Startup Interview: Douglas Martin of MiAlgae

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Edinburgh-based scientist and entrepreneur, Douglas Martin recently won an award from Shell for his business MiAlgae which produces algae to sustainably feed fish.

According to Martin, his business can grow microalgae rich in omega 3 and other nutrients using co-products from the Scottish whisky industry. This process makes MiAlgae stand out from many of its competitors: “We use other industries’ waste, create microalgae from it, whilst also cleaning the co-products. Our process is the embodiment of the circular economy.”

We caught up with Douglas and asked him a few questions –

When did you launch the company?

MiAlgae was launched in September 2016

What does your company do?

MiAlgae produces microalgae rich in omega-3 oil using industrial waste water for the livestock feed industry.

What is your target market / who is buying your product / service?

Our initial target market is the aquaculture feed sector, but we aim to sell into the livestock and pet markets in the future.

Why did you launch the company?

We launched the company with the aim of reducing waste while making money. Co-products that we use, such as by-products from the Scottish whisky industry, are often discharged into the environment where they have the potential to cause algal blooms, which are bad for the environment. We’d like to stop that from happening while increasing the sustainability of the livestock feed industry.

What is your background?

I’m a biotechnologist by training but have had experience in commercial roles.

Did you get any start up support?

Yes! We have received a lot of start-up support from a number of places. The University of Edinburgh has helped us from day one and has led to us receiving support from the likes of: Shell (in the form of a Shell LiveWire award), ClimateKic, Converge Challenge, and the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

What start-up process did you go through?

We’ve been through a number of start-up programs and accelerators, including the University of Edinburgh’s Accelerator pipeline and the ClimateKic Accelerators. We are currently going through the second stage of the ClimateKic Accelerator hosted by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation.

What process have you gone through to get to where you are now since start-up?

We went through a boot strapped phase, and to a certain extent we’re still in that phase. We started with a number of home-made algae growing systems that were initially setup in my flat. We built our own incubators and some other equipment because we couldn’t afford to buy or rent other equipment. This allowed us to prove some of the basic principles, and allowed us to de-risk the system to a certain extent.

What are your plans from now to grow the business?

The plans to grow the business at the moment are a matter of scale. We are currently in the process of optimising our process and scaling it up, which is really exciting. We aim to have our pilot plant up and running within the next year.

What are your goals for your business?

Our short-term goals for the business are to reduce the costs associated with creating microalgal omega-3 oils, however in the long run we’ll target the emerging algal market as a whole. We expect to see more and more algal products in human food market and would also like to be at the forefront of algal biofuels and bioplastics.

Are you getting any growth support?

Yes, we are currently a part of the ClimateKic accelerator program and are working with Scottish Enterprise and Business Gateway.

Have you ever entered any competitions?

We’ve entered a number of competitions, and have won a quite a few. We were awarded a Shell LiveWire award, and won a Young EDGE prize. We have also been runners up in the University of Edinburgh’s business competition (Inspire Launch Grow) and finalists in the Converge Challenge.

Have you raised funds to develop your business? What and how?

We have raised a seed round of investment which was used to match our SMART: Scotland feasibility study.

What kind of research did you do into the market?

We started with a desk based study of what was out there. We wanted to know what issues were facing the industry and who might be able to tell us more about them. We then took our research directly to our customers and validated the ideas we are currently working on.

What are the three main challenges you’ve faced so far?

Our main challenge has been identifying waste streams that are safe for use within the food chain and suitable for growing microalgae. There is a limited amount of data out there on the types of wastes being produced and their nutritional composition, two things that are imperative for MiAlgae’s success.

Have you ever had to pivot or change direction?

We haven’t had to make any direction changes yet. Our early engagement with customers has given us a great platform.

Have you ever approached a mentor or business leader for advice?

We’ve approached as many mentors and business leaders as we can for advice. There are so many ways to look at an idea and having their insight has helped us immensely. We are currently being mentored by Mark Simmers the CEO of Celtic Renewables. His company actually happens to be the winners of the Shell Springboard award, another low-carbon enterprise support programme.

Who inspires you?

I’m inspired by anyone that takes big challenges head on, and doesn’t give-up even when the rest of society doesn’t think it is possible. That includes business the likes of Elon Musk, and Warren Buffet, as well as scientists like Albert Einstein and Richard Dawkins.

What start-up lessons would you like to pass on?

Ask for help. The start-up landscape in Scotland is amazing, just remember to think carefully why the people you ask for help have given you the advice they have. It is of utmost importance that they more qualified than you in that area, and that you know where their biases lie.

How can the Scottish start-up/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

The Scottish start-up landscape is spectacular. The only thing we would recommend is to consolidate the help and increase the transparency with regards to the help and growth products out there.

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