Entrepreneurial Explorations Drive Science Forward


The ocean is an endless source of new technologies, medicines, and creative ways to solve global challenges – and exploration of these opportunities is a core part of Bigelow Laboratory’s research. This approach provides new avenues for scientists to make discoveries, connect with partners, and leverage their advances to solve problems.

"Our world faces many challenges, from the need for sustainable food resources to new approaches for animal and human health," said Jim McManus, vice president for research and administration. "Bigelow Laboratory’s basic research approach combined with private sector collaborations provide impactful results to meet these challenges in a timely fashion."

A number of senior research scientists are involved in an array of efforts that combine Bigelow’s Laboratory’s core basic research with applied science needs, as well as with educational efforts. The resulting projects represent a deep integration of multidisciplinary approaches. Frequently, these entrepreneurial efforts are launched by philanthropic gifts – which then yield dividends that multiply the impact of the project outcomes and support the laboratory’s work.

Over the last several years, Bigelow Laboratory has leveraged philanthropic investment by one donor to create an internal fund that enables researchers to conduct science that can benefit society and spawn new commercial partnerships. The Sash A. and Mary M. Spencer Entrepreneurial Fund has already supported 15 diverse and innovative projects – including the harvest of useful compounds produced by algae, techniques for detecting nanoplastics in water, and a novel effort to develop seaweed seed storage for aquaculturists.

"These types of activities connect our institute and basic research activities out to the rest of the world," said Senior Research Scientist Nichole Price. "The strongest scientific approaches provide circular benefits, feeding back into our basic research and spurring further discoveries, solutions, and inspiration."

Such efforts also give rise to new research directions and specialized centers at the Laboratory. Price directs the Center for Seafood Solutions, which partners with seafood producers to develop science-based solutions for industry challenges. Currently, she is also leading a new project to evaluate algae-based dietary supplements that can reduce methane emission by cattle. As it advances, this project has attracted grants to fund future stages, leveraging the original philanthropic gift to generate new funds that are reinvested back into the institute’s work.

This unusual model allows researchers to develop projects that respond to specific problems and address challenges at a faster pace than the typical science funding process allows. It stimulates new products, approaches, and other applied activities, allowing researchers to keep pace with fast-moving markets and urgent problems from food security to climate change.

"As we grow into the ocean innovation space and target current challenges, we are building new partnerships and reaching new sectors," McManus said. "Bigelow Laboratory’s mixture of basic and applied research and partnership development facilitates a broader impact for our work."

Some entrepreneurial activities spawn ideas and initiatives that continue building in new directions and over years. Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas, who directs the National Center for Microbiota and Algae, has long been tapping the potential of algae to develop innovative applications, from biofuels to fish feed.

Two provisional patents have been filed lately as a result of these activities. Lomas’ next step in extending and formalizing these entrepreneurial efforts will be to lead a new Center for Algal Innovations at the Laboratory, which will be focused on forward-looking, algae-inspired solutions to global challenges.

"Microbial life is an incredibly diverse and untapped resource, and it is essential to the global ocean processes that shape the entire planet," Lomas said. "As an institute, our focus on the base of the food web and expertise in ocean microbes uniquely position us to tackle a wide range of today’s challenges and opportunities."