Turning Waste into Sustainable Fish Feed

After graduating from NYU Abu Dhabi, Daria Zahaleanu moved to Denmark to pursue her master’s in computer science and engineering and to co-found a fish feed startup.

The four years I spent as an undergraduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi taught me how to critically think about the issues around me and to reflect on how I could employ my technical skills for social good. 

As a computer engineering major, I learned how to make use of my skills to solve real world problems. At NYUAD, I was exposed to many projects from helping impoverished communities in India rebuild their houses, and making documentaries about the music culture in Zanzibar, to learning about contemporary political issues of Spain. 

My favorite class was Engineers for Social Impact, where my teammates and I had the chance to partner with Habitat for Humanity to help a local community in India restore their houses. Working with a team in a completely non-academic environment made for a holistic experience. It helped me to understand what engineering is all about — having the ability to solve pressing world problems in energy, sustainability, transportation, education, healthcare, food, and the environment. 

When I arrived in Denmark for my master’s in computer science and engineering, I came across a lot of initiatives promoting sustainability. Often known as a country big on affecting climate change in positive ways, “going green” is more than a statement for the Danes. From a healthy cycling culture to recycling initiatives, it is part of their daily life.

As I settled into my new life here at Technical University of Denmark, I began seeking opportunities to see what and where I can apply my knowledge in order to create impact. 

Learning About Fish Feed

I took a class project here focused on providing sustainable alternatives to fish feed. At that time, I knew very little about the fish feed industry and its issues, but later learned that with the growing demand for aquaculture production of fish caused by overfishing, fish feed is a big concern for farmers. 

Traditional fish feed is produced from raw ingredients that are imported from around the world, with two of main ingredients being fish meal and soybeans. Fish meal comes from bycatch from fisheries, thus contributing directly to overfishing while the production of soybeans contributes to land deforestation and is grown largely in monocultures — where only one type of crop is grown in the fields. Monoculture upsets not just the balance of soil in the area but also impacts the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Ninety per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions in a traditional Danish land-based aquaculture comes from their fish feed as well.  

Our project aimed to solve these issues by converting the unwanted sludge from aquacultures into a high quality, sustainable fish feed that is locally produced. 

A Startup is Born

The school project scaled quickly into a startup called AQfeed where I am now one of the six co-founders. My main contribution is the ability to see things from a holistic perspective, combining my research and project management skills to ensure that we are able to develop a solid business plan and identify potential customers for our product — a multitude of skills I developed thanks to the liberal arts education at NYUAD. 

I often look back at my undergraduate years and think of how the courses I took and the experiences I gained helped to shape me today. My advice for undergraduates who are looking to venture into creating their own business is not to be afraid to take classes and work on projects outside of their major, such as various startAD initiatives

Another suggestion when developing a business idea is to identify potential business partners as early as possible in the journey, and to take advantage of every opportunity of raising funding and creating impact. Finally, do not let small failures discourage you. The most valuable thing that I learned as an entrepreneur is that failure plays a pivotal role in entrepreneurship. Failing is inevitable, what matters most is how fast one can recover from failure and learn from it.