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Plant-based prawns solution to protect marine environment

Around the world, people are consuming more and more fish and seafood, such as mussels and prawns. Realizing that urgent action is required, ETH Zurich researchers Severin Eder and Lukas Böcker have turned their efforts toward developing seafood alternatives made from microalgae.

Despite their many nutritional benefits, microalgae are still not widely used in the food industry. This is because the requisite processing technology is very much in its infancy; white, non-pigmented microalgae have only recently become available in greater quantities.

Böcker and Eder are currently developing a platform for producing seafood that is based on microalgae plus the judicious admixture of other vegetable protein sources such as soya and peas. This is intended to replicate authentic seafood not only in taste but also in nutritional qualities. “We’re focusing on seafood because better solutions have already been developed for plant-based fish, and development there is more advanced,” Eder explains. Their first product is to be microalgae-based prawns, for which there is huge market potential. Switzerland alone consumes 7,000 tonnes of prawns a year – meaning only tuna and pangasius are more popular. Later, the young entrepreneurs plan to add further products such as scallops or crab meat.

Eder and Böcker first met during their doctoral studies at ETH Zurich. They were in different research groups – Böcker with Alexander Mathys, Professor of Sustainable Food Processing, and Eder with Laura Nyström, Professor of Food Biochemistry – but on the same floor. Having collaborated during the doctoral program, they saw the potential for a longer-term partnership. “Lukas had been looking into using microalgae for food production for quite a while, and I was working on the chemistry and alternative uses of waste in the food industry,” Eder explains. “We soon realized that these two knowledge sets might be an ideal combination for creating seafood analogs.”

After completing their doctoral studies, the two submitted a joint application in August 2021 for one of ETH’s coveted Pioneer Fellowships. These provide 150,000 Swiss francs of seed capital and coaching to help ETH start-ups take their business idea to market. Shortly before Christmas last year, the two researchers received notification of the award. By mid-March, work had begun in the lab headed by Professor Mathys, who continues to provide them with tips. “The best thing about the fellowship is everything else that comes with it – the infrastructure, the contacts, the support,” Böcker says. “Everything we need to progress our business idea is already there.”

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