Editor's Note: Symbrosia is one of seven private companies Inc. identified that are driving development within seven key pathways to net zero--eliminating one ton of greenhouse gases for every ton emitted.

ALEXIA AKBAY WAS a student at the Yale School of Public Health in 2017 when she read a research paper on a tropical red algae called Asparagopsis taxiformis. In it, she discovered a natural way to help decarbonize the atmosphere--and her abiding mission for the past five years.

Akbay, now 27, was born in Turkey and grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where her parents owned restaurants, including a pizza shop. From an early age, she took an interest in environmental and social-justice issues, though she found it difficult to lobby locals. "I spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to eat less beef and dairy, and it was pretty frustrating," she says. "We need to move quickly on climate change." When Akbay learned that Aspara­gopsis contains a compound that blocks carbon and hydrogen from combining to create methane during digestion, she saw her passions converging. She also spotted a business opportunity.

 

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Here's why: Farting cows--the butt of so many climate-change jokes--don't actually damage the atmosphere, but belching cattle really do wreak havoc. Yes, livestock emissions may make for funny memes, but in all seriousness, agriculture generates about one-quarter of all greenhouse gases. And between the fast-acting, heat-trapping power of the methane they contain and the amount of gas they release, cow burps-excuse us-cause an astonishing 6 percent of the planet's warming.

When one of America's 94 million cows-or any grazing animal-eats grass or hay, microbes in the front of its stomach help digest the food by fermenting it and breaking it into simpler materials. Those include methane (CH4), which cows continually emit out their front ends. But it turns out that red algae can stifle that fermentation, essentially cutting the methane from cow burps.

So Akbay recruited a small group of Yalies from the fields of aquaculture and engineering to help figure out how to farm and commercialize Asparagopsis. They won support from startup competitions at Yale and MIT for a series of projects--the first called Moo-ve Over Methane--that turned into Symbrosia. She co-founded the company with the team in 2018, and before long the startup was operating an aquaculture tank in New Haven. After graduating, Akbay moved Symbrosia to Hawaii and set up shop in Asparagopsis's native environment. It grows red algae in large ponds of seawater built on otherwise non-arable lava beds. After harvesting the seaweed, there's no processing beyond drying it. At the first farms to test dried Asparagopsis commercially, Akbay says, adding just a bit to livestock feed cut cows' methane emissions by nearly 80 percent with no negative side effects.

Symbrosia earned a $256,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in 2020 and expects to complete an $8 million round of venture capital funding this year. Its aim now is to popularize red algae while driving down its price from an initially reported $1.60 per cow per day. Of course, even if the company succeeds in getting livestock operations to enlist in decarbonization, Americans have plenty to debate about how we should produce and consume meat and milk. But maybe innovations like Symbrosia's can keep the planet from frying until we take those questions seriously--rather than, you know, giggling them away.