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Start-Up Spotlight: VakSea
Each year, the aquaculture industry loses $20 billion of fish to disease. Farm-raised fish are currently vaccinated by teams of people that a farm must hire. These teams net the fish out of their tanks, place them in water with anesthetic to sedate them, and precision-inject them with a vaccine.Though these teams can vaccinate hundreds of fish each hour, many farms raise hundreds of thousands of fish, which makes it a time-consuming process.
"Seventy percent of vaccination cost is labor," says VakSea’s Chief Operations Officer Mihir Pershad.
The company’s founders are solving this problem by developing an oral vaccination for aquaculture. They have developed a way to produce the proteins of a vaccine and insert them into a feed pellet. This product allows farmers to switch out their fish’s normal feed with vaccinated feed when needed. It also gives them the potential to treat multiple strains of disease in different types of fish.
VakSea's first target is Viral Nervous Necrosis, which affects over 40 species of fish around the world. The company believes this product can potentially serve as a form of insurance to protect its investment.
“Disease doesn’t strike farms evenly,” says Pershad. “Some farms may not have an outbreak, while others may lose 80% of their fish if they aren’t vaccinated.”
As the demand for protein increases, VakSea believes its product will help aquaculture become a sustainable solution. "Fish produce a low carbon output and only need around 1 pound of feed to gain 1 pound in weight, which is much more efficient than other protein sources such as cattle," Pershad says.
VakSea is currently testing its product through proof-of-concept studies in controlled settings. This allows the team to expose fish to a virus and observe what happens without the risk of losing an entire farm. Once the company has a final product, it will conduct field trials.
The company not only is working with fish, but also is developing a way to vaccinate shrimp. Because shrimp do not have the type of immunity that a vaccine relies on, the general scientific consensus has been that they aren’t able to be vaccinated.
“We are targeting the innate immunity, which exists in the mucus membranes around the gills,” says Pershad. “This protects against pathogens entering the bloodstream rather than in the bloodstream like an injection.”
This company is one of the five start-ups participating in the 2018 Iowa AgriTech Accelerator. It is using this opportunity to identify a feed supplier that would partner with it to assist in distribution and manufacturing. This will also help VakSea define what farmers are willing to pay for the product.
Participants in this program spend 100 days in Des Moines, Iowa, working with mentors in the AgriTech industry. They also receive $40,000 in funding from the program’s sponsors in exchange for a 6% share in their business.
About the Company
Founder: Vik Vakharia
Headquarters: Baltimore, Maryland
Background: Using technology from the University of Maryland - Baltimore, the VakSea team developed an oral vaccine for aquaculture in the form of a feed pellet.