While going for his Ph.D. in chemistry at University of Colorado-Boulder, England-born Daniel Higgs also wanted to learn about business. So he reached out to friends at Iowa State for help with ideas to submit to a CU student business plan competition.
What emerged was a concept for an algae-based biofuel company. But Higgs, 29, quickly surmised that "it's extremely difficult if not impossible today to make that profitable."
"The fuel is worth only about $1 per kilogram," he adds, "while the Omega-3 market is worth about $100 per kilogram."
Hence the different direction of Superior Ecotech, of which Higgs is co-founder and CEO. Instead of focusing on what our cars and trucks could burn to be cleaner — and nobody's questioning the efficacy of algae biofuel, just its economic viability — Higgs and crew are eying the health-and-wellness marketplace. Algae-containing nutritional supplements command a pretty penny, and can be found in everything from natural cosmetics to caplets that lower triglycerides and fight depression.
Their work earned the young team $100,000 in that CU Cleantech New Venture Challenge (backed by the U.S. Department of Energy), and $75,000 from the city of Boulder for its Boulder Energy Challenge.
But the coolest part of the story is SE's model for growing algae: a symbiotic relationship with Colorado craft breweries.
Green beer? No. Not like that.
In the fermentation stage of the brewing process, yeasts expel significant amounts of carbon dioxide, which is released into our atmosphere. Not helpful, considering that CO2 in 2012 accounted for more than 80 percent of anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
But algae needs carbon dioxide (and sunlight) to grow. As it consumes CO2, it releases oxygen as a beneficial byproduct to our environment. In fact, says Higgs, "Algae can convert twice as much CO2 as their final mass."
So the idea is to capture CO2 on its way out of breweries to feed the algae. And when that algae's ready, the company harvests it for a vegan Omega-3 oil option — which Higgs sees as better than common fish oils, which may take on toxins due to our polluted oceans while also potentially contributing to over-fishing.
"It came down to the fact that we knew we could grow algae efficiently," he says, "but we wanted it from a clean source ... no traffic fumes which might have heavy metals or pollutants."
That's a twist on similar algae-growing efforts elsewhere, like in Switzerland, where a European design/science group recently installed a neat algae farm of horizontal green tubing on a highway overpass. And let's face it: In a state that loves its beer and continually supports the opening of nano outfits at a stupefying rate, piggybacking off the brew scene to do a good green act is like putting a kitten on a greeting card — you kinda can't fail. And you'd never be short of prospective brewery partners in this suds-soaked sprawl.
Unless the financials don't work out, that is, which is what Superior Ecotech will find out in the next six months as it constructs a prototype at Boulder's Upslope Brewing Company. Higgs envisions his company building, operating and owning its own equipment, dumping in more than $100,000 per greenhouse of its own capital. As an incentive to let SE build on their land, breweries in the future could benefit from a small share of profit or net sales.
"No stranger to the world of a startup, we recognize the risks that Superior Ecotech is taking on with this project and embrace their entrepreneurial enthusiasm," says Upslope founder Matt Cutter.
If the model achieves success at Upslope, the big fish would be outfits like New Belgium Brewing, whose size would grow SE's output significantly. Higgs has made contacts, but knows it's too early to nail down contracts without the numbers to prove the concept.
As for how SE actually grows the algae, it helps to view images on the company's Kickstarter page from this past May. But in layman's terms, here's Higgs' description: "It starts off with what we call a 'raceway pond,' like a steel frame in the shape of a NASCAR runway. Into that we put water with (common plant) nutrients and small amounts of algae. On top of that we put a conveyor belt that's continuously running in a closed loop. That belt dips into the water a few inches and comes up about four feet and cycles down, like a wave ... over seven days the algae grows and we scrape it off to harvest it. We don't clean it — what's left acts as the new seed."
All this takes place in a custom, $50,000 greenhouse with an insulated north wall, three glass walls, some added thermal mass to hold heat, and shutters for nighttime insulation. Initially, the plan was to go rooftop, but concerns over weight have SE planning more for other viable brewery space at ground level.
A third party has been contracted to extract and purify the Omega-3 oil from the algae. The "leftover biomass," in Higgs' words, could in the future be added to breweries' waste streams à la spent grains, which many local farmers will pick up, because, hey — free fortified animal feed.
Which works out to be something like a win-win-win-win. A real gas, all things considered, over a beer.