Bionavitas Pursues Algae Dream in Food Additives, Toxic Cleanup—Then Maybe Biofuel

5/18/09Follow @xconomy

When most entrepreneurs think of algae, they think of its potential to churn out renewable biofuels. But Bionavitas wants you to think first about dietary supplements. It also has its sights set on cleaning up toxic byproducts from polluters.

There are fascinating scientific and economic reasons why the Redmond, WA-based company has crafted this strategy. I got to hear the overview from CEO Michael Weaver, and get a little tour of his facility a few weeks ago.

Algae has long captivated the imagination of scientists looking for a cheap source of renewable fuel, because the fast-dividing microorganisms don’t depend on a growing season like soybeans, and can pump out far higher yields of biofuel per acre. It can be grown even more efficiently inside closed bioreactors with artificial light, but at a massive scale, for a product that can only retail for $2.50 a gallon, Weaver points out, “the capital costs will kill you.”

So Bionavitas has turned its attention first to making algae indoors to pump out a product called axtaxanthin—an antioxidant food additive that makes farmed salmon look pink. This product is many times more valuable per kilogram than biofuel, and it doesn’t need to be made in enormous vats to turn a profit. Suddenly, it’s feasible for a small company like Bionavitas to grow algae in a controlled indoor environment, and spend the money on electricity to give it the artificial light it needs to grow.

“What we’ve done is develop the light technology, it’s the key to our future,” Weaver says. “It may have something to do with biofuels. It may have a lot more to do with other markets in the short term.”

Bionavitas showed its algae-growing technology in public for the first time in February. Its secret sauce is what it calls “light immersion technology,” which it says will help algae get more of the sunlight it needs to put ordinary photosynthesis on steroids.

Most existing processes depend on growing the green stuff in outdoor ponds, with ample natural sunlight, like in the southern California desert. One of the big limitations with this approach is that ponds get bogged down when algae start growing too dense, creating a “self-shading” problem. The algae on the surface blocks light to algae lower down in the water, meaning it can only grow in a 3-5 centimeter layer in the water.

bionavitas-lit-rods2The Bionavitas technology uses cheap acrylic-like rods (pictured to the right) that float in the water, and channel sunlight into the deeper depths below. It can be used to better immerse the algae with light vertically, through internal reflection—the same physical property that helps channel light to travel efficiently along a fiber-optic cable. These rods are engineered to allow just enough light to leak out horizontally through the sides to allow algae to grow efficiently in one full meter of water depth. The company says it can squeeze another 10-to-12 fold boost in yields over standard algae production techniques.

Bionavitas, founded in 2006, has just six employees at the moment. It has gotten its early funding from angel investors, including Weaver himself, a successful IT entrepreneur with Applied Discovery, and Craig Watjen, a prominent investor and the former treasurer from the early days of Microsoft. Watjen, who made money in Weaver’s previous company, introduced him … Next Page »

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