Umaro and HOPO, Bakar Labs Tenants, Partner in DOE-Funded Project to Extract Rare Earth Elements from Seaweed

By Niki Borghei.

Two Bakar Labs tenants, Umaro and HOPO Therapeutics, have forged an unlikely partnership to extract rare earth elements from seaweed in a project funded by a $1.78 million grant from the US Department of Energy. The award was announced Thursday, November 2, through the ARPA-E program. The joint project will explore seaweed as a sustainable source of rare earth elements, such as neodymium and dysprosium, crucial for advanced manufacturing. Sectors that could benefit include renewable electricity, computer chips, and electric vehicles.

Umaro CEO & co-founder Beth Zotter and HOPO CEO & co-founder Julian Rees formed a partnership as Bakar Labs tenants.

Currently, we extract many REEs through environmentally destructive mining. But seaweed is a natural and abundant resource that, crucially, boasts a rich mineral content including REEs. It presents a promising alternative to ripping out the earth’s crust. Leveraging Umaro’s proficiency in seaweed processing and HOPO Therapeutics’ expertise in heavy-metal chelators—specialized molecules that selectively bind targeted elements—the two companies aim to extract these elements from seaweed, separating them from other minerals in an eco-friendly manner.

Economics is another driver. One of the most significant implications of their partnership is the potential for establishing an independent, sustainable, and strategically resilient supply of REEs within the United States. Historically, the reliance on foreign sources for these critical materials has posed challenges to national security and economic stability. By tapping into domestic seaweed resources, Umaro and HOPO are contributing to the development of a secure and self-sufficient supply chain.

“We have been focused on developing our chelators as therapeutics to address a range of unmet needs in global health and health security, however the molecules work fundamentally the same way when used outside the body,” said HOPO Therapeutics CEO Julian Rees. “It’s exciting for us to partner with one of our neighbors here in Bakar Labs to explore non-therapeutic applications of our technology, developing new methods to extract these valuable rare earth elements from seaweed.”

The project came about when Rees and Amanda Stiles (Umaro’s CTO) met at an event at Bakar Labs and chatted about a new funding announcement that had come out from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E office for “Algal Mining.” They crafted a grant application with Umaro as the lead entity, and what started as a serendipitous conversation turned into a $1.78 million project to create hope for our economic and environmental future.

“We’re looking forward to discovering a new pathway to source critical elements from seaweed, working side by side with one of our fellow tenants at Bakar Labs,” says Umaro’s CEO, Beth Zotter.