MiAlgae does something that most people would never think about: the company utilises a by-product of distillation processes to feed microalgae, which are rich in Omega-3s, and the algae are harvested to feed fish in the aquaculture industry.
The Scottish aquaculture sector is big business. Marine Scotland estimates its worth in excess of £885-million and supports close to 12,000 jobs. It’s a rapid growth sector too, and one that is largely reliant on buying in aquafeed (industry talk for commercial fish food) from markets outwith the UK.
Aquafeed is one of the largest costs to the aquaculture industry and is also the largest contributor to the sector’s carbon footprint, so there are two huge reasons why alternatives to traditional aquafeed (typically anchovies and herring caught in the warmer waters of Europe and South America) are being sought out.
In fact, the Scottish salmon industry alone utilises more wild-caught fish as aquafeed than the entire adult population of the UK consumes in a year!
Douglas has grasped this opportunity from the off, and his university training in biology and biotechnology has given him the technical grounding and know-how to develop the business from the initial idea stage some seven years ago. He now grows algae as a source of both protein and omega-3 oils for aquafeed.
But in order to do this, he needs a source of food for the algae to grow, and he gets this from another of Scotland’s key sectors - whisky.
One of the quirks of building a circular economy is that, more often than not, you need to negotiate your way into accessing your feedstock. In a linear economy, you can usually simply purchase virgin materials for your production processes at a known price. Whereas in a circular model, the market(s) for byproducts is so new that often it’s not known what the use, and therefore the value, is. So, you may well find yourself having to explain your process, your business model, and the why and the how of what you’re doing with that byproduct. It could be a timely and costly process to layer on top of product development and customer acquisition.
Douglas, however, clearly has a knack for negotiating across sectors and demonstrating to a variety of stakeholders why they should work with him to develop the MiAlgae process. He really understands the potential sensitivities of conversations around ‘waste’, and how to pitch the value - financially and environmentally - of operating in a circular model. Such an approach is important here, because understanding where your feedstock comes from - and how that stakeholder views their by-product - is critical in negotiating access to, and developing a long-term relationship with, the foundation of your business, i.e. the feedstock provider.
MiAlgae is just beginning its major scale up phase after a couple of years of successfully raising finance and running lab trials. 2022/23 will see the company go, I’m sure, from strength to strength. Their work is an important step in demonstrating the value, importance, and achievability of a circular economy model for a sustainable, low carbon future for Scotland and beyond.
Douglas has had to negotiate his way into, effectively, two distinct markets: whisky by-products at the beginning of his process, and the aquaculture markets that are his end customer. That requires a unique blend of determination, clarity of opportunity, and market nous. Douglas has all three skills in spades.
Douglas is an impressive personality, not in a bombastic way, but in a quiet, understated manner. His confidence in MiAlgae and the knowledge of the opportunity makes people want to join his team and mission. But not all offers of help are equal. He has been clear headed enough to turn down those that may distract from the core mission or that don’t add the value he is looking for to his team.
From very early on in his thoughts about MiAlgae, Douglas has known what he wanted to do. He hasn’t always known exactly how to do it, and scaling up and raising finance have proved to be two particularly steep learning curves, but keeping a keen eye on what his short, mid and long term goals are has helped him strategise and be clear headed about his next move.
Douglas’ Masters degree was at the University of Edinburgh in Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology. He didn't start MiAlgae straight after graduating, but was canny enough to maintain his networks at the University, which have helped him with biotech development and finance raising.
Confidence in finance and growth projections is so often one of the key things that start up founders find themselves lacking assurance in, but seeing Douglas pitch the business is a masterclass in ‘how to do it right’. He has poise in what he’s doing and in the vision for the business, and can justify and back up every claim with data.