ISU MSS19 Internship Stories: Daniel Rotko at Solar Foods Inc. Finland

“For many students, moving to ISU is a large leap from their home country. A new country and a new culture require adjustments. This large leap to ISU is usually followed by another leap in the form of an internship.” MSS19 student Daniel Rotko reports.

“The internship is completed in yet another new country and culture. For me, the internship brought me back home to Finland, to a start-up called Solar Foods. Solar Foods aims to solve the world´s food problems by producing protein from the air. In addition to that, they hope to feed astronauts on their way to Mars. As I was excited about the possibilities, and ended up back to my home neighbourhood, I found myself starting the internship earlier than usual.

The space industry is usually full of big booms, large structures and rockets. Everything is large. Yet, I find myself working with the smallest workhorses space industry can employ: microbes. The large work environments of NASA and ESA are nowhere to be seen. Instead, I am inhabiting a compact work environment of a start-up with a relaxed atmosphere and smooth workflow. The main business idea is to grow protein for consumer markets. My part is in the space applications: to support crewed space exploration by recycling organic waste and providing a regenerating food source for astronauts.

My task is simple. Solar Foods is building its terrestrial infrastructure, with its first proper factory planned in early 2020s. My task is to take the current knowledge of their product and methods and fit it into a space environment. With a biology background and ISU training on Life Support systems, I am truly in my element. How can we recycle organic waste efficiently in space, then feed this waste to Solar Foods microbes, and ultimately convert this process into edible biomass for the astronauts? To start, I had to go into the beginning of that chain. I´ll just call it what it is: I spent my first week researching faeces. I´ll spare you the details though. Next, I will look if I can combine microbes with the first stage in an effective and safe way.

I can´t describe how excited I am about my work. Not only can I assist a great start up to develop a great product, I can use my time to assist future space exploration. Maybe one day, my work will make it into a space exploration ship. Who knows, maybe this work will be a critical part of astronauts diets in the future. Nevertheless, unlike NASA or ESA, everything here is small including the company, the process and especially the workhorses. Yet I can´t shake the feeling that we are on to something big. British Sir Francis Drake´s motto feels fitting: Sic Parvis Magna, “Greatness from small beginnings”.

Cover picture credit: International Space University ISU Master of Space Studies  MSS19 Student Daniel Rotko, presenting Solar Foods and especially Solein at the European Space Agency’s Smart Space Conference, held in Toulouse (France) on June 3-5,2019.