Most entrepreneurs think big. Andy Ayers thought small . . . microscopically small.
Ayers, a native Arizonan and a marine biologist by trade, was intrigued when he moved back to his home state in the late 1990s and heard about the vast underground sea known as the Coconino Aquifer, which yielded saline groundwater in the Painted Desert in northeastern Arizona.
“We analyzed a water sample, and it was remarkably pure. My first thought was, ‘Well, let’s grow shrimp,’ ” recalls Ayers. “But at that time, the Chinese and the Taiwanese were seriously getting into the shrimp industry, at such a low cost that it would have been impossible to compete.
“Our next thought was: ‘What about algae?’ At the time, everyone was really getting interested in omega-3 (fatty acids), and we knew the fish themselves get it, through the food chain, from algae to begin with. So we decided to extract it directly from the algae.”
Ayers would eventually secure a significant U.S. patent for the exclusive aquaculture use of the Coconino Aquifer’s uniquely pristine brine water. And nine years after he co-founded what would become Algae Biosciences Incorporated, ABI is ready to make a serious splash into the global microalgae industry.
Thanks to several key factors — including ABI’s unique ability to produce ultra-pure products, its targeted large scale of low-cost production, its intellectual property base, its global “sweet spot” of growing conditions in northeast Arizona, and a rapidly expanding world market — ABI is poised to make a bold move to challenge the global algae industry across a wide range of products.
“We’ve established command of perhaps the most ideal set of production conditions available anywhere in the world,” says ABI Chairman Robert J. Thompson.
ABI’s production facilities near Holbrook, Ariz., are currently undergoing a $5-million expansion, which is expected to allow the company to reach large-scale commercial production levels by year’s end.
And first on the agenda for ABI is the extraction of ultra-pure omega-3 fatty acid oils from microalgae for customers in the nutraceutical and food additive industries. “It’s a thrilling, exciting time,” says Ayers, now the Chief Executive Officer of ABI. “Things can’t happen fast enough.”
Market demand for omega-3 fatty acid oils currently far exceeds industry production capacity, and premium prices are paid for the purest algae-based ingredients in food and nutritional products. ABI produces pure omega-3 products that contain both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) — essential fatty acids that cannot be produced by the human body — while the vast majority of competing products offer only DHA, and many are purity challenged.
According to scientific studies, omega-3 fatty acids improve heart, joint, and brain health, may be linked to lower diabetes risk, and are beneficial to cognitive functioning and development, especially for infants and children. Preliminary studies also suggest that the essential unsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in treating depression while reducing the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, and strokes. Omega-3 is currently used in such food staples as bread, milk, yogurt, juice, breakfast cereal, spreadable oils, and infant formula.
A recent report by American market research publisher Packaged Facts predicts that U.S. retail sales of omega-3-enhanced food and beverage products, which rose 11 per cent in 2010 to nearly $4 billion US, will reach close to $7 billion by 2015. “Another boom phase for omega-3-enhanced products is on the horizon,” reads the June 2 report.
The Coconino Aquifer’s brine water, directly below ABI’s plant location, is protected from sources of pollution deep below the earth’s surface. Remarkably pure, it provides a competitively unmatched, ideal, and low-cost medium for growing a wide array of marine algae.
“Over the years, we’ve carried out a screening process with various species of algae, and found a half-dozen that grow well in our system. I’ve started a process, now, to basically push these algae to produce higher amounts of omega-3,” says Ayers. “And the high-protein powder that’s left over, after we extract the omega-3 oil, is one of the best protein sources in the world.
“It has higher amounts of five of the eight essential amino acids than any other terrestrial-based protein available today.”
Thanks to its enviable production capabilities, ABI’s downstream opportunities include: pharmaceuticals, such as designer proteins, vaccines, enzymes, antibodies, and research agents; sustainable biofuels; macroalgae for human food; scientific reagents that can replace synthetic dyes in food and cosmetics; organic pigments called carotenoids, which as potent antioxidants reduce cell damage and fight disease; and liquid feed for marine life.
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