March 9, 2021
Tucson-Based Startup Licenses Technology for Creating Sustainable Products from Algae
TUCSON, Ariz. — University of Arizona researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have created a system capable of sustainably producing industrial-scale microalgae and other microorganisms used in pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements and vaccines.
Biosystems engineering professor Joel Cuello and his team developed the new technology, called the Air Accordion Photobioreactor. The system's unique zigzag configuration – a departure from conventional bioreactors – is made of a low-cost polyethylene material and is designed for excellent mixing and hydrodynamic properties that promote the optimal growth of microorganisms while maximizing water and nutrient efficiency.
"As an engineering and science professor, commercialization of what my 'bioimagineering' team designs and develops is truly the culminating capstone for our research endeavors – enabling our innovations to be productively applied to create sustained value for all stakeholders in society, including the general public," Cuello said. "It really does make our work so much more impactful and rewarding."
Bioreactors are used for growing organisms such as yeast, bacteria and algae, as well as plant and animal cells to manufacture a host of products, including antibodies and vaccines. Conventional bioreactors for microalgae that use long tubes, pipes or columns, and even panels made of glass or polycarbonate, are typically expensive to manufacture and often fail to maintain desired mixing characteristics when scaled up for industrial production.
Upcoming product trials for the Air Accordion will focus on producing health supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and spirulina.
With the ability to scale up, the Air Accordion could have significant implications, representing a leap forward in how bioreactors contribute to sustainability. The impact would be immediate for the omega-3 fatty acid industry, which has been traditionally reliant on fish populations and contributes to harmful overfishing practices.
Supplements like spirulina are farmed in open agriculture environments, often with poor water and nutrient reusability, and can become vulnerable to environmental toxins and other types of contaminants. The Air Accordion's closed-system design allows these algae-based products to be produced with vastly improved yield and quality without causing environmental degradation.
Through its commercialization unit, Tech Launch Arizona, UArizona licensed the Air Accordion and five other bioreactor designs developed by Cuello's Biosystems Engineering group to Tucson-based startup AlgaeCell LLC in September 2020. In collaboration with Cuello, AlgaeCell Chief Executive Officer Hamed Ismail is spearheading efforts to bring the technology to market, conducting product trials and securing industry partnerships and conducting trials that will document the efficacy of the bioreactor across a variety of potential products.
"Sustainable production capabilities are becoming ever more critical in industries that have reached the tipping point using traditional methods," said Bruce Burgess, TLA's director of venture development. "The technology licensed by UArizona to AlgaeCell opens the door for many producers to meet the increasing demands for product."
Ismail and Cuello worked with TLA commercialization experts Tod McCauley, senior licensing manager for the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, and Steven Wood, mentor-in-residence, to protect the intellectual property for the invention, develop a commercialization strategy and launch the company.
"AlgaeCell's partnership with TLA helps this startup assemble the crucial launchpad that it needs for a smooth takeoff, and so it is positively enabling," Ismail said.
TLA is one member in a continuum of providers supporting the startup. Following the planned product trials, AlgaeCell will be based in the UArizona Center for Innovation incubator, located at Tech Parks Arizona, where the team will get hands-on consulting and further mentorship to grow the company.
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The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top 40 public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2019 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $734 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.
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