Money-Making Opportunity Found for Sargassum in Puerto Rico

A company called C-Combinator, however, is currently working with sargassum that it imports from Mexico, because it has no guarantees of being able to use the one that blankets the island’s coasts.

July 15, 2021

In a virtual conference coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme, in which the new findings on sargassum are presented, it is unexpectedly revealed that a research and production center that works with this algae is located in Cataño, a town across the San Juan Bay.

Via Zoom, Jason Cole, Executive Vice President of Innovations of a company called C-Combinator, explains how they have been developing sargassum-derived products in Puerto Rico since October 2020.

But in an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish), its director of Research and Development, Benjamin Jelen, confirmed that most of its raw material does not come from the island’s coasts, saturated with the brown algae, but from the coastal jurisdiction of Quintana Roo, in Mexico.

Upon stepping into the company’s offices in Cataño, a research team can be seen analyzing sargassum samples. Bottles of biofuels derived from these algae are visible on laboratory tables. In another office, they store fertilizer material for agricultural purposes. There are areas where a doctor in microbiology works analyzing liquids, and others where a project aimed at producing tomatoes is illustrated. Another part of the work team is in Quintana Roo.

The 26-employee operation poses as a promise of the green economy to manage sargassum and turn it into raw materials for manufacturing. Biostimulant products for plants, rubber for sandals, creams for vegan cosmetics, as well as other materials that can be used for agriculture and mangrove restoration, are some of the sargassum derivatives that come out of Cataño. C-Combinator is registered in Delaware and Puerto Rico, and its CEO and founder is Geoff Chapin.

The company has benefited from the research and manufacturing decrees offered by the Incentive Code. “This has allowed us to be more effective in establishing the advanced research center in Puerto Rico. We currently have more than seven full-time employees on the island, five of them working in advanced sciences. In general terms, we’re in Puerto Rico because it’s already a world-class center for manufacturing and advanced sciences, with an ecosystem of companies, universities, and research institutions that we can take advantage of to launch a completely new industry on the island based on the ocean and the development of innovative materials,” said Jorge Vega Matos, the company’s vice president of marketing, communications and public affairs.

One of the company’s lab researchers is a graduate of the Coastal Marine Biology undergraduate program at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao. Although the 24-year-old acknowledges that the large accumulations of sargassum are a phenomenon of just a decade ago, she explained that doing nothing to address the problem could be detrimental to the health of communities.

Adriana Guzman works in the C-Combinator laboratory where they study the potential use of sargassum-derived products.

“If you look at it from a scientific or geological perspective, you can say it’s a really recent problem, but when you put it into the context of people and their daily lives, this has been going on forever. I grew up with it pretty much. I am only 24. When this problem started I was 14, and by 14 I didn’t have a social conscience, so I didn’t really understand what was going on and the social problems. As I came into science this was already a problem that was happening and wasn’t being taught about it. As a growing scientist I wasn’t being taught about it. I learned about it through college,” Adriana Guzmán told the CPI.

Unlike Puerto Rico, in Mexico there are federal protocols to deal with this seaweed before it reaches the shore. C-Combinator is contracted by Mexican hotels to collect sargassum in the Yucatan tourist area, through its affiliate Grupo ENSOL Caribe.

“Labor costs are lower there. Even if we could have a chance in Puerto Rico, I think we would do it, but it’s not worth it right now. There’s no understanding at the government level [in Puerto Rico], nor at the level of the local elite with economic power. There’s no vision of the potential that implies being able to generate primary resources that can reactivate the manufacturing industry in Puerto Rico, the creation of plastics, bioplastics, textiles and non-textiles,” Vega Matos explained.

Why did you choose Puerto Rico to establish the company, if you mainly use sargassum from Mexico? What attracted you to the island? the CPI asked Vega Matos.

Most of the sargassum that moves through the Caribbean ends up in the Yucatan peninsula, specifically in the tourist area of Quintana Roo. Compared to Puerto Rico, it receives so much sargassum that the government and the business community have prioritized it as a serious environmental and economic emergency. That’s why, in our first phase, we’re concentrating most of our collection in Mexico – simply put, there are a lot more resources we can tap into for collection. Longer term, though, we will have the infrastructure in place to support a Caribbean-wide collection network, including Puerto Rico. And that is why the island is important: as an advanced research and manufacturing center where we can take sargassum from all over the Caribbean and turn it into advanced materials that make it economically feasible to collect sargassum.

Meanwhile, the executive noted that the absence of strategies and policies, both at the local and federal level, is one of the main obstacles to managing these algae.

“Puerto Rico is always trapped between ‘there are no local resources’, ‘there’s no interest at the federal level’, and that we’re not part of the organizations that are working on this at the regional level, because we’re excluded and because the United States isn’t participating,” Vega Matos noted.

C-Combinator executives have spoken with officials from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to collect sargassum in the island and spell out jurisdiction issues, but the talks have not gone beyond that.

And the territorial issue, the lack of jurisdiction over the coasts, has been the main dilemma.

“If we collect sargassum here [on a beach], do we have exclusivity? Because that means that we could make some type of investment in personnel, in machinery. We can’t make this type of investment without an explanation on the jurisdiction,” said Vega Matos.

The company ventured to get some sargassum in Palmas del Mar, in Humacao, and Playa Lucía, in Yabucoa.

“They are ok with us taking their seaweed. They pick it up, we don’t have any permitting problems because the pickup has already been done. It’s enough for us to do research,” Jelen said.

“Our scale operation is in Mexico. Now, we are going to do the high level processing, there is a reason for that. The infrastructure here is much better than in Mexico. The brain power here in Puerto Rico is quite impressive,” added Jelen.

Benjamin Jelen, Research and Development Director at C-Combinator located in Cataño, Puerto Rico.
Photo by Xavier García | Center for Investigative Journalism

If you had the opportunity to use the sargassum that arrives in Puerto Rico on a large scale, with some guarantee of jurisdiction, such as exclusive rights to collect sargassum on specific beaches, would it make commercial sense for the company? the CPI asked Vega Matos.

Access to the beaches is an important factor: it allows us to invest in plans and resources for pick-up. It also allows us to ensure – in combination with regulators and local communities – how to lessen the disruption during collection and avoid environmental impact.  

But more than that, it’s also about shared investment in infrastructure and resources – physical infrastructure like boat landings to ocean barriers that corral the sargassum, as well as technical support in the form of more investment in biologists and natural resource specialists that we can collaborate with.

At present, C-Combinator is running a campaign in which they appeal to investors who are interested in the sustainable economy model that the company claims to represent.

“This way, we democratize our investor pool – allowing most people to buy into our vision and reap the benefits of supporting us at this stage. We know there will be a rush to invest in companies that are providing solutions to different aspects of climate change, and we believe anyone that knows how important it is to create these new economies should benefit,” Vega Matos said.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America.

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