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October 16, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Spark participant Algaeo pivots to algae-based fertilizers

Nick Sokol says he learned how challenging it was to convince people to grow algae for carbon capture.

We first met Nick Sokol in mid-July 2022 when he took his start-up named Algaeo through the “Cultivate Appalachia Bootcamp” (see article here). At the time, he was promoting algae growth as a way to provide an alternative form of food, energy, and carbon sequestration services.

More than a year later, Sokol has followed a path that many entrepreneurs have previously pursued – making a significant pivot while staying true to his belief in the value of algae. Now, as a member of Cohort 2 of the “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” operated by the University of Tennessee (UT) Research Park, he’s moving forward with what Sokol believes is a more sustainable business plan for the start-up.

“You could say that I was lost in the algaverse,” he says philosophically. “Convincing people to grow algae for carbon capture was difficult.”

While he still sells special order kits that people can use to grow algae and teachers can use for classroom instruction, Sokol has shifted his primary focus to helping farmers use either produce themselves or purchase sustainable organic fertilizer.

“Our planet is in need of sustainable and efficient methods that maintain or boost productivity in the agricultural space,” Algaeo notes on its website. “Algae-based fertilizers are the perfect tool for doing so.”

Sokol adds that the fertilizer space has been particularly turbulent the past few years, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing as a result of the war in Ukraine. A recent report from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania noted the correlation between energy and food prices and the distinct link between energy markets and fertilizer production when it comes to global food security.

The start-up sells its Algaeo Organic Biofertilizer/Biostimulant that has an NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) of 9-1-3 for $20 a liter. In addition, there is the Algaeo AutoModule that allows a 55-gallon round barrel drum and 275-gallon tote to be turned into a bioreactor where the farmer can produce a fertilizer with an NPK of 3-3-3. It sells for $600 but allows the farmer to produce as much fertilizer as desired as frequently as needed.

The “Spark Cleantech Accelerator” is Sokol’s third program focused on start-ups in a little more than a year. The first was the weeklong “Cultivate Appalachia Bootcamp” followed by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center’s “Brandcamp.”

He’s approaching the latest opportunity with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I’m more targeted with the programs I apply for and the investors I’m seeking,” Sokol says. “What attracted me to Spark was the cleantech focus, the expertise of the team, and the ability to learn from the experiences of participants.

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