A second B.C. Innovation Council award in two years is helping siblings Robert and Ashley Roulston pay the bills as their aquaculture company plunges ahead.
Most recently, the BCIC awarded their company — Industrial Plankton, headquartered in the Marine Technology Centre in North Saanich — A $20,000 B.C. Bioenergy Network prize. It was given to the small company for their work in developing cost effective, automated bioreactors for aquaculture hatcheries.
Robert says the devices are, essentially, high-tech algae incubators, helping large-scale fish farms grow food.
The bioreactors are, of course, much more complex. Yet, the idea for the units came out of his love for aquariums and his education in biology (McGill University) and mechanical engineering (University of Victoria).
“I had begun to produce my own algae to feed the salt water fish I was breeding,” he explained, adding the algae feeds the smaller fish that larger fish eat.
“You can’t breed those tiny little fish without this food chain.”
Robert said he found out how tough it is to grow algae that’s uncontaminated by other organisms — some that can have detrimental impacts up that same food chain.
Robert said he realized that since around 40 per cent of aquaculture facility costs go into raising algae, there was a market for a technology that could produce clean algae at large volumes.
“We’re essentially giving them a better tool for that,” he said.
Taking his talent to building the bioreactors and pairing it with his sister’s business background (she also attended UVic), they formed Industrial Plankton in 2010. The company built prototypes with the financial support of eight backers, as well as federal grant money. Today, they have two bioreactors being used by the aquaculture industry on Vancouver Island — and another four units on order from companies in Australia, the U.S., Japan and the Netherlands.
Their system involves serious decontamination.
Robert said it all starts with pure cultures of algae. The bioreactor sterilizes the environment with a system of internal pressure washing with a bleach solution. Once the tank is disinfected, the solution is properly diluted and flushed and the algae can be added and start to grow.
Along the way, the algae requires further nutrients, carbon dioxide and oxygen to thrive — and as they are added, Robert said their bioreactors filter out any impurities in the ingredients added to the tanks.
In addition to creating a large-scale aquaculture system that’s cost-effective and easy to use for industry, Robert said the bioreactors are getting some attention from the biofuel research sector.
“We have been at this for three years,” he said, “and it has taken about two of those years to work out all the bugs.”
The response so far has been good, Robert said, noting they’ve had limited media attention but that alone has garnered some interest.
He plans to take things slowly right now, but sees a great future.
“There’s no other machines like this out there,” he said.