Euglena: Tiny algae, great promise

By Ian Munroe for EURObiZ Japan

It sounds like science fiction. A business inspired by a manga comic that aims to help save the planet by turning a micro-organism into everything from superfood to jet fuel. And yet, as I sit across from the unwaveringly professional investor and public relations manager at Euglena’s futuristic Tokyo headquarters, this prospect doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Euglena was founded in 2005, and the company’s name comes from the algae it has been farming commercially ever since. Euglena gracilis is a tiny single-celled organism with plant and animal qualities. It feeds on carbon dioxide, but contains an astounding 59 nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

The firm’s history can be traced back to 1998 when one of its co-founders, Mitsuru Izumo, travelled to Bangladesh on an internship with a microfinance bank. After learning about the struggle against malnutrition there, Izumo recalled a favourite childhood manga series called Dragon Ball. It featured a magical bean that could nourish a person for days and heal wounds. He wondered if something similar existed in the real world, and set about researching nutrient-rich foods.

Izumo’s search was fruitless until a colleague who was studying at Tokyo University’s Faculty of Agriculture suggested he take a look at euglena. It was a revelation, but it took several years to figure out how to cultivate the micro-algae on an industrial scale. Today, that colleague, Kengo Suzuki, is head of research and development at Euglena, and Izumo is president of the operation, which employs about 100 workers. Euglena has also won a lot of attention, including from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is eager to show that Japan can produce successful start-ups.

The company’s main product is a powdered algae. It produces up to 60 tons a year at a facility on the Okinawan island of Ishigaki. The powder is used in a range of consumer goods — mainly as a dietary supplement and an ingredient in health foods — that are sold both online and in brick-and-mortar shops.

Euglena went public in 2012, and has seen business jump since then. Sales of its food and health products hit 59 billion yen in September, nearly doubling sales from the previous year. And the company is hoping to enter a new foreign market in January.

“We’re preparing to sell our products in China, possibly in stores like pharmacies first,” says Mio Yasuma, the aforementioned public relations manager. “There’s a growing health trend in China, and we believe we can sell our products there for similar prices as in Japan.”

But Izumo hasn’t forgotten the firm’s origins. Ten yen from every Euglena product sold goes toward funding a nutrition program that helps about 5,000 children in Bangladesh. Yasuma says Euglena hopes to grow that program, and may bring it to other developing countries. They also have ideas for a host of other socially minded ventures. The micro-algae could be used in water-treatment projects, and to cut emissions from thermal power plants.

Euglena is also hoping to produce biofuel without having to rely on arable land, using a process it says would yield much more than with alternatives such as palm oil. ANA Holdings has signed on to support the research, raising the prospect that this biofuel could one day help power All Nippon Airways’ jets.

“Fuels normally end up increasing the amount of CO2 on the planet,” Yasuma says. “But euglena can produce fuel by actually absorbing CO2.”

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Finding a new source of food will not solve the problem of malnourishment, since currently every new source of food just enables the population explosion to continue. In the past 100 years the human population on the planet has quadrupled, and unless we find a way to get people to stop polluting the planet with more people, the trend will continue.

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After learning about the struggle against malnutrition there

this really got my hopes up, but rather than "teaching a man to fish," it sounds like - but I very much hope I'm wrong - Izumo is "giving a man a fish."

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