Despite their ability to create matter out of thin air, algae and cyanobacteria have long been neglected by the biotech industry. Recently, however, they have started to gain traction in new market niches.
The idea that new technologies should serve sustainability has started taking root in society. Using photosynthetic microbes for biotech applications appears to be a no-brainer. Algae grow biomass literally out of thin air, only needing water, carbon dioxide, and inorganic nutrients. Many grow on seawater and in lands not suitable for agriculture.
However, algae have historically not been considered a good alternative to yeast and bacteria because of their slower growth rate. In addition, the crash of many algae biofuel companies about a decade ago dealt a blow to the field that it still has trouble recovering from.
The early 2010s saw several startups forming to produce biofuels, mainly in the US. Many claimed to be close to offering algal biofuel at competitive market prices. Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, and Algenol, among others, received significant public and private investments and built up high expectations. But due to technological challenges and the drop in oil prices between 2015 and 2016, no product became commercially viable and these businesses either went bankrupt or had to radically change their focus.
“The [challenge] of algae and cyanobacteria comes down to their slow growth and the cost of production. Investors have to know that you are going to produce a product cheaper than other people can. It isn’t worthwhile to produce something in algae instead of E. coli ‘just because,’”
Hugh Goold, Research Scientist at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australia
Microalgae capture sunlight using pigments of vibrant colors, such as chlorophylls, carotenoids, and phycocyanin. In particular, the algae spirulina and chlorella found their way to the market a long time ago as food supplements and food colorants. Algae are also an excellent source of protein, which opens up a lot of opportunities in the production of meat analogs and vegan food in general.
Unilever, a massive producer of food and other consumer goods, has seen the nutritional potential of microalgae, partnering with UK-based company Algenuity in July,2020. (Unilever and Algenuity partner to bring microalgae to the table)
Last year, the Dutch food and biochemical company Corbion announced a similar partnership with Nestlé, signaling that big players in the food industry are starting to increasingly recognize the potential value of algae products. Other companies gaining traction in the field are Algama in France seeking to provide meat alternatives, and AlgaEnergy in Spain producing food and feed as well as cosmetics and fertilizers from algae.
In 2011, Renana Krebs graduated from the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art in Tel Aviv, teamed up with her father and founded Algalife, a German-Israeli company offering algae-based fibers and textiles.
Over in San Diego, California, the startup Algenesis has been using algae oil as a replacement for petroleum. The two first products launched by the startup, whose founders are all surfers, are a surfboard and flip flops made from an algal biopolymer that is biodegradable.
In addition to fashion, algae can also be used to produce sustainable alternatives to everyday petrochemical products. For example, the startup Living Ink, in the US, aims to provide an eco-friendly alternative to printing ink using cyanobacteria.
After some initial hiccups, algae seem to be finding their way into the market. The new generation of startups in this field focus more on business-to-business relationships but build their branding around customers’ demand for environmentally friendly products.
At DQS, we are working on the technology to enable a wide spread of small and mid size micro-algae farms, as we believe a distributed network is more flexible and quick to adapt to changes. Knowing the difficulty of this endeavor, we are continuously looking for partners, who would bring their ideas and energies in building a sustainable future together.Original article: LABIOTECH.EU - After Years of Neglect, Algae Biotechnology Makes a Comeback