Fish farming has become an increasingly important part of the food supply – but there are major flaws with the range of treatments available for aquatic pests and diseases. Now, a team of biotech entrepreneurs is taking a radical new approach to solve one of industry’s biggest problems. Sundew is an early-stage biotech company that aims to provide safe alternatives to treat waterborne pests and diseases, especially those that affect aquaculture.
The company was founded about two years ago, after its chair and co-founder Neil Goldsmith came across an intriguing biological technology to control the common fish parasite ich – also known as white spot disease – on the Danish IP Fair website. A few months later, he and three other high-profile biotech entrepreneurs formed Sundew, and gained a worldwide exclusive licence to commercialize the technology.
“There’s nothing fundamentally novel about treating diseases in water, but we are finding a different way of doing it,” said co-founder Andy Gardiner. “That is the huge unmet need – doing it better.”
Indeed, there is an enormous need for chemical-free solutions, and Sundew claims its technology provides just that: a natural compound that eliminates risk for industry and consumers alike.
With more than 20 years’ experience in launching biotech startups, Gardiner comes from a financial and commercial background, rather than a life sciences one. In early 2018, he and Goldsmith had set up a company called Double Bio. Goldsmith had recently stepped down after 13 years as CEO of the specialty health and nutrition biotech firm Evolva, and they were looking for a biotechnology venture they could help bring to market. This was it.
The technology platform is a naturally occurring bacterium produced via fermentation to control ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) in freshwater fish. Developed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), it needed some business savvy and a significant cash injection to introduce on an industrial scale.
“We had already talked about setting up a business that could deal with environmental diseases,” Gardiner said. “This gave us a focus.”
Aquaculture has been growing at about 6-7% a year for the past 30-40 years, according to FAO figures, far outpacing growth in other food production sectors. The value of world trade in fish and fish products has grown from $8 billion in 1976 to $143 billion in 2016. However, there are challenges that come with such rapid growth, and safe, effective disease control is one of them.
“The solutions that are currently on the market are not ideal in many ways,” Gardiner said. Some treatments for controlling ich on food fish, such as malachite green, are only approved for use with ornamental fish as they pose risks to human health. At the moment, Formalin (made with formaldehyde) is one of the only widely approved treatments, but it is hazardous to handle and not easy to apply.
“It’s technically banned in Denmark , but the industry still has a special licence to keep using it because there’s no other option,” said Gardiner.
In May 2019, Gardiner attended the F&A Next event in Wageningen where he spoke with StartLife’s Program Director Loet Rammelsberg. Rammelsberg encouraged him to apply for the StartLife Accelerate program, and in September, Sundew was selected. So far it has secured €35,000 under the scheme, with a further €50,000 in the pipeline. In addition, it was awarded a grant of €780,000, under the Danish government’s Green Development and Demonstration Programme (GUDP).
For now, Sundew is far from commercial scale, still working at petri dish level, but it is working to bring production up to at least kilogram-scale so it can provide quantities suitable for industry testing.
“We need to get to tonne-scale before getting this on the market,” said Gardiner. “There is a very high degree of confidence that we can get the product up to where we need it to be over the next three years.”
But controlling this one parasite is only the very beginning.
“We have a single molecule at the moment that we know works on more than one disease,” he said. “Our first thing is to screen that molecule against other similar parasites and see where else we might have an effect. Apart from that, there are a whole lot of other, smaller molecules that could treat things in a similar way.”
Further down the line, the team intends to tackle some of the problems that affect conventional agriculture, and even human health, also using biological approaches.
“Beyond aquaculture, in terms of diseases carried in water, there’s human diseases like cholera and malaria, nematodes, which are a problem for cattle, and red tides [algal blooms that release harmful toxins].
“There’s currently no good solution for that, and possibly we could find things that work.”
For any application, the product will need to be environmentally benign, scalable and reasonably cheap.
Apart from the company’s four co-founders, and a researcher who was hired using funds from the Danish grant, a freelancer is working to building a network for Sundew in China.
“Ideally, we will find a good partner in China in the long term, at least for distribution,” he said.
The Chinese market is a major target. It has by far the world’s largest aquaculture production , and freshwater fish like carp, eel and catfish dominate its seafood market.
“Because of the structure of the aquaculture market for freshwater fish, Asia is particularly important to us,” Gardiner said. “Major animal health companies see this as their primary need in China…All freshwater fish farms will have ich as a risk. You can imagine a very well-run farm where they can keep this out, but anything that’s drawing water from natural sources is likely to be affected by it from time to time.”
When it comes to regulation, the company is looking at global routes to market for treating food fish, as well as ornamental fish, for which the regulatory path may be faster.
“We are at the start of a long road,” Gardiner said. “We have no real doubts that it’s likely to take us three or four years to get through the regulation that will allow us to sell this really broadly to the aquaculture market.”
Despite the challenges ahead, he is optimistic about the company’s potential.
“We are never going to be short of waterborne diseases and needing solutions that work well,” he said. “Being the company that deals with aquatic diseases, that’s our long-term vision.”
In the 40-seconds video below Andy Gardiner gives a brief introduction to Sundew and explains why he joined the StartLife Accelerate Fall 2019 program.