Jonas Guenther’s on a mission to help fix what he calls “our broken food system.” Specifically, he wants to address the huge carbon footprint created by agricultural production. In 2019, carbon emissions from agriculture accounted for 10% of all emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA.
With that in mind, four years ago, Guenther formed a company called We Are The New Farmers, a Brooklyn-based urban farming business using captured carbon to create sustainable food from microalgae.
“Our goal is to unearth the potential microalgae has as a food source and anchor it deeper into our food system,” says Guenther.
The specific microalgae in question is a small, blue-green substance called spirulina. Regarded as a superfood, it’s rich in a variety of nutrients, with high levels of protein. Guenther’s product comes in the form of frozen cubes or a paste that be included in, say, a smoothie or yogurt.
Guenther isn’t the only social entrepreneur tapping spirulina. For example, five-year-old Spira taps spirulina to produce food coloring dyes that serve as an alternative to the usual petrochemical-based artificial pigments.
How It Works
The process takes place in a 1,250 square foot facility in the Brooklyn Army Terminal with multiple closed tanks filled with water in which the algae is grown. Nutrients, light and CO2 are added to the mix. Once the algae are ready to go, they’re removed and filtered out of the water. Finally, the stuff is made into a paste that’s shipped to customers from a fulfillment center elsewhere in Brooklyn.
It’s all quite different from the usual way people grow and consume spirulina. The typical form is a dry powder; creating it involves drying the algae, often adding additives and also making the nutrients less effective, says Guenther. Other differences: Usually, spirulina is grown outdoors in open ponds that can be contaminated, while Guenther’s product is farmed in an indoor, controlled environment, he says. Also, his product doesn’t have the strong fishy flavor of most dried spirulina, according to Guenther.
From Hamburg to New York
In 2016, Guenther realized what he really wanted to do with his life was to combine his love of growing plants and technology. Specifically, he would create an innovation that could bring down the carbon footprint of food production, making it carbon neutral. So Guenther moved from his home in Hamburg to New York City to get a graduate degree in engineering from the NYU School of Engineering and learn more about how to address the problem. There he built a prototype using a little indoor farm in the basement of the school t.
After that, he and co-founders Michael Udovich and Dan Bernstein took part in a 10-week NYU accelerator program called NYU Summer Launchpad, where they figured out if they could turn their technology into a sustainable product and what their business model would be. In 2018, they formed a company and moved into their facilities in Brooklyn.
Sales mostly come from online purchases. Pre-pandemic outreach to juice bars had to be put on hold, but is now being ramped up again. By the end of the year, Guenther plans to open two new facilities in New York and Los Angeles. Over the next five years, intention is to expand his product lines to include chewable algae and ready-to-go meals.
The company has raised about $1 million, mostly from angel networks and syndicates. It’s also in the middle of a public crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise $200,000 to $250,000 by April 12.