"We know that aquaculture is moving to the land, it's the future. But RAS systems still have heavy Capex, efficiency, water quality, and cost challenges. How can we help land-based aquaculture to be more competitive and sustainable, how to close the loop? That's where Big Akwa operates," says Elena Petukhovskaya, co-founder and CEO of Swedish start-up Big Akwa.
"We want to prepare land-based aquaculture for effective symbiosis with different industries. So, if you are next to paper or pulp mills, you can co-locate the fish farm, and utilize each other's waste. If you are near hydrogen power, which is booming in Europe, you can also use the synergy of co-location to farm fish."
"To close the loop, it's possible to utilise nutrients from the fish farm residues and waste oxygen from the hydrogen plant for cost effective production of single cell protein, primarily to be used as a feed component."
In March this year, Big Akwa signed an agreement with Sweden's Ånge municipality, the owner of new "green" industrial park Alby Östra, to develop its first project: a sustainable land-based rainbow trout farm in industrial symbiosis with a neighboring green hydrogen plant, planned to be built by the British company, Renewable Energy Systems (RES). Big Akwa will use waste heat and oxygen from the RES hydrogen plant to maintain fish water at optimal temperatures, and to oxygenate it.
Initially, Petukhovskaya says, the farm will produce 3,000 metric tonnes per year, with the intention to ramp up to 6,000 per year by 2030, in addition to using the downstreams for additional value creation. Petukhovskaya explains that the company is in the midst of project financing, recently raising SEK 4.75 million in capital through a combination of share issue and loans.
"We are in the pre-construction phase on our hydrogen project. We have detailed planning on the land done with no objections, we have an option agreement for five hectares of land, with five more for possibility of expansion. We have just completed geotech drilling, we are planning to develop the land, and in parallel doing environmental assessments to get the licence to farm."
It's a great site for Big Akwa's project, Petukhovskaya believes. "It has water, it has green electricity with competitive prices, land for expansion. It's really the hotspot of the hotspots."
Petukhovskaya has profound experience in the seafood sector, with an impressive career track record as a senior executive for a variety of companies and brands in the "blue food" space.
"I've worked in the FMCG sector, particularly in the seafood industry, all my life. Food is my home," Petukhovskaya says. She served as CEO for several large seafood companies, and worked with leading retail chains Tesco, Metro, Auchan, and Lidl, providing them with branded and private label products.
Ten years ago, she moved from Brussels to Northern Sweden for family reasons. "When my kids became a little bigger, I joined a project called Agtira, which is the biggest aquaponic production of vegetables and fish in Europe."
Petukhovskaya came on board to help the company scale up. "The team and I tripled the capacity, built the distribution system, developed the Peckas brand. The company was listed at the Nordic Growth Market and we ran a number of successful public offerings, and were always oversubscribed," she explains.
"We grew tomatoes and rainbow trout in a closed loop. And when the first harvest of tomatoes came, we were sold out in few weeks. People would say to us, 'You're crazy! You can't grow tomatoes in the North of Sweden. You should buy them from Spain and Holland.' But we sold out in two weeks, had to build another greenhouse, then we sold out in two months, and had to build a third one," she says, smiling.
"It became a national pride in Sweden, and when we gave conferences, people from the crowd stood up and said, it's not only northern Sweden, this whole country loves you, Peckas," Petukhovskaya recalls. "Agtira has a great team and produces a great product and after I left, they developed a new step, selling aquaponic systems."
A passion for sustainable production and developing new businesses led Petukhovskaya to Big Akwa. Together with co-founder Hugo Wikström, Petukhovskaya says they want to deliver more sustainably-produced fish to Sweden.
"In Sweden, we consume more fish than the European average. We consume 28-32 kilos per person annually, whereas in Europe the level is 24 kilos, but we import 87% of our fish," she says.
"We have these paper and pulp mill giants here in the region. We have very cheap energy and plenty of water, and traditionally energy intensive companies like the chemical industry and the forest industry here in the north of Sweden. Is there any synergy there?"
That question led Wikström to the founding of Big Akwa, with Petukhovskaya invited to join as CEO, she explains.
For the first two years, the Big Akwa team worked on technology verification, securing funding from grants, small loans and equity sale. Following the licencing process, they will approach post-licence investors such as the European investment bank and the Nordic investment bank.
"We also plan to list the company at the Oslo Stock Exchange. We already have a number of meetings and that is our marketplace. We have an experience with public offerings in Sweden, so now we will try to do it in Norway."
Petukhovskaya says that towards the end of the year Big Akwa will open a new funding round for site infrastructure development, such as water pump station construction, piping, and land purchase at the Alby site. The company is also developing relationships with potential customers and large distributors.
In the longer term, Big Akwa has its sights set on achieving industrial symbiosis between aquaculture and one of Sweden's – and Europe's – largest industries: forestry.
"In the next few years, we want to realize our next project: farming fish in industrial symbiosis with paper and pulp mills. Big Akwa possesses some successful technological findings within feeding waste water and sludge from fish farming into the bio-purification stages of paper and pulp mills," she says.
Paper and pulp mills currently buy chemicals to feed the bacteria used to purify their waters, Petukhovskaya explains. But fish sludge, a source of nitrogen and phosphorus, can be used as a circular alternative.
"Waste becomes a resource, a valuable source of revenue that can extend the value-added product chain."
"We spent a couple of years testing this, moving a lot of trucks with wastewater from Denmark and Norway farms and mixing it pulp mill water, to see how the process goes," Petukhovskaya explains. And the tests worked well, with the technology verified by forest industry giant SCA, the biggest landowner in Europe, which also owns 9% of the land in Sweden.
"The SCA group has been with us in this initiative and together we have achieved successful findings. We're now working on next steps, and we've had some requests from other paper mills, including some very large ones."
"In parallel, and to deliver shareholders more value we would like to develop single cell protein production based on the fish sludge. We have resources in form of oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen, heat, but it's also a matter of what carbon source to introduce," Petukhovskaya says. "We are now trying to apply for some grants to support that project, and to try different options to close the loop."
"It's not just efficient waste management. It's already a commercial business where the waste becomes a resource, a valuable source of revenue that can extend the value-added product chain."
Currently, most industrial symbiosis projects are based on using heat from data centres and from the processing industry, Petukhovskaya explains.
"Industrial symbiosis is not widely spread in the food industry yet. It's not developing so much in this space. There are some insect-based and fish food initiatives, but when you look at the commercial scale, they are very few. But in some years from now, we will all be producing food that way."
"If you look at the statistics already from last year, aquaculture both at sea and on land has taken over wild catch and still keeps growing," Petukhovskaya notes.
"Land-based aquaculture is booming. It's a higher capital investment, but it's definitely a lower risk. You are not exposed to sea lice. You don't have to deal with escapes. We also see that companies who do insurance for offshore aquaculture are also now starting do insurance for land-based, and the rates are going down."
"Land-based aquaculture is booming. It's a higher capital investment, but it's definitely a lower risk."
"Before it was a 60% club, where land-based companies couldn't reach more than 60% of promised capacity, but now this figure is moving. A few projects are already profitable. I think in the next five years we will see more trust in land-based aquaculture."
"Looking back some decades ago, sea-based aquaculture was also a loss. But now there's an extra tax in Norway for the super profits of aquaculture companies that are producing huge volumes of fish at sea. Land-based is going the same way. It's 20 years behind or 30 years behind, but the water quality is improving, new taste and off-flavour technologies are being developed," she says.
"With land-based you have more control. It's more sustainable, in recirculating the water, how you treat the sludge, the density of the fish."
Petukhovskaya's enthusiasm for Big Akwa's projects is self-evident. But what inspires her the most?
"As you get older, it's so important to do a good thing. And to work with a good team. So it's really two parameters: doing a good job that can do good things for society, and working with good people. And that's what we have in BigAkwa. We are all established entrepreneurs. We have our own records of achievements, two of us have doctoral degrees."
"If you look at the key team, one is from sustainability, one from processing, one is visionary in strategy and food tech, and another is from sales and distribution. This means we all cover different sectors, so there's room for everyone to deliver."
"We have a very, very horizontal structure. I'm a CEO, but I'm a CEO to organize things, not to command or dictate. We fully trust each other. Each have our own projects and we meet to discuss them, to move them forward, but not to contradict one another or play power games. You see a lot of that in big companies," Petukhovskaya notes.
"It's a challenge to maintain a healthy and innovative environment, but we've managed to have that, and when we're together we make a lot of progress, with a lot of laughter, and a very good, easy-going feeling."
"I love working with Hugo," she says of co-founder Hugo Wikström. "He's very innovative, a multiple startup founder. It's always been a privilege to be a part of the team with him."
Making an impact, both within Sweden and more broadly within Europe, is another key source of inspiration, Petukhovskaya explains. "To make an impact for the region, to make an impact for Europe. The project itself is needed. We have to produce food in a more efficient and sustainable way."
The message about sustainable food is also convincing more and more consumers, Petukhovskaya says. "Just as before, there were a lot of people who didn't believe in climate change, but now we see more and more awakening to that message. It's the same with sustainability in food. It used to be seen as nice-to-have but it's increasingly becoming a must-have."
"Sustainability in food used to be seen as nice-to-have but it's increasingly becoming a must-Have."
"In Sweden, we have now 62% of suppliers or customers who are willing to pay 10% more for a sustainable choice. Now more than 90% of people in Sweden look at what they buy when it comes to sustainability and are not happy with such a limited sustainable offering."
Petukhovskaya believes this consumer preference will become apparent elsewhere in Europe, but "perhaps just a little bit later".
"It's nice to be a little bit ahead of the game. But that's how we're going to do it in future, all of us."