Microalgae Mission to USA
8-13 March 2015
NB: Blog written for UK SIN website for a general audience
In our sea and waterways live organisms capable of supplying us with essential medicines, food, materials and fuel. As a consequence we are seeing intense focus on Blue Biotechnology with the emergence of new businesses capitalising on the commercial potential of our seas. An area of growing development in the UK is tapping into the huge commercial potential of microalgae - a single cell organism found in marine, brackish and freshwater environments. The USA has witnessed a similar surge of interest paralleled with significant public and private investment into developing the industry. The result is the construction of facilities capable of growing microalgae at large scales, something we do not have in the UK and presents an interesting opportunity for knowledge and technology exchange.
So on the 8th March, 13 delegates from the UK arrived in Phoenix to begin a week of site visits and meetings with the key players in microalgae. The tour started at Arizona State University to meet AzCATI staff and view the amazing selection of ponds growing what looks like green slime – but is in fact microalgae. As the sun shone intensely on us (some of us came from 3°C Scotland!), the group meandered around the ponds in awe and envy. The investment into such infrastructure is impressive but this facility is actually one of five algae testbeds in the US as part of the Department of Energy’s Algae Testbed Public-Private Partnership (ATP3). One of the most innovative microalgae SME’s in the UK, Algenuity, has already benefited from working with the facility that UK Science and Innovation Network (UK SIN), The Knowledge Transfer Network/ ABSIG and BBSRC PHYCONET were keen that more companies and academics in the UK could benefit, hence the tour.
The UK delegation was made up of five companies and seven academics plus myself. Although I work for a company, we are sponsored by the UK business-funding agency, Innovate UK, who have an MoU with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), UK to develop a sustainable algal industry in the UK. I manage this initiative on their behalf and we have created a network (ABSIG) to communicate and facilitate algae activities. The BBSRC PHYCONET is a new academic-led network aimed at facilitating collaborations between industry and academia in the area of high value chemicals from microalgae. So, algal biotechnology is a growing interest in the UK and we are particularly keen to see what is happening in the USA and where the opportunities are. We do not have the infrastructure in the UK so there was much discussion and a brainstorming session to identify gaps and opportunities.
We all flew off to San Diego on the second day and met with academic and entrepreneur, Steve Mayfield, at University College of San Diego for a very interesting conversation and discussion around his activities in therapeutic proteins and astaxanthin. Whilst at Greg Mitchell's lab at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, we heard about their work on microalgae and macroalgae (seaweed) as a bonus! The group are exploring ways to grow microalgae off industrial flu gas (high in CO2 which microalgae need to grow) to help industries reduce their CO2 emissions. Next on the agenda was a meeting with Synthetic Genomics Inc. The delegates were in awe as SGI described their Archetype platform, a genomic database with very impressive functionality. Following a lunch meeting with Global Algae Innovation and Clean Tech San Diego, the delegates were shuttled off again to have a tour of the UCSD Biology Field Station. Good to see some green ponds bubbling away and demonstration of construction skills of students who built their own raceway pond to grow their own algae.
The final two days of the Study Tour were spent at the Food and Fuel For the 21st Century conference at UCSD and a great to hear about the basic research being conducted in the US. Two academics from the delegation gave presentations at the conference, a great opportunity to showcase UK research. The Microalgae Mission to USA ended in glorious sunshine at UCSD but with a sense of purpose. The delegates returned to the UK with new and valuable contacts whilst KTN, BBSRC PHYCONET and UK SIN continue to discuss mechanisms to develop stronger and formal partnerships to maximise and combine national strengths.
Knowledge Transfer Manager
The Knowledge Transfer Network & ABSIG