When an international foundation finds that for which it's looking in Balaton, Minn., it's news. That is exactly what happened recently when the Solar Impulse Foundation, based in Switzerland, named Tru Shrimp to its portfolio of #1000solutions.
Businesses that receive the Solar Impulse Efficient Solutions label have been identified as both clean and profitable. They are viewed as solutions through an independent review process which determines they will protect the environment and improve quality of life.
"We are honored to be recognized by such a prestigious organization, one with global reach," President and CEO Michael Ziebell said in a press release. "We couldn't be prouder that our work, which has always been focused on producing shrimp in the most sustainable way, now joins the ranks of others with similar goals from all around the world."
Tru Shrimp is a Balaton-based company which has developed a method for raising shrimp using indoor, shallow-water basins. With their technology, they are able to raise shrimp quickly in an antibiotic-free and sustainable manner. The company has been raising capital to move from research into commercial production.
In a recent interview, Ziebell talked about not only being recognized by Solar Impulse and what that could mean for Tru Shrimp, but also other company endeavors since the COVID-19 pandemic altered the company's trajectory. Prior to the pandemic, the company was engaged in raising capital to build the Madison Bay Harbor in Madison's industrial park.
"It's been very difficult to raise capital in this COVID environment," he said, in part because travel has been curtailed.
"Investors want to come and see the technology. They want to see the tidal basins," Ziebell explained. The company did produce a 360-degree video tour, but that did not provide quite the same experience.
While company officials were grappling with this new reality -- and the reality of not having any shrimp in the Balaton Bay Reef because there is no market for them as a result of the pandemic -- they were introduced to Boundless Impact Investing. That company is an informational resource for investors interested in impact investing.
Impact investing is an investment strategy which involves making a positive impact, such as protecting the environment, while at the same time returning a profit. Boundless Impact Investing rates business enterprises to help investors identify companies which will enable them to achieve their objectives.
"They came in and studied our technology," Ziebell said. As a result of this independent assessment, they gave Tru Shrimp a score of 8.1 out of 10, validating Tru Shrimp's claims of having the most sustainable method of shrimp production in the world.
"It turned out we were more sustainable than we thought we were," he said, with a chuckle. "Even our waste is recycled."
In addition, the assessment affirmed what Tru Shrimp has been reiterating in response to concerns that salt water will be discharged.
"The only water we discharge is what we call gray water; that's the water we use to wash up," Ziebell said. Salt water will not be discharged, which impressed Boundless Impact.
"They were amazed that it [Tru Shrimp's processes] would create no pollution," he said.
Boundless Impact was also impressed that the company is located in the Midwest, near the food source. This reduces transportation costs and has an environmental impact.
The assessment by Boundless Impact Investing did not have an immediate impact on company efforts to raise capital, but it did generate interest among impact investors. In addition, that assessment generated interest by the Solar Impulse Foundation.
The Solar Impulse Foundation was founded by Bertrand Piccard, who flew around the world in a solar-powered airplane called the Solar Impulse. The company's mission is to identify and promote efficient solutions for clean economic growth. They are doing this by identifying 1,000 businesses worldwide that can protect the environment in a profitable way.
"They fast-tracked us through the process because of the Boundless Impact report," Ziebell said.
Already, that designation, which was announced on the company website in early November, has interested foreign investors. Currently, Tru Shrimp is working with two French investors who are interested in the work being done by the company.
In addition, Tru Shrimp was recently invited to meet via webinar with 40 investors from around the world. Ziebell said he had to tell the Tru Shrimp story in about five minutes, a challenge considering the technology's rich history.
During the interview, Ziebell did note that the size of the Madison Bay Harbor has been scaled back to 36 basins, reducing the initial investment needed to start construction. When the original announcement was made, shortly before former Gov. Dennis Daugaard left office, the company planned to build a facility that would cost over $300 million.
By scaling back, the company can significantly reduce the amount of capital needed to begin construction. Currently, Tru Shrimp is working to raise around $100 million.
"It's still our intent to build the larger harbors," Ziebell said, emphasizing the smaller facility is just a first step in order to get production started. In Madison, the facility will be expanded with an addition or a second building on the campus, he explained.
Reducing the scale of the facility isn't the only change that has occurred since COVID-19 hit. The company has continued to refine processes, which resulted in a breakthrough with their biofilter.
"We're much more efficient, much more effective and not as capital intense," Ziebell said.
The company has also continued to seek buyers for shrimp produced at the Madison Bay Harbor. They are currently in negotiations with a national distributor who is seeking to purchase all of the shrimp produced at Madison Bay and at all harbors constructed within the next 10 years, according to Ziebell.
The company has continued to explore how to produce and market chitosan from the shrimp shells collected as growing shrimp molt.
"Quite frankly, we're food people and we have to find people to guide us through it," Ziebell said.
Thus far, they know that due to the controlled environment in which the shrimp are raised, the chitosan produced is "the most pristine material available," he said. Because of the quality, it's likely to have biomedical and pharmaceutical uses.
However, Tru Shrimp is not currently equipped to produce the chitosan. Ziebell said they will either identify a partner with which to work or expand their operation to include that component. Currently, the company is examining options to determine the best route.
With all that's happening, the company still does not have any idea when construction will begin. He asks the people of Madison for their patience.
"We're working to do this as soon as possible," Ziebell said. "No one saw COVID coming or knew the impact it would have."