Sea of Solutions


Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas scans his keycard on the locked double doors. With a beep and a click, he enters the secure laboratory wing and walks past refrigerator-sized incubators that hold rows upon rows of vials.

Inside each vial, most would only see a bit of water and a tint of color. As Mike looks into them, he sees the next cancer medicine, a sustainable protein source, and even the raw materials for new plastics that don’t rely on fossil fuels.

“Within 10 years, I think there will be algae or algae-derived products in nearly 75 percent of the things that we interact with on a daily basis,” Lomas said. “People are starting to realize that we’ve barely scratched the surface of algae’s potential, and we’re seeing a massive surge in interest.”

Lomas is director of the National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota at Bigelow Laboratory, which curates one of the world’s largest and most diverse collection of marine algae. Each year, the NCMA team supplies algal samples to researchers and industrial partners around the world, and the volume and diversity of organizations reaching out to them has rapidly grown in recent years.

Lomas attributes much of this increase to a global drive toward sustainability and the inclusion of algae in the USDA’s 2018 Farm Bill. This sweeping package of food and agricultural legislation gets renewed about every five years and shapes the system that feeds the nation.

“We’ve been helping to push for this for much of the last decade, and it's a very, very big deal,” Lomas said. “Now, people who grow microalgae or seaweeds can access the opportunities and protections that the country has provided to growers of traditional agricultural crops for the last 100 years.”

With new support and recognition for algae, it’s attracted the attention of many new companies who are looking at it in new and creative ways. However, they quickly discover that it’s a very long road from the tiny vials of algae that they can purchase from NCMA to an actual product. Research, development, training, production, processing — each step represents a significant barrier for companies looking to explore algal applications.

To address these growing needs, Lomas launched the Center for Algal Innovation in 2020. As a core component of Bigelow Laboratory’s new strategic plan, the center aims to be a comprehensive resource for the research, workforce development, and intellectual property development capabilities needed to effectively utilize algae for commercial endeavors.

It’s work that the NCMA team has been building experience with on the side for decades, but that team’s primary focus has to be on maintaining and distributing their roughly 3,000 strains of algae.

The Center for Algal Innovation now operates alongside NCMA to focus and expand on that expertise, making it possible for a broader array of companies than ever before to explore their ideas for algae and aquatic microbes. The new center is already working with partners that range from tiny startups to Fortune 100 companies, and a new fabrication laboratory is under construction that will allow the team to create algal and microbial innovations for clients, partners, and its own development efforts.

“I think what really makes our approach different is that we are first and foremost research scientists,” Lomas said. “We’ve brought on some new team members to strengthen our business acumen, but we still start with deep knowledge of algae biology and then follow science principles to create solutions. That makes us a very different kind of asset to the industry.”

This approach is bolstered by having the NCMA collection in-house and having decades of experience carefully curating and caring for the collection. The team has spent that time exploring algae’s incredible range of genetic diversity and potential applications, something that many in the industry are just starting to realize.

Algae first gained major attention in the business world as the promise of biofuels took hold in the early 2000s. Seemingly overnight, countless companies sprung up around the world in a race fueled by more than a billion dollars of venture capital funds. As oil prices climbed and climate change grew in public awareness, the industry rocketed forward.

During the years that followed, the science proved successful, yet the market evaporated. Oil prices dropped, and it’s tough to get even the most principled consumers to voluntarily double their fuel costs.

“We have so commoditized fossil fuels that biofuels just can’t be price competitive until that changes,” Lomas said. “But the industrial knowledge and production capacity that was developed during that decade now represents huge potential that is currently being redirected to less commoditized applications where microalgae-based solutions can compete.”

Biofuels took algae production from small flasks in science labs to massive farms that covered acres. It is this change in scale that would eventually lead the USDA to include algae in the Farm Bill — rejuvenating and reshaping commercial interest in the crop.

Instead of engaging in a singularly focused race toward a common end goal, companies are now being more creative and looking for new applications. Some are starting with specific problems and searching for algae that can solve them, but an increasing number are starting with algae and searching for the solutions they can offer.

“That's a completely different philosophical approach,” Lomas said. “And I think it’s why the algal industry is increasing exponentially and in a much more diverse way than it did 10 years ago.”

This shift in approach is also changing what companies need from Lomas and his team. In the biofuels era, every company was basically doing slightly different versions of the same thing. This meant that a limited range of services and skills could fulfill the needs of most partners.

As the industry diversified, the regional and global need for the Center for Algal Innovation became clear. In addition to meeting a much broader array of companies’ needs, the center is also designed to address the more opened-ended questions that the industry has begun to embrace.

While biofuels transformed the scale and technical capabilities of the algal industry, the narrow focus of that revolution constrained the industry’s evolution during the following years. Only four or five species of microalgae still represent 99 percent of what is used. This is a tiny fraction of those available in the NCMA collection, let alone the ocean and other aquatic environments. They are, however, some of the algae that were used by biofuel companies.

This is where Lomas sees the largest opportunity for the future of the industry, and where he thinks the Center for Algal Innovation can be the most help. There are microalgae in the NCMA collection that are known to be much better at naturally producing compounds for commercial applications. There are many more that haven’t been screened for these compounds. As companies become more willing to explore the unknown, access to the NCMA collection and a knowledgeable guide become extraordinarily valuable assets.

“This new center puts us into position to help the industry embrace the full potential of algae and aquatic microbes,” Lomas said. “Companies are going to get more and more creative with these organisms, and they’re going to need a lot of help to turn that creativity into actual products that get the sustainable solutions algae offer into the marketplace.”