Alumni Spotlight: Vasilis Stenos MS’12

Columbia Engineering alumnus Vasilis Stenos, founder of agritech startup Solmeyea, says microalgae farms can help feed a planet on the edge of severe climate change

Sep 26 2022 | By Kyle Barr

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Columbia Engineering alumnus Vasilis Stenos, founder of agritech startup Solmeyea, speaking at a podium.

Vasilis Stenos MS’12 is going big by thinking small—as in how microalgae could have a huge impact for food production across the world. 

Stenos’ startup, the agri/biotech company Solmeyea, is working to create carbon neutral protein sources by cultivating this phytoplankton. As climate change and ever-expanding development threaten the global food supply, many different companies have tried to come up with new sources of food production, from fungi to insect harvesting. The Columbia alum says that’s only half the story; Solmeyea wants to use microalgae to also alleviate atmospheric CO2.

It’s all based on his graduate level research—which his new proof of concept is now moving closer to a tangible product. His current pilot-stage farm, a huge greenhouse located in Stenos’ home country of Greece, relies on direct sunlight; one of the main reasons he picked microalgae is because of its impressive ability to pull available CO2 from the surrounding environment. There, he creates food-quality algae that can be transformed into algal-based proteins usable in meals, pharmaceuticals, or even biofuel manufacturing. Configured as a vertical farm in order to maximize space, his approach could one day conceivably grow algae even on dry, nonarrable land or around heavy industry that regularly produces CO2. The company has long term plans to eventually expand their small pilot farm into a hub that will annually absorb 16 tons of CO2 and produce 10 tons of biomass used in food and feed products.

The algae protein market is expected to reach $1 billion in market share by 2027, and Stenos wants his startup to be at the forefront of that boom. Algae is already used in several industries, and Solmeyea’s hope is that their algae becomes more of a fixture in these markets. 

Just like his algae, Stenos’ small startup is still looking to grow. Edging on five years into his venture, Stenos has created early-stage affiliations with various universities and companies, and he hopes to sell his technology to more buyers and eventually start to produce their own examples of algae-based products. 

Despite an eight-hour time difference, we caught up with Stenos from his home near Athens, Greece, to learn more about why he decided to go the entrepreneurial route, what challenges he faced getting started, and how agri-tech can help fight climate change.

From Corporation Employee to Being Your Own Boss

How Solmeyea wants to change the food landscape through micro-algae

“We’ve commercialized a process for converting CO2 into something which can be considered a glucose substitute. It’s like a carbon substrate, a carbon source, that your algae can use as energy to grow faster. Right now, we’re selling our technology business to business. In our case, we hope one day to massively ferment micro-algae on site which can be transformed into a whole suite of products we manufacture to sell.”

How research at Columbia inspired his startup 

“Columbia was one of my top choices, and thankfully, I was compelling enough to get accepted. I got my degree in Earth and Environmental Engineering, and that work put me on this path. I had this background producing agro-food, but I started to learn more about the agricultural impacts of CO2 and more specifically the long term impact and what it will take to deal with climate change. When it came time to start my graduate research, I asked what if we try to, with one stone, hit two birds: tackling climate change while producing food. That research eventually became my research into microalgae, and is what Solmeyea is based on today.”

Realizing big business wasn’t the right path

“I was fortunate/unfortunate enough to have worked for big and small companies, both in Europe, Africa and also in the States. I have a background in management consulting, real estate development, and in construction project management. I realized that I wasn't happy working for big corporations. While I was in New York City, I was trying to keep an eye also on all those entrepreneurial events that were taking place. These guys were laser focused, especially during their early baby steps. It was compelling, and the thought of doing something for myself was compelling enough for me to leave the corporate world behind and focus solely on this project.”

Following Your Instincts 

Thinking about starting a new venture? Trust your instincts

“My family motto is ‘each one of us is a different equation with different variables.’ This means we all have our own drives, motivations, history, and background that make us who we are. Knowing yourself and knowing your situation will help you make the right decisions. For me, it made sense to start this venture. I knew I needed to build a team, and we now have a seven-person international team. Now we want to move on beyond our pilot farm and grow into a hub for algae-based products. Right now, this means I don’t have much of a personal life and no vacations. I know that may sound boring. Please, mark my words. It’s not boring; it is just a period of my life that I need to stay focused.”

Find work that makes you feel fulfilled

“Each one of us should listen to our hearts and follow and trust our instincts. You can’t do it alone. Mentorship is crucial. Go meet new people and make connections with people who will help you figure out your own path. Personally, I know for a fact that I have no way back. I'm not going to go back to the big corporations. It’s because I’ve done those things, and I know everything I've done before didn't make me feel as fulfilled as I currently feel. But you have to go into this with open eyes.”

The Challenges of International Entrepreneurship

Location matters for an environment-based project

“Europe, including Greece of course, but also Israel, Turkey, and Cyprus, is the most suitable location to grow microalgae conventionally based on the sunlight, orientation, and of course the weather and the temperature range. Given the nine plus months of sunlight throughout the year, it just makes more sense.”

Finding people to help guide you

“Throughout these few years, I have met so many people that were very nice, very giving, and very willing to help us as a venture. Other than professors at Columbia who got me started on this idea, I’ve had a lot of good advice from colleagues, academics and entrepreneurs from other universities, in government, and other non-profits. There have been so many people who have helped us, and that’s why it's so important to build connections, not only to get the project off the ground, but to give you the energy to keep going.”

What is Needed to Combat Impending Climate Change and Food Shortages?

Why protein alternatives are crucial

“It is projected that with overpopulation and the livestock revolution, by which I mean the global increase in demand for meat and dairy, we will be in desperate need of additional agricultural land equal to the size of Brazil by 2050 if we keep on growing our crops the way we currently do. There are several companies that use vertical farming, but you still need several megawatts of electricity to power those. However, our company doesn’t, because we rely a lot on the ample sunlight and the regional temperatures of this place. So we don't need to heat our system up or cool it down that much during winter or summer times. We grow our systems with the lowest possible energy demand, and we have the highest possible negative carbon, water, and land footprint.”

What’s happening in the alternative protein market

“The alternative protein market is growing incrementally. The world needs proteins that can substitute soy, yeast, beans, or any other type of proteins that we are eating which take up a lot of land, water, and energy to grow. But the market is growing, and more people are welcoming the possibility of alternative proteins. That's how you have mycelium, you have insect-based proteins, you have stem cells, and of course, you also have microalgae.” 

Impact investment aids environment-based ventures

“There needs to be a sea change in how we look at projects that benefit the planet. I look forward to the day that they will say they do care mainly about the environmental perspective first before they ask about cost. Thankfully, there's a new trend with impact investment. They're a type of venture firm, but they are, let’s say, more patient. So instead of having an impatient cycle of three to five years expecting to have doubled or quadrupled their investment, they can wait up to seven or 10 years because they know that the agri/bio-tech concepts take time.”

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