By Brelyn Powell
VCU Office of Development and Alumni Relations
Within a year of graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, Elliot Roth (B.S.’15/En; Cert.’15/DVC) founded Spira Inc., a food technology company that creates replacements for artificial colorants and animal proteins in food, cosmetic and textile products using spirulina algae.
The Los Angeles-based company that Roth started in a garage in Richmond, Virginia, produces compounds made from spirulina algae to replace potentially harmful animal and petroleum compounds found in food and consumer products. Spirulina is a type of blue-green algae that can be taken as a dietary supplement. It’s considered a superfood because of its high protein and rich nutritional content. Research also suggests that spirulina has antioxidant and inflammation-fighting properties as well as the ability to help regulate the immune system.
“Right now, food, cosmetic and textile companies rely on petroleum-based ingredients and animal compounds, both of which are unsustainable and unhealthy for people and the planet,” Roth says. “We are working toward a more sustainable supply of ingredients that reverses the effects of climate change and enables companies to produce exactly what they are producing now but cleaner, healthier and more sustainably.”
Spira’s proprietary spirulina culture is processed using CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique, into a powder called Electric Sky, which is naturally blue and can effectively replace artificial blue dye No.1 in food products. The company also has created a green spirulina algae powder called Umi and is working on a white plant-based milk and meat texturizer.
Roth has received numerous awards to help fund his startup from organizations including Halcyon Incubator, RebelBio, Lighthouse Labs, World Food Programme, BeGreen, CommBeBiz and the National Science Foundation. He has also presented on the benefits of spirulina at SXSW and the innovation networks SynBioBeta and Thought for Food, and was named a VCU Alumni 10 Under 10 honoree in 2019.
In October, Roth added another achievement to his resume as the winner of the second annual VCU Alumni Pitch Competition, receiving a $2,500 cash prize. He will funnel the winnings back into the business by supporting algae farmers in developing countries.
“We purchase ingredients from farmers in countries like India, Indonesia, Peru, Thailand and Mongolia to cultivate the algae we use to turn into various colors and proteins,” he says.
The competition gave Roth the opportunity to showcase just how far his company has come in 4 1/2 years. At this stage in his business, Roth can pitch with confidence. He’s successfully pitched Spira to multiple investors. Those pitches taught him what works well with investors, he says, but he’s learned from experience what doesn’t work, too.
Like most events taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, the VCU Alumni Pitch Competition pivoted this year to a virtual format via Zoom. It was sponsored by Lighthouse Labs, StartupVA, EY and Activation Capital.
“Although this year’s competition looked completely different than what we would have imagined, having the opportunity to still showcase the amazing talent of our alumni innovators was incredible,” says Latisha Taylor, director of alumni career and personal development in the VCU Office of Alumni Relations.
Although in-person gatherings sometimes result in deeper connections with others, Roth adds that, competing virtually had its perks. “I would have loved the chance to go more in-depth with the attendees, judges and other finalists in an in-person setting, but doing a virtual pitch cut out a lot of the time and cost that comes with having to travel,” he says. “We had no issues being able to participate virtually, but I don’t know if we would have been able to if we had to travel there in person.”
More than 140 people registered to attend the virtual event. Among the attendees were a number of Roth’s VCU mentors and friends. Roth plans to stay in touch with those he’s reconnected with and is hopeful for new partnerships and future opportunities to collaborate with the business community in Richmond.
“I’ve been meaning to reconnect with former professors and other alumni, and this made it happen,” he says. “I’m thrilled to hear from anyone from the VCU community or alumni network who sees something in my business. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity and to have graduated from a university that is so supportive of its alumni.”
2020 pitch competition winners
Fourteen applicants from across the U.S. submitted pitch decks to a selection committee that narrowed the group to five finalists. The finalists had five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from the Richmond, Virginia, business community via Zoom on Oct. 28.
Elliot Roth (B.S.’15/En; Cert.’15/DVC) took first place, winning $2,500 for his Los Angeles-based food technology company, Spira, which creates ingredients for food companies from spirulina microalgae.
Michael Beiro (B.S.’18/En) placed second for Linebird, a company whose technology enables drones instead of manned crews to perform maintenance on power lines. He won a $1,200 cash prize.
Hassan Pitts (M.F.A.’09/A) and Jennida Chase (M.F.A.’09/A), founders of the Recollection Project, placed third.
Matthew Johnson (B.S.’11/B) of Old Dominion Beer and Exploration Club placed fourth.
Jad Elahmad (B.S.’19/B) and Julia Penny (B.F.A.’20/A), founders of MyMinute, placed fifth and also took home the award for “Fan Favorite,” voted on by event attendees.
Watch the full competition online.