At first, researchers Agasteswar Vadlamani and Angela Kouris were trying to find ways to produce carbon-neutral gas with organisms unique to British Columbia’s Soda Lakes.
But instead, the microbial goo lead the team to a business opportunity: a natural way to create blue colourant. It’s food-safe, could have health benefits and, best of all, removes CO2 from the atmosphere.
It all started with a bit of a eureka moment, when Vadlamani saw the bacteria in their lab pond was emitting a beautiful blue colour — phycocyanin. So, he approached the research team, urging them to switch gears.
“I mean, that is just like a single aha moment,” he said. “I realized that focusing on this has better value proposition compared to bioenergy.”
That’s when they created their company: Synergia Biotech. From thereon in, the team threw themselves into commercialization — an unexpected but exciting pivot.
“That’s what drives me every day,” Vadlamani said. “We are always excited about new discoveries, it feels great.”
Typically, Kouris said, the blue dye you see in food, wine and blue jeans is created by the same synthetic process.
There are studies showing these dyes aren’t the best for your health and can be carcinogenic. Finding blue in naturally-occurring settings, she added, is quite rare.
The researchers used a biological process in a pond at the University of Calgary campus to test the concept. (Katy Whitt Photography)
The most exciting part of the process, Kouris said, is that it’s environmentally friendly.
Their production harnesses a naturally-occurring bacteria known as cyanobacteria — with a little sunlight, and drawing from CO2 in the air, they are able to harvest and concentrate the blue colour into a powder.
“We’re the only company, the only innovation out there that has found a way to produce phycocyanin by capturing carbon in the atmosphere,” Kouris said. “All other technologies rely on carbon intensive processes.”
With their model, Kouris said they also see a new revenue stream in the Canadian agricultural field.
Right now, a big obstacle is scaling up, so the company is building a facility to help up production which should be ready to go in 2022.