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Creating the world’s first ocean agriculture system

15 May 2024

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‘Ending world hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture’ is the United Nations’ number two goal. And it’s one that a company based at Norwich Research Park is confident it can help to solve by growing rice on the surface of the ocean.

Alora is aiming to create the world’s first ocean agriculture system with revolutionary technology that is set to increase yields, use zero freshwater and minimal land.

It has developed a patented genetic design that will enable its rice crop to grow in an ocean’s highly salinated environment. This means that crops can be grown without fertiliser or freshwater while achieving increased yields and incurring lower production costs. It has already developed a salt-tolerance trait allowing rice to grow in environments of up to 50pc the salinity of the oceans.

Using marine nutrients, a symbiotic approach and custom engineered soil replacement material, Alora’s ocean agriculture has higher yields than both traditional and modern methods of growing food, with the engineered platforms alone increasing yields by up to 70pc.

Alora was co-founded by Luke Young (left) and Rory Hornby (right), both 28, who first met when they were studying for their science degrees at Durham University.

“We first became friends because we were the only two people on our course who wanted to talk about science outside of our lectures,” said Luke. “We found that we were both fascinated by its potential and we talked about loads of ideas.

“But the important thing for both of us is that we wanted to apply the results of scientific research so that it could have a positive impact on society. That’s what drew us towards the idea of setting up a business.”

There were many avenues open to the friends, but the one that really got them excited was how to help solve the world’s hunger crisis. Ocean agriculture was the vision that they shared.

“The first question we needed to answer was why the world’s food shortage is such a crisis when billions of pounds are poured into it each year,” said Rory. “The answers lie in the limitations of agriculture.

“One, is the amount of fertile land that is available which contains all of the nutrients needed to grow crops, and the other is the available source of good fresh water. We realised both of these can be found in our oceans and started designing our solution.”

Obviously, the biggest issue they faced was that ocean water has a high salt content, which is not normally a good environment for growing staple crops. The solution was to engineer salt-tolerant varieties of rice that would adapt to the ocean environment, being able to absorb the nutrients available and survive in water that is more salinated than a land-based environment.

They did this by employing gene editing techniques to identify and ‘switch on’ the salt-tolerant genes in the rice varieties that they patented. The plant’s stem cells are then transformed and can be regrown with an active salt tolerance. The rice is grown on ocean surface ‘farms’, which consist of several covered pods to protect the growing rice from birds and the weather.

This method of growing rice also has a positive environmental impact. Rice grown on land is responsible for creating 1.5pc of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which is linked to the bacteria in the soil that thrives in rice paddy fields. That issue is removed by growing rice on the ocean’s surface.

Such was the interest in their ideas that IndieBio, a biotech accelerator programme based in San Francisco in California, invited Luke and Rory to set up Alora there, where it funded a development programme for them.

While there, they caught the attention of a Singaporean investor, who funded the $500,000 USD they needed to get things off the ground.

With the concept proven, they moved to Canada to continue their work developing the first crop with a high salt tolerance, the marine farms and a stealth bacterial technology with the target of launching the first ocean farm pilot in Singapore in 2022.

Having raised $3.7m from investors, they then set about searching for a base from which to build their business. Having visited many potential sites, including San Diego and Boston in the US and Amsterdam in Europe, they decided that Norwich Research Park presented them with the best location to successfully grow the business. They moved into the Centrum building in February this year.

“I had known about the fantastic reputation the John Innes Centre has for plant science from a couple of friends who worked there, so knew of Norwich Research Park’s existence,” said Luke. “But we did not know just how large and well-suited it was until we visited.

“The team from Anglia Innovation Partnership were very proactive in showing us around and pulling together an itinerary to meet key people on the campus.

“But to be honest, as soon as we walked into the Centrum building, we knew this was going to be our home. The chance to work with the six partner institutions on the Park, the world-class facilities and the talent pool for us to dip into as we grow our business presented an unbeatable proposition.

“And with plans for new buildings that we could move into as we expand, coupled with so much else at our fingertips, meant we were able to make the decision to move here in just 24 hours!”

The next year is anticipated to be a very exciting one for Luke, Rory and their team. They are currently preparing to open their Series A funding round later this year, where they hope to raise between $15-30m USD to fund their site in Norwich and their pilot projects around the world.

They are hiring now to grow their team from five to up to around a dozen, and to get their first products on the market, which they anticipate being in the salt-degraded soils of South America, South East Asia, South Africa and the USA.

Currently, they have several partnership and pilot projects being run across the globe in places such as the US, Grand Bahama Island, Kenya, Namibia, Madagascar, Singapore, Vietnam and India, where they hope to start harvesting rice for the local populations.

The opportunity ahead of them is massive. Currently, the soil-based rice market is worth around $376bn, where up to one-third of irrigated paddies are impacted by salt intrusion today. With ocean-based rice farming where costs such as irrigation, pesticides and fertilisers are not needed and yields are expected to be better than land-grown rice, it will mean greater profitability and, therefore greater sustainability.

Plus, there is the added benefit of a reduced carbon footprint. And they don’t intend to stop at rice. Soya bean and cotton are next on the list for ocean farming.

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership, said: “We are absolutely delighted that Alora has chosen Norwich Research Park to grow its business and develop its truly innovative and game-changing products.

“As one of the largest research communities in Europe, offering access to specialist technology platforms, networks and expertise, to meet Alora’s evolving needs, I have no doubt that they will succeed, following in the footsteps of the likes of Colorifix and Tropic – finding solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems, such as food security, and at the same time creating new jobs for our local economy.”

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