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Discussing How Microalgae Can Revolutionize Water Treatment, with Jean-Michel Pommet, CEO of ZENI


ZENI

Water quality and its reuse is a growing issue in the world today. Sustainable water treatment solutions need to be developed in order to reduce the water waste by industries. This is where ZENI steps in, a French company emerged in 2023 that attracts widespread acclamation due to its innovative nature-based solution using microalgae. Founded by molecular biologist Jean-Michel Pommet, the team at ZENI works on providing a circular and sustainable solution that touches water treatment, the food industry, aquaculture and oceans.


Background and ZENI


Could you tell us about your career background and what led to you developing an interest in energy issues and climate change? 


I am a molecular biologist and since I was a child, I have had a passion for nature and the environment. I am a farmer's grandson and grew-up in the Mediterranean area where I realised, without understanding the reasons as a child, that sea biodiversity was dramatically decreasing in the sea. Today, with the knowledge through my career, I understand better the causes of this loss of biodiversity.


I can be defined as a "Serial Entrepreneur" with over twenty years of experience in applied microbiology, nutrition & health and environment, with two main areas of expertise: microbiota and microalgae.

 

I graduated from the University of Montpelier, France, in 2000 having specialised in cellular and molecular biology, and went on to hold several post-doctoral positions in the UK and France. I then founded, in 2006, the first ever international conferences in the fields of prebiotics, probiotics and microbiome, which combined to become PROBIOTA in 2011. It is now a leading conference developed worldwide and owned by a company in the UK.

 

In 2013, I jumped into the growing sector of microalgae, and I have never quit it since. In 2020, I continued my entrepreneur journey by setting up BLU Eat, “Be Like You Eat!”, a food technology start-up. In this sector I initially developed algae-based products before recently, in 2022, I oriented my skills towards the service of our planet. Therefore, I created a multi-impact startup to clean and reuse water from industrial activities with microalgae, ZENI, launched in October 2023. 

 


There is continuous scepticism about the actions taken to avert climate change, what is your response to that?


For me it is more than scepticism, it is conspiracy. There are a lot of talks and fake news being conveyed through social media which say that climate change is not caused by human beings. As a scientist myself, fake news surrounding climate change is mind blowing. Many scientists have brought out proof about the impact of human activities on the climate.

The facts are there, there is a big acceleration of climate change. In France, the last two summers have been catastrophic with never seen before temperatures and water restriction as on the consequences.


We need to ignore all the scepticism and move on. We need to act instead of complaining.

 


How did the idea of ZENI come up and what is it?


My main motivation was to develop a sustainable project with a strong impact and working in regenerative agriculture is critical for our planet and on consumers' health. I want to make something with my career and all the skills that I have developed over the years.

ZENI seeks to change the game in water treated by using a nature-based solution: microalgae. This means that we mimic the eutrophication phenomenon that naturally occurs in the aquatic environment all over the world.

"We take a circular economy approach to the work that we do." 

Our concept is to use microalgae in water treatment, to treat and clean used water. This comes from an ancient technique, called phytoremediation, in which plants are used to clean water from nitrates and phosphates. The big advantage of microalgae is their very fast growth in a quick 24 – 48h process. After this process the cleaned water can then be reused in the process. This pushes industries to reuse water instead reducing the huge waste of water we currently see now. This water can also be released back into the environment without any negative consequences and then can be used for irrigation.


On the other hand, after separating the algae that fed on the nitrates and phosphates, the microalgae can be used in regenerative agriculture to restore soils, as a fertiliser for plants or animal feed. It is a totally circular process.

 

Explain further what is eutrophication?


Eutrophication is a global phenomenon caused by intensive human activity. It can also be called the "death of water" as it contaminates aquatic environments all over the world and deprives vulnerable communities of water. In nature human activities, such as intensive agriculture, releases into the environment water saturated in nitrate and phosphate. This leads to the overgrowth of algae, seaweed or microalgae. These are toxic algae, that produced green water, and this privatises the aquatic environment from light. The fishes are dying because of the lack of sun as the light cannot come into the water. Therefore, eutrophication can lead to the death of wildlife in a quick time lapse. In Brittany, France, this phenomenon is very common due to the intensive agriculture and agrifood industries which do not have proper solutions to treat their effluent. At ZENI, we mimic this phenomenon but control it and use good algae.   

"We mimic the eutrophication phenomenon that naturally occurs in the aquatic environment all over the world."

Will this sustainable water treatment use microalgae in the areas treated or will they have to be transported to those areas?


It's an interesting question, I could say both but mainly we use well-known and controlled microalgae. They are non-toxic strains from our lab, coming from an algae bank.  We “train them” on bad effluent, then they grow on that and develop a memory on how to grow in extreme environments. Once that process is done, then the microalgae can work in any area. That is what makes it very interesting for industries.


How does your solution support current Sustainable Development Goals? What are the benefits of this solution?


We are answering three of the 17 SDGs i.e.: Life on Land, Life below water and Clean water and sanitation.

ZENI

We ensure access to water and sanitation to all. The idea is to get into areas in Africa and Asia, where eutrophication is a huge problem and can be cured. We will target industries everywhere in the world and we will restore and recover aquatic environments.

The water treated is good and can be released back in the oceans as it has been cleaned and no longer contains nitrates and phosphates. We will then have an impact on decreasing the pollution that enters oceans.  


Life on land, with our algae we have the chance of having a green fertiliser. Currently, the chemicals used in agriculture kills the soil and are not long-term solutions to improve the lands. Today in France we ask farmers to make efforts, while the price of fertilisers is increasing dramatically following the Ukraine War. It creates an unnecessary pressure on these core workers.


From a scientific point of view, many scientific papers highlight that microalgae, as other microorganisms, have huge advantages for the soil. As a molecular biologist specialist, the human gut and the gut of the soil function in a very similar manner. If you disturb the microbiota of the soil it ceases to function correctly. Microalgae bring sugars and stick to roots to help the provision of water. This is a long process, but we need to start now.

 


What are the future goals of ZENI and are they any challenges in reaching those goals?


We want to decontaminate all aquatic environments across the world. This is possible by fighting eutrophication.


One of our goals is to impact the aquaculture industry. In aquaculture today, they use fish to feed fish, this needs to stop. It will be a game changer if we provide thousands of tons of algae to replace these bad feeding methods with a more sustainable practice. On the final quality of the product, the impact is huge. Fish brings Omega3 because they feed on microalgae rich in Omega3. Moreover, it is essential to use microalgae as an alternative proteins’ source.

Microalgae is the plant-based product with the highest content in protein on earth. Soy contains 20 – 30% of protein while some algae can contain up to 70%, which makes it a very attractive food product.

As microalgae is the plant-based product with the highest content in protein on earth. Soy contains 20 – 30% of protein while some algae can contain up to 70%, which makes it a very attractive product. This is important to bear in mind given that by 2050 we will have to feed 10 billion people. In that sense, ZENI will also contribute to better feeding the worldwide population. We will create a lot of employment in the future to run the algae sites. We hired our first employee in January 2024, and this is a good sign that we will succeed in the work that we are trying to do. Now we are on our way to work with different industries, like the dairy and aquaculture sectors.


We will meet several challenges, from our process' scale-up to the logistic necessary to handle tons of algae biomasses. Indeed, it will be great if we are able to decontaminate large amounts of water, but we will need the infrastructure necessary to manage the tones of biomass coming out of the decontamination process.



Are there many competitors in this market?


I am very happy to say that we do have competitors in this market. Last year in October, I attended the Algae Biomass Summit organised by the Algae Biomass Organization in the US. We had the chance to visit a company that already runs algae plants to clean water in a big city. In Europe many projects have developed over the past five years. There are many actors coming onto the market, and this is a big challenge for us, but it is good. It is not a competition as the goal is massive, there is space for everyone, and we all need to work to clean water for everyone.



What role do governments play in supporting projects like ZENI?


We had the chance to arrive in the market at a time when, unfortunately, climate change has had the biggest impact so far. The French President Macron ordered a mission to define how water in industries was reused. This mission showed that in France only 1% of this wastewater is reused compared to around 30% in Germany.


In March 2023, the President ordered the Macron water plan. We received the new regulation rule, to help industries to reuse water easily. This 1% of reused water was due to regulatory constraints faced by industries, mainly in the food industry.  We just received this new law which is favourable to the work that we do and very important for us to scale. In France, start-ups have the luck to be supported financially by the government once we received the ‘deeptech’ label from BPI, our national bank for innovation.

 

Concluding questions

 

As an entrepreneur yourself, having founded BLU EAT and ZENI, what advice would you have for people wanting to set-up a start-up?


I want to encourage people to take the step to be an entrepreneur.


It is hard to provide specific advice, as it is a case-by-case model. Being an entrepreneur is not an easy task, you need to have the passion and long-term dedication. If I had two main advices to deliver to become future entrepreneur these would be:  


First, check if the market is ready to take your technology, service, or product. I had this problem with my food tech BLU EAT, I arrived in 2020 with COVID and when I wanted to launch one of my products the Ukraine war occurred. The consumers were not ready to buy high level products in a crisis period. At the end of the day, it is the right moment, or it is not the right moment.  


Second, it is essential to have the right team. On your own it does not work and having the wrong team either. You need to make sure that the team that you build around you can commit even in times of stress, as entrepreneurship is a long journey. It is hard but very worth it.


Finally, be aware of the support provided by your government structures. You need to build your network and become known in your sector. Then work hard and believe in your solution!  


Are you an optimist or a pessimist when it comes to climate change and the future?


Whatever the situation is, I am optimistic. Pessimism is the main flow of thought today, reinforced, and conveyed by mainstream media. We lack daily info on fantastic initiatives brought by entrepreneurs worldwide. We just need to act, stop complaining, now we are all aware that our planet is not in good health, so let's move to change the game!


What advice would you have for young people who want to build a career and have a positive impact on the planet?


I more than encourage, to build a career in that direction and to work for something that helps the planet. I assure you that people spend hours of their life in their job, and it is important for your work to have meaning in your life.


For a young entrepreneur, all I would say is believe in yourself and your dream. It is not an easy task and failing is part of the experience. We need to create a new world together and learn from younger and older generations.


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Jean-Michel Pommet interviewed by Natalia Vasnier for The Conference Corner. Feature cover image provided by Jean-Michel Pommet.

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