How Two Biologists Grew a Successful Business in a Tank Full of Algae
Scientists – who are known to shy away from business – have the opportunity to launch products that can surprise the world.
Entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes…
In a laboratory somewhere in Colorado, big tanks full of green liquid are bubbling away under bright lights. Occasionally, scientists pass by the tanks carrying beakers, pipettes, and flasks.
These tanks contain the seeds of a future technology that will hopefully change the world for the better.
No, this isn’t the opening scene of some old-school comic book. It’s real, and it’s happening right now.
The scientists are Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers, and they’re working hard in their business, Living Ink Technologies, to turn sustainably produced algae (a microscopic plant) into different types of biodegradable ink that will revolutionize how we communicate in print.
The Living Ink Story
It all started with a problem. Scott, pursuing a Ph.D in molecular biology, wanted to give his grandmother a greeting card one year. He couldn’t find a good one. As he headed back empty-handed to his lab full of bubbling algae, something clicked.
Why not use the algae itself to make a unique, one-of-a-kind greeting card?
After the thought took hold, the rest was history. As Scott learned more about inks, he realized that he had a prime opportunity for a new business. This is because traditional inks just aren’t very good.
The inks that we use are generally petroleum-based and full of minerals and heavy metals. They’re harmful to the environment, they’ll never degrade, and they’re expensive – up to $9,600 per gallon!
Once Scott produced his first algae ink, he realized he had something really special in his hands.
Algae ink is quick and easy to produce. It’s biodegradable, and its main byproduct is oxygen. The only limitation is that this ink isn’t good for important documents, like birth certificates, that need to last a long time. (Lindsay loves reporting on entrepreneurs in nature. She recently wrote about beekeepers making money, honey.)
He teamed up with his buddy, Steve Albers, to form an LLC – Living Ink Technologies.
Now, they’re working hard as budding entrepreneurs to formulate the ink and get it into the hands of advertisers, manufacturers, and everyday consumers.
The ink industry is $5.2 billion big. There’s a good possibility that an environmentally friendly product can carve out a small percentage of that market.
The World’s First Time-Lapse Ink
If that wasn’t enough, the two entrepreneurs are also hard at work on another new ink technology: the world’s first time-lapse ink.
Rather than harvesting algae cells and distilling them into ink, they put living algae cells into pens. These algae cells grow at two different rates. When placed inside their proprietary “greenhouse,” the algae will grow right out of the paper and reveal an image over the course of two days.
The time-lapse ink posed some special challenges that they didn’t face developing their first ink technology.
They needed to develop a series of products that would go together in a kit to ship to customers, and now they’re working to refine it so that customers always get a top-notch experience.
Scott and Steve decided to launch their product on Kickstarter. This was because the time-lapse ink kit required a lot of start-up costs and was designed to be marketed towards average people, not businesses. Their campaign was a wild success: they surpassed their goal of $15,000 by $45,000, raising a whopping $60,000 in total.
But their success turned out to be a double-edged sword.
It showed them that a lot of people wanted the time-lapse ink kits and it raised a lot of money for the business, but it also forced them to shift into high gear overnight.
“We went from making no products to making 1,500 products,” said Scott.
Aside from the sheer novelty of the time-lapse ink kits, Scott attributes several things to their successful Kickstarter campaign. First, they found people who had done successful campaigns before and picked their brains.
They decided to hire a top-notch graphics team, and spend extra money on producing a high-quality introduction video. This visually appealing package was the perfect framing for a unique and fun product.
Transitioning From Science to Business
As someone who also made the jump from science to entrepreneurship, I can appreciate what Scott and Steve are doing. You can read about my transition to entrepreneurship, too.
It’s hard for scientists to step out of their niche to start something on their own. Scientists are trained to take careful, measured steps and not do anything too rash. “I think scientists are some of the worst at just jumping in and doing it,” Scott admits.
At the same time, scientists are also trained to work collaboratively (despite the tendency to be introverts), and they can plug right into the many support networks available for entrepreneurs. Scott and Steve, for example, began by forging their business through Colorado State University’s Venture Accelerator program. (Some colleges even have entrepreneurship programs to give real-life business experience.)
Scott has one final piece of advice for budding scientists-turned-entrepreneurs: “I will say for scientists out there, it’s hard. But at the same time, it’s a lot easier than grad school!”