When Eliza Harrison attended a conference in San Rafael, California, in 2015, she heard the words that would soon change her life.
She attended the Bioneers Conference, a conference aimed at providing solutions to environmental changes, as a sophomore pursuing a B.S. in environmental health science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When Bren Smith, co-founder of the 3D ocean farming company GreenWave, finished speaking, Harrison walked away with information that would lead her to start her own company.
“During that presentation, he mentioned the fact that seaweed is five times more effective at carbon removal than any land-based plant, and as someone who has always been interested in climate change, that piqued my interest,” Harrison said.
When she came back to North Carolina, she became interested in the potential seaweed had to mitigate the effects of climate change. She convinced her friend Emily Kian, who studies global health and environmental studies, with the possibilities of the plant.
The two started Phyta, self-described as a “coastal water cultivation initiative,” along with Lucy Best, a senior at UNC-CH minoring in environmental science.
Phyta grows seaweed as an alternative plastic solution for the biodegradable plastic industry. It uses the GreenWave concept of a 3D farming structure and knowledge that Harrison and Kian gained from interning at Ocean Rainforest (one of the largest seaweed cultivators in Europe) in Scandinavia, to create a prototype for a seaweed farming structure off the coast of North Carolina.
After participating in National Geographic’s Chasing Genius competition and being voted third place, the Phyta team returned to UNC-CH and became more involved in searching for funding through grants and competitions.
When Phyta completed the UNC-CH entrepreneurship event, Carolina Challenge, they were contacted about the Hult Prize, an international competition for innovation and social entrepreneurship, for a chance to win $1 million and came in second place after presenting at the United Nations.
“We were challenged to really develop a business strategy for how we would roll something like this out, and that was largely because of the Hult Prize,” said Phyta CEO Harrison.
“Although we’re still very early on in that process of figuring out our go-to-market strategy and all of these different pieces, the environmental and social opportunity that is presented through the business structure that we’ve started to create is one that we don’t feel we could easily give up, because it would be irresponsible to the North Carolina community as well as to the global community,” Harrison said.
Hit the water running: a seaweed farm
After participating in UNC-CH competitions such as Innovate Carolina and CUBE, Phyta began receiving guidance from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Duke University Marine Lab.
In May 2018, Phyta planted the first seaweed farm in the state, said Kian, Phyta’s chief marketing oficer. The Duke University Marine Lab put the women in contact with an oyster farmer in Sealevel, North Carolina, who assisted them when they planted their farm near his own.
Kian said that their farm allows them to clean fertilizer and agricultural runoff for the coastal community because seaweed removes excess phosphorus and nitrogen and keeps the waters clean.
Since then, the North Carolina coast has been struck by two hurricanes which had very little impact on their farm. “It’s really unfortunate that [the hurricanes] happened, but for us, it did allow us to test the durability and efficiency of our farm,” Kian said.
“As we go further into this larger roll-out strategy, there will be continued iterations of the design to make sure it can be as effective, efficient, and cost-effective as possible,” Harrison said.
Phyta plans on cultivating their first seaweed harvest this April. “Most of that seaweed will go to testing to ensure the quality,” Kian said, and “next year we will have seaweed that is ready to sell to producers of biodegradable plastics, cosmetic products, and personal care products,” she said.
The business side
Phyta is now part of the Launch Chapel Hill business accelerator 2019 cohort.
“This is a very new industry, so there are not a lot of people that we can point to to say ‘would you mentor us?’” Harrison said. She said that although Phyta is still very much an idea, it will begin making the transition into a product in the next two months.
As a company with an environmental science concentration, Harrison said it has taken longer than desired to get Phyta up-and-running.
“Not having that [business] background has definitely proven challenging in terms of learning how to build a financial model, how to create a business plan, how to write an executive summary,” Harrison said, “but I also think it gives great, competitive advantage to our team because we don’t come at this from a traditional perspective.”
“Our passion is there, our mission, our values of sustainability over everything else shows, and that definitely sets us apart and it gets people excited about hearing what we’re doing,” Kian said.
Harrison said that the type of plastic Phyta is aiming at producing is the rubbery material we find in clothing like polyester (which is a made from a petroleum-based plastic) and on the soles of shoes.
In the short-term, Phyta is looking to create a network of farms based in North Carolina, then spanning up and down the East Coast. Long-term, Harrison sees Phyta as a global aquaculture company, once it proves the concept as a working model.
“There are a number of companies that we’ve been in conversation with in Europe and in different countries around the world that would be interested in working with us,” Harrison said.
Benefits aren’t just in the water: They’re in the air
Phyta hopes to attain technology that will isolate the specific compounds necessary for alternative plastic production. When it reaches that goal, it plans to sell the residual seaweed to farmers of livestock animals.
Kian said that the seaweed can be used as feed for the animals, providing them with vitamins, omega fatty acids, and protein missing in industry-standard feed.
Because of the nutritional value, the seaweed can reduce cows methane emissions between a 60 to 99 percent range. “Methane emissions is one of the leading contributors to global climate change,” Kian said. Because it would keep animals healthier, Kian said it could also replace the need for antibiotic injections for livestock.
Phyta is not only attempting to mitigate climate change with seaweed though biodegradable plastic alternatives and through food security with their seaweed feed, but the team is also aiming at incorporating the marine carbon and nutrient credit market into their business because of seaweed’s capacity to remove carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus from water.
This is a story from the North Carolina Business News Wire, a service of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism