Capturing CO2 utilising the world’s oldest species
Microalgae – microscopic, aquatic, plant-like organisms – are both invisible and abundant. Usually formed of a single-cell, and capable of photosynthesis, microalgae are among the oldest species on the planet. Humans have sensed its potential for centuries – spirulina was consumed by the Aztecs – but in recent decades commercial interest in microalgae has grown not only as a source of nutrition, but for its ability to efficiently convert carbon dioxide into biomass. The market for microalgae products is valued upwards of $3 billion and projected to reach $4.7 billion by 2027. In a recent article for The Conversation about a pioneering Europe-wide project to feed the world more sustainably, one bioscientist described it as “green gold”.
Algiecel, which was founded in 2021 by CEO Henrik Busch-Larsen, is among a growing number of startups on the microalgae frontier. Based in Denmark, the company has developed an innovative high-yield photobioreactor that converts excess CO2 into microalgae biomass, which is then dried into a powder to be used as a protein for aquaculture feed, or an ingredient for cosmetics and dietary supplements.
The research and development phase for Algiecel has moved fast, aided by Busch-Larsen’s prior experience as the CEO for Unibio, a biotechnology firm founded by his father that converts natural gas into animal feed. Busch-Larsen, who spent the past 12 years scaling Unibio, sold a portion of his shares in the company which helped get his new venture off the ground. Using his existing networks, he pulled together a team and last year Algiecel launched its working pilot, the result of a collaboration with the Danish Technological Institute. The build was supported by a number of smaller funding rounds, and it has since secured €2.4 million from the Danish Energy Agency to scale and develop the technology. It currently has a team of 16 across Copenhagen and Odense.
The Algiecel photobioreactor fits inside a standard shipping container, which makes it easy to transport and set up, as well as an economical option for smaller companies that are overlooked by existing options for carbon capture and utilisation. Algiecel pays for the biogenic carbon, which is funneled into the reactor and, in combination with LED lights, fuels photosynthesis. Because the biomass is then sold on as an ingredient, Algiecel sits at the intersection of two markets; simultaneously tapping into the demand for carbon capture technologies as well as sustainable, carbon-neutral, nutritional products. The latter market is growing, too. Microalgae contain metabolites that boast antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. The organisms are already gaining prominence in cosmetics, and now the pharmaceutical industry, where they show potential in treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes. Though the microalgae market overall is relatively niche, Algiecel is betting on it expanding.
Despite the pace, there have been hurdles, says Busch-Larsen, “days when you are looking at the pilot reactor and algae is leaking out – those are bad days”. But to him that is part of the process of developing a new technology. More challenging is the need for capital to fund it, which the company is currently in the process of raising, and finally, the years-long regulatory lag that faces any product that requires novel food approval. “But the areas we can already target without this barrier will create a nice market for Algiecel,” says Busch-Larsen. “Moving into human foods and supplements at a later date will just make it even better.”
With many countries now committed to achieving net zero by 2050, demand for carbon capture will only increase. Carbon capture alone cannot tackle climate change – for it to be effective it needs to be part of a global effort to decarbonise and use green energy – but it is a useful tool during that transition, as well as a means to remove residual greenhouse gasses that will take longer to abate. Companies that have previously been reluctant to invest in sustainability are now racing to reduce or completely decarbonise their supply chains, either due to a commitment to sustainability or looming penalties for excess emissions.
It will be a competitive market, Busch-Larsen believes, but Algiecel, which is producing an ingredient for consumer products, will be able to pay a premium when compared with a larger carbon capture and storage facility that is converting carbon into chemicals and fuels.
Algiecel is part of the global decarbonisation movement, but is a business-first operation. Busch-Larson won’t talk about margins, but describes them as “attractive”. And there are still variables they need to hammer out. “It goes back to the technology, because you need to have a fairly high productivity rate in the reactor. At the same time, you are exposed to the energy market, and you need to source your green energy, then understand the price point in the market.” For now, its sights are set on Europe, with a view to expand – and possibly license – the technology to the US and beyond. Microalgae have a uniquely high growth rate – up to 20 or 30 times that of conventional crops; as a “plug-and-play” modular unit, Algiecel believes it too can expand quickly wherever the opportunities lie.
Completes a Master of Science in International Business and Modern Language at the University of Southern Denmark, before joining the Danish Army Reserve Officer Programme
Becomes CEO of his father’s biotechnology firm, Unibio
Works with Harvard Business School and Innovation Fund Denmark as business leader in designing a new programme called Leading the Virtual Company
Founds Algiecel as CEO
Launches Algicel’s working pilot in collaboration with the Danish Technological Institute
Initiates the full-scale demonstration scale project and Algiecel wins the Gapgemini Nordic Sustainability Award for Denmark