Scotland-based biotechnology company ScotBio has been working in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh to develop its natural blue food colourant derived from microalgae spirulina. And, as a trend for the purest of natural ingredients grows and consumers shift away from buying foods made with artificial colours, the company is seeing growing demand for its product.
Here, Liz Gyekye catches up with Dr Rocky Kindt, Head of R&D at ScotBio, to find out more.
In the face of digital domination and technological takeover, the natural kingdom holds ever-growing significance. From raw vegan diets to desert marathons, and plastic-free living, society is on a quest to reclaim the natural world. Now, there is also a noticeable shift happening within the flavourings and ingredients industries.
It may surprise you to know that most artificial colouring in foodstuffs and beverages derive from petroleum or crude oil. Consumers, especially those with children, are turning away from the chemical additives’ world, especially in relation to sweets and drinks and demanding more natural foodstuffs from brands. Scotland-based biotechnology company ScotBio (@ScotBio) is one company that is managing to turn away from fossil fuels and produce a pigment from a biomass product which the firm cultivates.
In fact, it is extracting phycocyanin (a natural blue pigment) from spirulina algae (a microalgae) to produce its product. Using spirulina for food is not new – spirulina has been used since time immemorial. Yet, it has gained popularity in recent times within the health food industry. Unlike most other producers, ScotBio grows its spirulina algae inside a custom growing facility rather than an open pond system. In an open pond system, spirulina, which is first and foremost an agricultural product, is vulnerable to chemical and biological contamination.
Large outdoor spirulina production requires vast amounts of land and freshwater resources, often in short supply, limiting expansion efforts whilst varying seasonal and climatic conditions directly affect quality and composition of the product. It is also sensitive to climate changes and competes with commercial crops and freshwater.
“We produce natural biochemicals from microalgae under closed, controlled conditions,” says Rocky Kindt, head of R&D at ScotBio. “Our bioreactors and processing equipment can be built potentially anywhere, at any scale, producing a consistent clean product all year round. That’s how we address the concerns regarding outdoor-sourced products.”
Specifically, like the brewing, and wine-making and breadmaking industries, ScotBio uses large, stainless-steel closed vessels to produce the biomass and extract pigments from it. So, what is ScotBio using its product for? Kindt says: “Primarily, we are trying to address the underserved market of natural food ingredients. Currently, there is a lack of secure, clean, quality supply of available natural alternative suppliers. We are trying to address these markets.”
The blue food colourant can go into products like sweets, ice cream and drinks. According to Kindt, the extraction and separation of the blue extract from the spirulina is an intensive process. The production of the biomass is also intensive.
ScotBio has not been alone in meeting these challenges and it has not been alone on its development journey since being founded in 2007. In 2013, it started collaborating with the University of Edinburgh (UoE) in what has become a long-running academic-business partnership. According to Kindt, the company has had “a lot of successes” working with scientists at the UoE (@EdinburghUni), including postdoctoral researchers, students and interns, which has led ScotBio to successfully commercialise its product. In fact, it has allowed ScotBio to do a lot of “different things at an early stage, which would have been very difficult if we had to do it entirely by ourselves,” Kindt says. “The UoE’s expertise and facilities allowed us to try things out at a lab scale, proving concepts, which we could then justify diverting resources into for commercial scale-up.”
Supported by Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service, ScotBio has worked and is still working on a variety of projects with the University in various departments, including its School of Biological Sciences, School of Engineering and School of Physics and Astronomy. For example, the company currently has a project with the University’s School of Engineering to analyse whether the 3D-printed chromatography technology the School is developing could substantially simplify ScotBio’s purification procedures.
ScotBio is also working with the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy @PhysAstroEd to look at using different formulations in order to improve the stability of some of its extracts. “One difficulty of using natural ingredients is that you don’t get the same type of stability performance as you will get with many artificial alternatives. The School of Physics and Astronomy is developing strategies in that area,” says Kindt.
Not to be overshadowed by the Physics department, the School of Biological Sciences is also working in partnership with ScotBio on synthetic biology and gene-editing projects. The company is currently looking at gene-editing techniques to see if it could improve algae and microalgae as biotech platforms. It is looking at ways synthetic biology could potentially produce high-value biochemicals rather than fossil fuel-based chemicals. Collaborative research between the company and the University has brought many opportunities for both sides, from new science and manufacturing techniques to talent development and employment opportunities.
So, are there any challenges in academia and industry partnerships? Kindt maintains that academia and industry “can be quite different cultures”, adding that both parties are sensitive to each other’s needs. “One issue that can arise is the pressure to generate intellectual property and develop that in a sensible manner with the potential conflicting interest of publishing papers into the public sphere.
However, conflicting interests do not need to happen if both parties are harmonious, which has been the case between ScotBio and the UoE.”
Separately, another challenge faced by companies like ScotBio is attracting talent with a variety of skills. It can be quite difficult finding people with skills, which include a combination of engineering, biological and business skills.
Yet, the partnership formed with the University of Edinburgh has provided ScotBio with access to relevant expertise and a constant stream of fresh ideas, Kindt says.
Kindt adds that the collaboration has really helped the company to successfully attract investment and to grow. For instance, in 2013, the company had a large-scale pilot plant that was cultivating 2-3 litres. “Collaboration with the UoE saw volume scaling up from 10s of litres to 1,000s of litres. Currently, ScotBio is cultivating biomass on a scale of 10s of thousands of litres in a dedicate manufacturing plant with a capacity of millions of litres,” Kindt says.
“Constant innovation ‘future proofs’ the company in the long run. Our partnership with the UoE has really helped us to successfully attract investment and grow the company,” Kindt maintains. “To this day, we continue to take in postgraduate internships, postdocs, and PhD students to continue working together on our challenges. As we grow, we keep on finding new issues and new challenges. We always need new expertise.”
Key to such successful commercial collaborations with the UoE is the work done behind the scenes by Edinburgh Innovations. Its staff specialise not only in bringing businesses and academic researchers together for mutual benefit, but also in identifying funding streams to support such collaborations, and managing issues such as IP, consultancy contracts and studentships, to make it easy for the innovation itself to take place.
Longer term, ScotBio is looking to expand its product portfolio to use it in different applications. The biomass the company produces is composed of up to 60% dry weight, wholly utilisable protein.
“We notice the rapidly growing interest for scalable, sustainable supply of (alternative) protein for human consumption, including the explosive growth in the vegan/vegetarian meat alternatives market,” Kindt says.
Kindt concludes: “Right now, we are only extracting phycocyanin from spirulina and pushing this commercially. This has been our main focus. Overall, spirulina has been recognised as having all kinds of interesting nutritional, therapeutic properties for a very long time. There is no ‘useless’ component within spirulina biomass; it’s recognised as a remarkably abundant source of carotenoids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. We are analysing what else we can extract from this biomass as a by-product.”
This article was first published in issue #17 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly.