THE first factory to turn undrinkable waste liquid from Scotland’s whisky industry into fish food will open this time next year – and then go global, it is claimed.

Horizon Proteins will collect hundreds of litres of pot ale from the malt trade every year and transform it into raw protein for use in fish food.

Matched to the nutritional needs of farmed salmon, the powdered product that results has already been registered with EU regulators.

The scientists behind the biotech start-up have secured the site for their first premises at an unnamed distillery near Inverness. Production is set to begin this time next year, with the first batch ready for sale just weeks later. But while the firm will initially focus on buying and selling in Scotland, founder Dr Nik Willoughby says the Heriot-Watt University spin-off aims to become a world player.

He says the company’s low-energy method, which involves no chemicals, could be applied to other drinks and even used on bioethanol.

And, with patents granted in key markets including America, Canada and Japan, Willoughby is confident no one can replicate their process.

Even without crossing borders, the firm expects to make £8-10 million annually within the first five years of production. If all goes to plan, the team, which includes members from England, Ireland, Senegal and Chile, will leave their academic roles behind to work on the business full time.

Willoughby told The National: “Expanding internationally is one of our long term objectives.

“The process has been modelled around malt whisky and salmon because they are such important industries to us here in Scotland. There is a nice symbiosis between the availability and the demand. But the technology would work with any distilled alcohol. The scope to expand globally is very much there.”

Until now, pot ale has been made into a syrup fed to beef and dairy cattle. Horizon Proteins will now take that nutrient-rich waste liquid from one major Scottish industry to create fuel for yet another.

Aquaculture contributed £1.8 billion to the economy this year, with salmon the top export, and there are plans to double the sector’s value within less than 15 years.

By 2022, production of fishmeal, a principal component of fish feed is expected to have fallen by 11 per cent, with the shortfall creating a headache for producers.

Horizon Proteins say their sustainable protein source can fill that gap, and its amino acid profile makes it especially suited to salmon.

No fillers or chemicals are added and there are no “anti-nutritional” elements that could cause gut problems in the animals.

The team aim to set up hubs alongside prominent distilleries to minimise the need to transport the raw materials, reducing their environmental impact and costs, and the first site will be capable of processing 150,000 tonnes of pot ale per year.

By 2022, the firm expects to be producing 12,000 tonnes of feed matter annually.

According to biomass expert Dr Jane White, they will likely celebrate their first batch with a dram and some salmon.

Roger Kilburn, chief executive of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC), which supports Horizon Proteins, said the firm is part of a growth sector capable of generating £900m by 2025.

This is a major jump from the £230m it brought in during 2014 and Kilburn says it will eventually become as big as the chemical industry, adding: “ As fossil fuels are a finite resource this is inevitable.

“In the 20th century we learned how to industrialise chemistry, in the 21st century we will industrialise biology. The winning economic technologies for industrialising biology are still emerging.”