joey: Sure. Len: ... I can show you we have different algae growing. And what we basically do is we try to develop a sustainable zero-waste food system. That is an algae called spirulina. And that is an algae called chlorella. That is a very, very, very healthy algae but the two are mortal enemies. So you cannot grow them together. Because one of them is going to win. So we grow them separately, and we use chlorella here for agricultural research. We are basically taking this chlorella, and we have a big farm in Indiana, and we are testing whether it helps plants, in this case, corn, to grow faster. Joey: Wow. So you're using algae to help grow plants. And normally people won't even think about doing that. What motivated you to start working with algae? Len: Well, I started just working to make food coloring, blue food coloring. And if we come over here, I can show you what our food coloring looks like. I mean, just now I'm going to pour you a drink without food coloring. This is blue spirulina. Isn't that amazing that that comes from that green liquid of it? Joey: Yeah. Because most of the time we see something in that color, it's some sort of artificial ingredient that.... That's so bright and that's coming from algae. Len: Well, the world wants to move over to natural colors. Consumers want it because they think that chemical colors are dangerous, and all the big food companies like Mars Candy are all saying that they want to move to natural colors and not use a chemical colors. Joey: Great. Len: What we've been working on is trying to make them cheaper and more sustainable. Joey: Amazing. And how do you do that? Len: Well, one of the ways we do that is through what we're developing here, and that is the circular economy, zero waste. So there you see an anaerobic digester. That's a small one like [John's 00:03:42] big one outside. Joey: Yeah, We saw the big one. Yeah. Len: So we take that, we digest all the food waste, and then we clean it, and we use it to grow the algae. So that's zero waste. Joey: Amazing. So what other products is this going to be in that's your you're working on? Len: Well, when we're down on the other side, I'll show you some of our products, but essentially most of our products are derived from this blue color here, which is called phycocyanin. And we have a very big plant in Utah. So that's where we actually make the blue dye now. But, so here's where we prepare all the production protocols, the way it's going to be produced in Utah. Will you come over here? I'll show you some of the products which are... Oh, let's stop here. Look at that! Here, we busy doing an experiment, and we busy purifying some of the blue. Isn't that an amazing blue? Joey: It looks like a pool. Almost similar color. Len: Do you want me to try it? Joey: Yeah, I'll try it. Len: Well, I just happened to have prepared a little surprise for you. Joey: Awesome. I feel like I'm going to get my blood drawn. Len: I like to taste the world's first organic, natural, curacao? Joey: Of course I would like to taste that! Is that a question you need to ask? Len: It's after five o'clock somewhere. So I'm going to mix you the world's first organic curacao. [Katie's 00:05:16] now going to add the blue. I'm going to shake it up a bit. Now I'm going to add some kombucha concentrate, which is something which we made in the lab. Joey: So I'm a science experiment right now. Len: Yeah. Joey: That works. Len: And of course just a tiny shot of organic vodka and gin all from Chicago. Joey: There's not enough stairs in this place. I'll be okay. Len: Not too much, just for flavor. I think we're there. Joey: In my scientific background, I would say, "Yes, we're there." So do I sip, or you want me to take a shot? Len: As you wish. Joey: It smells amazing! Anyone want to cheers? As the Greek say, [foreign language 00:06:07]. Len: Like the TV chefs do. Joey: It's actually that amazing! That is really good. Yeah, and I think a lot of times people, when they think of spirulina or chlorella, they think of a gross flavor, something that you have to do in a shot, and this literally had no taste at all. Len: Well, most of our struggle is basically around trying to make algae edible. And I'm going to show you some products now where we're the first in the world to do that. Joey: Amazing. Len: As you have wisely and cleverly observed, the big problem with algae is that it doesn't taste good. Tastes like pond scum. So what we've done is we've developed new kinds of products, and the products which I'm most proud of, which was developed by young [Gian 00:07:06] and myself. And Gian was my intern, a 21 year old kid and myself. We developed an algal heme, algal blood. We're the first people to develop a non-GMO, in other words, non-genetically modified plant-based blood for burgers. And we have it in this burger here, and these little meatballs, and we're going to grow those for you. And more recently, we've developed an algae-based fish flavoring. Joey: Sushi. Len: For sushi. And the problem that we have at the moment is that when we giving this to people, they say, "No, no, no, no, no, no, that's fish in there. That's fish in there." And this is a crab cake. And we're going to warm these, except for the sushi of course, and you're welcome to taste is. So isn't that amazing that this is made from this stuff here- Joey: That is great. Len: ... which is algae? And you can have a sniff and see if you can smell the meat smell. Joey: Yeah. There is a little bit of... It's not quite as much as a raw beef, but there is a little hint there. So what else is in this that gives it that texture? Len: Well, it's a normal plant-based food recipe, but we've essentially added... The thing that's most important, why this is so important is because if you can get the flavor right, you can use more sustainable sources of protein. In other words, we are very dependent now on soy and pea. But if you can get the flavoring right, then you can move on to much more sustainable proteins that can be grown, like mushroom proteins, like oats, and this sort of thing, which are less environmentally damaging than soy and pea, which require a lot of industrial processing. Joey: So would this be comparable to your quote-unquote typical source of protein burger. how many grams of protein would that have? Len: This will be the same as your Beyond Burger. In fact, a lot of our experiments... What we do is we take the cheapest plant-based burgers we can find in the supermarket, and then we add in the heme to improve the taste. I also think that we're going to become less and less obsessed with protein. I think our diet has enough protein in it. And I think we're going to become much more concerned about the real health benefits of a burger or something like that. And what's very interesting about these products, this blue is, it's a very strong microbiome stimulant. In other, this stimulates with guts. And we have experiments going on now in all sorts of applications, even things like childhood cancer, we have an experiment going on with the university in Spain who are the leaders in leukemia. We were checking now, if this can stimulate the gut enough to protect the mind, this is a very, very potent microbiome stimulator. One of the applications of these algae extracts is to be able to grow... You've heard of lab-grown meat or cultured meat? Joey: Yeah. Len: The idea that we wouldn't need a cow anymore, or a pig, that we could just do it in a test tube, basically, or in a big reactor. And the algae extracts can help a lot in making this a reality. So we have these robots, which we test the algae extracts when growing meat, or fish, or something like that. They're outside now, because we rebuilding our laboratory. But you can see these are giant machines, which basically test, they test the algae extracts to see how we can get the meat or the fish to grow faster and not to have to use any animal products to grow this meat and fish. Here You can see an experiment that's underway. This is a special grow room. It's a very sophisticated room. And what we're doing here is we're we testing the algae, an extract of algae, to see if it makes the plants grow faster and better. We've Already published a lot of data on this, and now we testing another one of our extracts. And so that one is being fed with the algae, and the one where it says control isn't getting it. And you can start to see a slight difference in the color. It's very early on. It's only a week or so that we're running it. And then eventually what will happen is this one, we hope, at least we're sure, will outgrow it, and we'll be able to harvest it earlier. And this is hugely important because the quicker you can harvest, the less light you use, the less energy you use. And the problem was vertical farming, like lettuce and all that, is it uses a huge amount of energy indoors. So here's a way that we can make vertical farming more sustainable. And we have a lot of interest in this, especially from Asia, where there are very, very big vertical farms operating. So these are clean rooms, which means that they always getting the air pushed in so that there's no dirty air coming in. It comes in through the big filters on top, and then the rooms are kept absolutely clean. And it's in here where we grow things like meat, fish, anything which requires to be started off in a very sterile way. And- Joey: It's interesting to hear grow things like meat and fish. Never thought I would have heard that. Len: So when you're growing a mushroom or an algae, you really want to know what it is. So we want to know this genetic structure in order to be able to make sure that this is a healthy, natural mushroom that we grow growing. And then we do more sophisticated stuff. We work out how we can get the maximum out of it. And we have [Nicki 00:13:41] who is our sequencing expert. She works in this particular room, and she'll give us a map of a particular mushrooms. And this is very exciting because this is really cutting edge. Joey: How many different mushrooms do we work with? Len: We work with all the major food mushroom, but we're always looking for mushrooms which grow well in liquid culture, in cell culture, because it's not that easy to grow mushrooms in the mushroom farm, and it's quite dangerous and quite labor intensive. So we're trying to develop systems whereby you can grow mushrooms in 20,000 gallon tanks, but that's quite a lot of research still go to going through there. And now I want to show you something really cool. So you want to learn how to do cell culture, how to grow your own meat? Joey: Yeah. I mean, why not? I think that's probably a person's dream to grow their own meat, right? Len: In Japan, there are a lot of people that do it at home in their bathrooms. Joey: Really? Len: Yeah. So, yeah, you could do chicken in there. It all happens in this particular place over here. This is a sterile hood, and what the scientists do is they basically work, and then manipulate the cells and all that kind of thing, and then it goes into these things, which are called the incubators. And the incubator has to be like the body. So that's why you have these tents here of carbon dioxide. So the cells need 4% or 5% carbon dioxide to grow. Then what happens is the scientists, they look at the Nicki and [Eric 00:15:27], they look at the cells under the microscope and watch them grow, but I thought I'd show you something else. This is the coolest toy we have. This is a microscope with an iPad. So here, for example, you can see this is spirulina over here. This is what you saw, the green stuff. That's what it looks like. I'm not a vegan, I'm not a vegetarian. My view is that it's got to taste good. Joey: You're a good-tastes person. That works. Good for the planet. I like that. Len: It looks pretty meaty, doesn't it? Joey: I would have no idea that it wasn't an animal source protein. Now, as a kid, if somebody said you were going to be grilling a plant-based protein, would you say that you wouldn't believe them? Len: Impossible. Joey: Impossible? Len: The closest you got the plant-based somebody threw a corncob on the grill or potato. That was it! Joey: There you go. Len: Nothing greener than that. Joey: Yeah. My family's from Southern Missouri. So I'm right with you. It was meat and potatoes. I would've never thought that I would be eating something that looked like a burger that didn't come from an animal. So we're going sushi first here? Len: Yeah, let's try the sushi. Joey: Okay. The texture... You can taste fish, though there's a little kick to it. Len: Yeah. We have a lot of difficulty in convincing people that that's not real tuna. Joey: I would probably rather eat that than real tuna. Sometimes the tuna, if it's not really fresh tuna, it's much harder to actually get that flavor profile. Len: Yeah. I think most of it's about getting the subtle taste. If you're in Japan and you're having tuna, it doesn't tasted fishy. So anybody can make something taste fishy. This is like... It's got to be more to it. That's what we're looking for. Joey: Good thing you got the scientists. Crab cake? Len: Yeah, try some crab cakes. Joey: I'll take the big piece. Len: And I'll have the little. Joey: That is very good. I can see that in a restaurant with some sort of sauce on top of it, or maybe a little avocado, or a sandwich. That's very delicious. Meatballs? Len: Yeah. Let's do a meatball. The other aim is to get the meatball taste. Joey: And it smells like the same spices. Yeah. That was very good. And the spices to it- Len: You see the thing is that what our ingredients do is they cut the off tastes, the bad taste. Often with this plant-based meat, you get a lot of off tastes, especially from the soy, it lingers in your mouth, and it's not a great taste. Whereas here, it kind of cuts through it, and we get that meaty aftertaste. Joey: Yeah. You do have that aftertaste... You're right. Often the plant-based products will have that kind of strange aftertaste to it where it was good going down, but afterwards you feel like you need to have something else to wash it down. Len: Well, burger time. Joey: Burger time? Was very good too. Good consistency, and I'll have another bite. Len: That's the tests. If a non-vegetarian or vegan wants another one, that's to me, that's where I test. Joey: So you guys passed the test because I went for a second? Len: Yeah. To me, that's very important. Yeah. Joey: Nice work. Len: And again, no aftertaste. Even that itself is worth just so much to getting more people to eat plant-based foods. Joey: If everything tastes like this, I don't think you'll have a problem convincing them. Len: Well, we'll see. The test is in the tasting. Joey: Well [Einsberg 00:20:07], I appreciate you having me. Thank you so much. Len: Thank you. It was really a pleasure. Joey: I'll come back when the whole kitchen is ready to go. Oh yeah.