Earlier this week I presented at an Algae event in London: the “Algal Technologies Industry Roadmap’ and Spark Awards Launch.
The event reminded me of a recent conversation with a colleague just back from a visit to the aquaculture industry in China. His message: its huge and we [the UK] are miles behind. (see http://www.seaweed.ie/aquaculture/noricultivation.php for an example).
I was also reminded of themes that emerged at Algae World Asia, in Singapore last November. There were presentations from some well-invested players from the new generation of microalgae companies, such as Heliae and Aurora. I was struck that most of these companies set out to make biofuel, but have ended up making products like nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals, because algae biofuel is not yet commercially viable. I also learned that scaling-up production of microalgae is really difficult: cultivation, harvesting and downstream processing all present big challenges that are not obvious when you work at lab scale.
UK Algae ‘industry’ roadmap
The ‘Industry roadmap’launched on Monday contains some valuable information for entrepeneurs thinking about starting companies. This figure gives a snapshot of the consultant’s findings:
The report highlights the an imbalance in the UK algal supply chain:
This imbalance is critical for future of a UK algae industry: like many other industries the UK is missing the boat. As with the workshops that started the roadmap process there is no shortage of great academics or interested public sector organisations, but we simply don’t have enough companies producing and processing algae. Not only are they too few, but the excellent companies that do exist are far too small to make a viable industry.
We need more algae entrepreneurs and algae investors
As with any business, its really important to understand your market deeply and to know the value of your product. This dictates your business model and will dictate the production mechanism that is commercially viable. For example, bulk commodities should be produced by pond culture of microalgae or farming of macroalgae whereas the high value ‘ceuticals can be produced in high specification closed photobioreactors. This consideration needs to be made very early in an algae technology business.
At GlycoMar we think microalgae are a wonderful resource for drug discovery, and they provide a means of production for the complex polysaccharides that we look for (see my earlier post on glycobiology). We’ve had to look at future scale up in order to provide material for clinical development, and we have had a successful feasibility study with MicroA in Norway.
Lab scientists often assume that scale-up should be ‘simple’ – but this is wrong. This slide from Prof. Shulin Chen at Washington State University identifies the challenge:
A lot of research focuses on the first part, but to make a product we have to do the rest profitably.