skip to content

CambPlants Hub

A networking organisation for plants-related research and impact

Specific Innovations with Disruptive Impact in the Micro Algae Biotech Sector

A CambPlants Industrial ‘double-header’ presentation was given on 11 May 2017 by Alison Smith from the Department of Plant Sciences and Vitor Verdelho Viera, the Chief Development Officer for Algae for future. These talks aim to show the benefits of linking academic research with industry and demonstrate how readily impact can be achieved from fundamental research.

Alison Smith spoke about ‘thinking outside the flask’ to develop something useful from her research on algal metabolism.  Alison convinced us that not only is metabolism fun, understanding of vitamin synthesis is essential.  The University of Cambridge has various algal biotechnology projects, now including the Algal Innovation Centre to help study how to grow algae at scale – algal agronomy - to increase production levels.

Using algae to produce various products has been studied for many years, but we are now coming to understand that using algae to produce high-value, low volume products is more sustainable.  Algae are currently industrially cultivated for producing existing algal products and growth conditions have been optimised.  We are now moving towards manipulation, particularly using synthetic biology approaches, to generate novel products using algae.

Alison explained that commercialisation of research is much more than just the science – it needs to work in an industry context. You need to ask the questions ‘what is realistic?’ and ‘where can science contribute?’  There is also the potential for providing objective advice for regulatory affairs.

Vitor gave an industrial perspective on the growth and processing of algal biomass.  He started by inspiring us that the world is changing fast and we should be looking for specific innovations with disruptive impact potential to shape the future and create opportunities.  He pointed out that the world’s largest taxi company (Uber) owns no cars, the world’s largest accommodation provider (AirBnB) owns no real estate, and the world’s largest movie house (Netflix) owns no cinemas.

Vitor then worked through six examples from the algal world where disruptive impact may be applicable: LEDs, Enzymes, GMO, Membranes, Hydrolysis, and Microfarming. For each, Vitor discussed the current challenges faced by algae producers and also the potential for algae to solve others’ problems.  Of particular interest was the new fashion for algal microbusinesses (along the same lines as microbreweries), each producing niche speciality products such as the health food spirulina, or feeds for aquaculture and pets.

The A4F business covers everything from production technology and product development to the market.  They are currently building Algae Innovation Parks in Morocco and Italy and producing the largest European facility for scaling up algal growth.  They do their own research and development projects but also collaborate widely – with over 80 Universities.  A4F are also developing the Algatec eco business park housing several microalgae industries.

Howard Griffiths chaired the lively question and answer session, with debate on the use of GM technology in algae, use of algae for bioprospecting and consideration of algae as a nuisance in freshwater and the appropriate disruptive technologies for tackling this.

We left feeling inspired to try new things or apply current ideas in new ways, and with a greater awareness of the potential for a fundamental understanding of metabolism to be applied in developing new products and processes to enhance algal bioproduction. We also began dreaming of starting our own algae microbusiness.