It’s not often a startup looks to revolutionize an industry with algae, but that’s just what Recambrian hopes to do.
Algae – the vast and diverse group of aquatic organisms that produce oxygen through photosynthesis – has the potential to benefit the environment by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and serving as an alternative source of energy, material, and food.
Recambrian wants a role in that endeavor as it looks to improve the current photosynthetic infrastructure for algae farming. It’s undertaking a bid to lower industry production costs and make algae biomass a favored commodity.
The company’s aims are the dreams of its founders, John Martin and Valerie Harmon, shown below. Based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Martin wants to be part of a generation that flips the world’s reliance on oil, coal, and gas to more sustainable sources. Algae is key to that dream.
“You can say, ‘Well, algae's just another plant. Who cares?’ But it’s biomass. We can make everything we need for a modern life using biomass instead of fossil fuels.”
In addition, algae produce a crop every seven days while land plants take up to 8 months to produce one crop.
More importantly, the many uses of algae can help usher in an era of sustainability.
The Many Potential Uses of Algae
Algae convert carbon dioxide and light into biomass which, in turn, can create a variety of products – including nutritious animal feeds, pharmaceuticals, and even the plastic behind water bottles and sneakers. Algae biomass can also be the source of biofuels and the limestone found in cement. All this potential caught Martin’s attention.
“Alternative sources of biomass also push us towards sustainability from a food perspective,” Martin says. “Our arable lands are being pushed to the limit, so as we grow more algae using water instead of land, we open up a huge potential for more volume. This massive scale of microalgae and seaweed won’t strain our food supply and will keep food prices from jumping as our population increases. Also, the more plants we grow, the more carbon dioxide we’re capturing, in a simplified manner.”
Growing microalgae at scale, though, has high costs, Martin says. That’s because the algae beneath the surfaces of ponds, lakes, and oceans absorb less sunlight than that at the top. The alternative method of growing algae in a laboratory is more efficient and faster, he says, because light can be better distributed in a lab – but outdoor bodies of water are needed to grow algae on a vastly larger scale.
Illustration of green algae cells. (Adobe Stock)
Extending a Mission for Sustainability
Martin believes Recambrian has a solution that will optimize light distribution in large volumes of water. The company is developing a technology that overcomes the challenge of growing algae in deep bodies of water and sparks algae photosynthesis regardless of depth.
“Our system is designed around an extremely simple concept that uses no external energy to distribute light more effectively,” he says. “It allows essentially every cell to gather more light so we can grow more algae.”
The technology requires more infrastructure than algae farms are accustomed to, but “based on our projections, the cost is manageable to the point where we get this crazy increase in productivity that more than offsets the upfront cost,” he says.
From there, Martin sees harvested algae as a more reliable and cleaner alternative than the oil and coal products that provide energy and the petrochemicals behind asphalt, fertilizers, and plastics.
Recambrian – which is a nod to the Cambrian period of 500 million years ago that produced the most intense burst of evolution ever known – will continue its push to grow algae more efficiently for many uses, Martin says. But today, the company is focused on using algae as a feed ingredient for farmed fish, which, on its own, will expand the food supply chain and be a sustainable response to overfishing the oceans.
Zoomed-in image of microalgae. (Adobe Stock)
Onshape Startup Program Helps Recambrian Start Up
When Martin isn’t fundraising, he’s working on developing the company’s technology – and that’s where Onshape rose to the surface of the product design seascape.
“I build products, so I do a lot of 3D modeling,” he says. “I'm by no means the most fluid expert, but it's obviously a critical tool for building things. You have to have that skill.”
Starting Recambrian on a limited budget, Martin found the design tools he needed at no cost thanks to the Onshape Startup Program. The program provides teams at qualifying hardware startups access to Onshape Professional, a fully cloud-native CAD and PDM package with integrated simulation and rendering tools.
Martin remembers the introductory conversation. “Someone from Onshape reached out and was like, ‘Hey, let's chat about your new free account….Why don't you try our entrepreneurship program for startups?’ By the time I woke up the next morning, the account was already switched to premium, and I had all the features. And then I had another call with someone from Onshape that was like, ‘If you need support, we’re here.’ And I was like, "Oh, that's convenient.”
Aside from the program’s free cost, Martin appreciates how Onshape Professional lets him easily save folders and organize files, and how his work is automatically saved to the cloud. He particularly likes the clean interface with smaller buttons, allowing him to visualize designs with a smaller screen, like a laptop.
“One minor feature really showed me that the Onshape team is thinking about the designer’s experience. To sketch a polygon, you just click and drag, then the number of sides changes,” he says. “That was the first time I'd seen that feature. That's just one interesting small thing that's useful and saves time.”
Martin also utilized Onshape to create and build a spectrophotometer, which is used to test the density of algae culture by pulling water through a bottom tube, shooting infrared light through, and measuring the light that made it to the other side.
Martin’s design of a spectrophotometer in Onshape, left, and in reality, right. He calls it the “Densor.”
“This was way cheaper and more useful than buying equipment off-the-shelf, saving me tons of time and making my data more reliable,” he says.
Algae, Technology, & Sustainability
It's not lost on Martin that technology can help him develop the technology that he believes can play a role in shifting how people consume, build, and eat.
“You need to find a way to create many, many more resources. And it's possible. As a society, we can support well more than 10 billion people with all of the innovations that people are working on today. And we can do it with really rigorous sustainability standards. We just need to become better at efficiently growing biomass in a planned, holistic way.”