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

5/18/09Follow @xconomy

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to people from one of his portfolio companies, Bellevue, WA-based Light Sciences Oncology. They are the experts in making light waves do all sorts of nifty things—in their case, activating drugs to fight cancer.

Even with its light immersion technology, there are many other enabling technologies that need to be made in parallel to bring about commercially feasible algae, Weaver says. One technology might be genetically modified strains of algae that are more efficient, he says. But the multiple layers of technology needed means that algae-produced biofuel on a commercial scale is at least five to six years away from reality, Weaver says.

For the business, that means Weaver would need to raise a lot of venture capital to keep the doors open during that product development cycle, which certainly wouldn’t be easy. Enter dietary supplements thought to have health benefits (nutraceuticals), and toxic cleanup (or bioremediation).

What makes nutraceuticals attractive is their high price, and low production volumes, Weaver says. Axtaxanthin sells for about $15,000 per kilogram, Weaver says. It is in strong demand as an antioxidant dietary supplement, and for giving farmed salmon its pink color. Because of the high price, it can justify the more expensive controlled growing conditions of an indoor bioreactor. That means Bionavitas doesn’t have to worry about competing algae species elbowing aside its preferred strain to make axtaxanthin, and there’s also no bird poop to worry about, like in an open pond.

The bioreactor can be housed in Redmond, with artificial light running 24 hours a day, because electricity is cheap here. His company ought to have an edge with its light immersion technology, because competitors currently use large fluorescent lamps that light up entire rooms and lose a lot of energy to heat, making them less efficient, Weaver says.

Weaver showed me how this works. Bionavitas has figured out a way to get the most out of the electricity. It uses only red and blue light—the parts of the visible light spectrum that algae can best respond to—and its bioreactor is set up to flash light every 1/24th of a second, instead of continuously, because algae only need the flickering light for photosynthesis. That greatly reduces the electric bill.

Bionavitas is currently trying to raise money—Weaver wouldn’t disclose how much—to build up a pilot-scale manufacturing facility to put this process to the test in larger quantities.

The second potential application, bioremediation, is a market Bionavitas sees potentially opening up if legislation passes to establish a carbon cap-and-trade market, giving big polluters more incentive to seek ways to reduce their emissions, Weaver says. That’s because algae facilities can be set up near toxic runoffs from mining companies, chemical companies, and major agribusinesses. These operations throw off toxic concentrations of selenium, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which algae can mitigate, Weaver says. An algae production site would have to be set up on-site next to one of these plants through a partnership, Weaver says.

The bioremediation market will be much bigger than the nutraceutical applications, but exactly how big will depend on how the market for carbon offsets materializes, Weaver says. Politics at the state and federal level are key to launching the business—the day after our interview, Weaver traveled to Olympia to brief a House committee on the opportunities with algae.

Also in the weeks since I did the original interview, one of the leaders in the algae biofuel industry, Cambridge, MA-based GreenFuel, closed down. Weaver didn’t predict his competitor’s demise during our interview, but he clearly must have seen some writing on the wall for algae biofuels. He pushed hard on the theme of his company’s diversification.

“If biofuels never comes to fruition using light technology, it will not destroy our company. It would not have an effect, other than we’d be losing one potential marketplace,” Weaver says. “If it does come to pass, we’ll just have a much larger marketplace to license our technology to.”

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