Today CuanTec, the Scottish biotech company that transforms shellfish waste into sustainable packaging, announced it has raised an undisclosed investment round led by Sky Ocean Ventures and Scottish Enterprise. CuanTec will use its new funds to finalize its product, hire new team members and manufacture at pilot production scale.
The idea for CuanTec first came about in central Scotland in 2013 when its founder, who has since moved on from the company, realized how much shellfish waste was produced in his town. That waste typically went into a landfill or was incinerated and ended back up in the ocean as dead weight. However, shellfish’s exoskeletons actually contain a very valuable molecule called chitin, a natural polymer which was already used in a number of applications, particularly in the medical field.
In order to extract chitin, companies have traditionally relied on harsh chemicals which aren’t great for the environment. Cuantec scientists developed a new method for extracting chitin from shellfish that relies on fermentation — similar to beer brewing — instead of chemicals. The new technology transform the chitin into a more soluble form called chitosan, which is then mixed with biopolymers to create a flexible film which can be used as food packaging. Called Cuansave, the resulting packaging is compatible within 90 days.
The entire process is waste-free: the main byproduct of CuanTec’s chitosan product is a high-protein liquid the company is developing into a feed for salmon and other fish. As an added bonus, Cuansave is anti-microbial and can extend product shelf life. For example, Paula Duffy, part of CuanTec’s marketing team, told me that Cuansave can extend the shelf life of fresh salmon by two days. “We’re using seafood waste to prevent seafood waste,” she explained over the phone.
Since its launch in 2017, CuanTec has created two lab spaces in Motherwell and Oban, both in Scotland. They have established partnerships with fisheries around Scotland to source shellfish waste and are currently perfecting their packaging and producing at relatively minimal lab-scale. Duffy told me they are in the process of scaling up and will be able to make 100-liter batches of chitosan by 2020. She wouldn’t give exact cost details but said that CuanSave is priced competitively with traditional plastic.
Though it’s still at a pretty nascent stage, the company has already entered a partnership with U.K. mega-retailer Waitrose. Cuansave will initially be used in Waitrose’s Duchy of Cornwall product range in 2021, starting with salmon. If successful, CuanTec will expand use of its packaging for more products. This is all assuming that Cuansave gets the food-safe regulatory stamp of approval, which Duffy told me they expect by mid-2020.
CuanTec is part of a raft of companies developing products to nix plastic packaging. Decomer makes a biodegradable packaging from plants that’s water-soluble, while Evoware subs in algae for plastic. On a larger scale, supermarket giants — including Waitrose — are also experimenting with compostable packaging for pre-made meals or refillable containers for certain popular CPG products.
All these innovations can’t come too soon. Only 14 percent of plastic packaging is ever recycled. The vast majority ends up in landfills or our oceans — so much so that, by weight, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050.
That’s why CuanTec’s closed-loop technology could be such a boon. Cuansave cuts out pesky plastic packaging, sure, but it also upcycles a waste product and keeps food fresher, longer. It’s still early days for the company — this is their first real fundraise and they only have a team of 14 — but if they can indeed make their product cost-competitive with traditional plastic, I’m guessing (and hoping) we will start to see more seafood packaged in seafood waste.