While microalgae like spirulina (technically cyanobacteria) has been renowned as a superfood for decades, the more recent consumer shift toward plant-based foods and naturally sourced ingredients has been fueling new demand for algal proteins. And as industries strive to achieve more sustainable operations, algae has become a favored solution, like the use of algae-based dyes in the food and textile industries.
Macroalgae, which includes seaweed like nori and kelp, have also grown in popularity due to this demand for plant-based foods. However, because microalgae grows at a much faster rate than macroalgae — some types of microalgae can double in size in 24 hours — profits can also be made more quickly.
That is, if all goes well. The road to building a successful algae startup is certainly not for the faint of heart, as any algae-preneur will tell you. But it always begins with the same mission: bringing something good into the world. It's the reason why Dale Solomon, founder of Oasia Farms in Littlerock, California left his job as an aerospace engineer in 2017. Solomon first discovered the wide world of algae in college when a presentation on algae biofuels piqued his curiosity and led him to research the industry. Although he graduated with degrees in both engineering and business, Solomon wasn't quite ready to start a company right after graduation and instead dove into engineering work. But within a year, Solomon realized that a career in aerospace was not for him.
“It was a good time for me to jump ship and start my own company, and I knew that I wanted to make a difference when it came to climate change,” says Solomon.
After a few months of research and networking, Solomon finally bought his first spirulina culture in the fall of 2017. In 2018, he built his first ponds and started selling at the farmer's market, and by 2020, Solomon was operating a full-scale spirulina farm, selling fresh and frozen spirulina to customers locally and across the country. Solomon doesn't want to run a micro farm forever, though, and aims to expand into a larger facility. Oasia Farms recently received $100,000 from an investor, part of which Solomon used to purchase an automated harvesting system.
“We're trying to focus on doing as much as we can at this current facility, as it's cheap here — we're paying 500 bucks a month in rent. My philosophy is to figure it out right on a small scale, before you're paying a bigger rent and utility bill in a much larger facility. Work out the kinks, get as much preparation done as possible, get it to a point where you're happy with it,” Solomon says.
While Solomon acknowledges that running his own business has been a thrilling experience, and he wouldn't have it any other way, cultivating algae does have its own built-in challenges.
“Maybe the biggest challenge is just coming to grips with the reality that there's no end game, that I'm not going to get to a point where I've figured it out. Spirulina is very finicky. You have to just accept the fact that something's gonna happen, and it's about managing your emotions. If it's not working right now, I'm going to focus on finding a solution. And in the meantime, there's nothing else I can do. It's super cheesy, but the reality is, spirulina teaches you a lot about life in general — that you can't rush things. You just have to go with the flow and chill out a little bit. I'm not in control, and that's okay.”
To those who are excited about microalgae as an easy way to make money, Solomon warns of the hard work ahead.
“You better really believe in what you're doing. It looks cool, and it is very cool, but it's not sexy. It's dirty. It's hard work. I've been doing this for four years, and I have an engineering degree from a top 25 university, and I'm cleaning out muck from algae ponds, working out of a trailer, and packaging food. I do it because I know it's not gonna be this way forever. And it's already gotten a lot easier — I have two employees, and we're going to be hiring a third.”
In India, Growing Microalgae in Seawater
Across the globe in Chennai, India, Monisha Basivi and three of her college friends came together to create Seagrass Tech for the same reason as Solomon, to start a business that would have a positive impact on the world. Basivi and her friends were stunned by the massive amounts of freshwater used by the algae industry and decided to look into marine microalgae grown in non-potable water as a more sustainable alternative.
“We wanted to start something fresh and new and, at the same time, have a positive impact on the environment,” recalls Basivi. From this, Seagrass Tech was born in 2016, offering a cultivation and harvesting technology platform that makes use of seawater and non-arable tsunami-affected land to grow marine microalgae while also capturing carbon dioxide. While the startup provides consulting services to those interested in venturing into the algae business, the majority of their clients are after the startup's microalgae for use as a natural colorant in the F&B, pharmaceutical, and cosmetics industries.
Over the last few years, India has seen strong growth in algae-based industries “as people have started to realize the potential of the algae business,” Basivi explains. While the current trend is focused on protein-based algae like spirulina, the potential markets for lipids (biofuel production, disease treatment) and carotenoids (food colorant, dye, disease treatment) derived from microalgae are booming. In fact, Seagrass Tech has already ventured into the exploding carotenoid market and is working with the world's highest carotenoid-containing alga, Dunaliella salina.
Although there are around four similar players in the Indian market, Basivi says that Seagrass Tech has been able to edge out the competition with its annual production size of 1 metric ton. The startup is also in the process of expanding its production facility to produce up to 25 metric tons of Dunaliella salina dry powder per year.
An Algae Pioneer Focusing on the Future
But long before this recent proliferation of algae entrepreneurs, Robert Henrikson was tinkering around with microalgae in the mid-1970s, looking to bring the benefits of spirulina to the world.
Henrikson joined the first US spirulina startup in 1977 and by 1981 had co-founded Earthrise Farms in California's Imperial Valley, the first commercial spirulina farm in the US, which at 108 acres remains the largest spirulina farm in the world today.
Fast forward to 2013, and Henrikson had authored several books on algae and spirulina and turned his focus to smart algae microfarms. Via web-based sensors and controls inside the greenhouse, algae experts can remotely monitor a micro farm's culture and check on its growth, color, or anything else that could affect the algae's growth. Henrikson says that remote monitoring can provide a huge benefit for the operators of small farms who can't afford an algae expert onsite.
And Henrikson is now very interested in super large algae farms, which he believes are “definitely coming” as a natural next step after conventional, industrial-scale algae farms and small farmers.
“The third step is building large-scale microalgae biorefineries within a circular bioeconomy. This is really big scale to bring down the cost, to make it a more lower-cost protein product. And as aquaculture production ramps up, land-based agriculture, as well as grazing lands for livestock, would decrease, allowing for rewilding and tree growth on big swathes of land.”
After 40 years of experience in the algae business (and taking 5 to 10 grams of spirulina a day), Henrikson recommends newbies to begin their microalgae adventures in an aquarium — the small volume allows for greater control over growth conditions, including pH level and temperature of the water and lighting.
“It's the easiest way to grow it, and you also see the problems that you might have. I find that people who get started like that are able to see if they really want to do this. A lot of people have this idea they're going to go big right away. But the biggest challenge in growing algae is not the equipment or the technology — it's not understanding how to manage a culture.”
Algae has always been around as an important resource, but finally, a new generation of entrepreneurs is discovering and cultivating its superpowers to help improve the health of our society and of our planet.
“With rising awareness of the benefits of microalgae, and due to its wide scope of applications in different industries, we believe that in 10 years, the market for algae products will be as popular as the current 'organic products' market. In the next 20 years, we see algal products as an inevitable one in all our day-to-day products, whether it's from fashion, food, construction, or pharma,” says Basivi.
About the Author
Suchi Rudra is a freelance writer who is passionate about covering emerging tech, entrepreneurship, and real estate. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Fast Company, VICE, EdTech Magazine, and many other publications.