Dan Murray from Industrial Phycology, a company based in the University of Bath Innovation Centre, isn’t just imagining it, he’s making it happen. He is working towards a future that could mean less waste water, while creating biomass that can be used as renewable energy, fertilisers and protein for animal feed – all via the natural actions of growing algae.
We caught up with Dan to find out about Industrial Phycology and how these simple plants could change our world.
TechSPARK: Can you give us a little bit about your background before you became involved with Industrial Phycology?
Dan Murray: I have worked with algae from an applied viewpoint for most of my career; beginning with my undergrad and masters at the University of Essex, through to my PhD at Cranfield University and my postdoctoral work at Bath University.
“I prefer the more difficult areas, where technology is developed to the level where it is useful in the real world and you get to watch it being taken and put into action to solve real issues”
I have been lucky and had the chance to focus on algae, especially during my PhD – which was funded by several of the main UK utilities. I have also been able to work on both of the main applied aspects of algae as a problem to be dealt with e.g. toxic algal blooms and as a potential biological solution to several global issues, e.g. effluent treatment.
TS: What made you start Industrial Phycology?
DM: My area of interest and expertise is applied science, especially related to water. Rather than blue-sky work I prefer the more difficult areas, where technology is developed to the level where it is useful in the real world and you get to watch it being taken and put into action to solve real issues.
I have always known I wanted to work in this area and my career has focused to this end since my undergrad years. With PhD giving me a great chance to focus on this area and work with some of the largest companies in the water industry. This is when I started to form ideas and ask a few questions about starting up a company.
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I also really enjoyed working in finance and business, which just reinforced the idea of merging my two interests together – I felt that business and science was the right way to go. I enjoyed my time as a postdoc and had several interesting opportunities, including a senior spot in a large European project. In the end though there is not the opportunity, especially in UK Universities to develop work of this kind, so we decided it was time to go for it.
TS: Industrial Phycology’s main aim seems a very worthy one, how did you come up with the idea?
DM: The aim of my PhD was to look at holistic methods of preventing toxic algal blooms, which occur when there are too many nutrients present in a water body. Algae love this and will eat them up to grow and make more algae. I had to build a system to show this in the lab under different conditions as part of my work. It was doing this that got me thinking about these sorts of systems (photobioreactors) as they are essentially an algal bloom and looking at why we couldn’t put it to more practical uses.
TS: What were the biggest barriers to success?
DM: To date we have been fortunate to have some great partners and have been able to maintain a formidable pace of development – though this has not been completely straightforward. We are a small company working in an arena dominated by a few big players and justifiably cautious end users. Because of this, we had to make sure that the proposition of our technology was exceptionally strong in order to secure the support we needed.
Managing all the paperwork associated with these sorts of industrial projects is also a challenge for a small company, but we are fortunate to have an excellent team and so far we have managed to overcome all challenges presented to us.
One of our current challenges is making sure we have the best technology possible. The process we are developing is cutting edge and some of the technical requirements involve technology and expertise, which is not readily available or in some cases even present in the UK. This means looking to Europe and beyond to secure what we need and sometimes actually designing the technology ourselves.
“Though I really enjoy the business side of things, I am also still a scientist at heart”
TS: What are your biggest successes to date?
DM: We are really pleased with all the support and interest we have generated, most importantly from our partners in the region GENeco (responsible for the UK’s first ‘poo powered’ bus) and Stirling Dynamics. We are working in a sphere that is hard to impress, with already established companies, so the recognition that the work we are doing is current edge and has so many applications is really important to us.
We have also secured significant government funding which really demonstrates the value of our work. We have also won several awards, including one of two UK companies recognised as an MIT eTeam.
This resulted in us being able to go out to MIT in Boston and work with some of the most successful science and technology developers in our field. We are also one of just 13 companies invited by the Duke of York to talk at the Pitch@Palace event in April, where the most important VCs and business leaders in the UK voted us the company with the most commercial potential. Both of these awards were a huge boost for us and we are really proud to have been chosen.
I was also fortunate enough recently to be asked to give the talk at the Low Carbon South West Business breakfast because of the vast potential of the technology we are developing. This event was also great for us as myself long with our partners at Wessex Water and Stirling Dynamics were invited to attend a small round table discussion with Amber Rudd Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who was visiting the Bath SETsquare centre to learn more about the cutting-edge work being done there and in the south west.
TS: You are based at University of Bath Innovation Centre. How helpful have they been in setting up and growing your company?
DM: The Innovation Centre, and the tech incubator SETsquared based there, have been a great support to us and have more than demonstrated why they are first in the UK and second in the world. They have helped us plan out how we approach the large companies we need to work with and identify the additional funding options we would have not considered ourselves.
“Bath’s Innovation Centre helped us identify the experienced senior business people we needed to support us in developing and growing our company”
They have also helped us identify the experienced senior business people we needed to support us in developing and growing our company. Additionally, they helped us prepare for several of the awards we have won, including the Pitch@Palace and the MIT trip we mentioned earlier was funded by SETSquared,
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Additionally they are always there to support us when we have had any issues. Without their support over the last few years, I think we would have had a much tougher time in getting to where we are now.
Why not check out Daniel Murray talking about Industrial Phycology at CleanTech Innovate 2013:
TS: Any news on the Clean and Cool Mission 2015 – are you going?
DM: We have been invited to attend the 2015 Clean and Cool mission early next year and we very much want to go. At the moment, with so much going on with the company’s development work, we need to check that we still have the time!
TS: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were setting up the business?
DM: Even though we were prepared for a lot, we have still been caught out at times by the sheer amount of paperwork required from us in order to keep things moving. More knowledge of this would have helped us plan ahead. Though I really enjoy the business side of things, I am also still a scientist at heart.
While it has been really interesting getting a deeper understanding of business planning, model development and commercial agreements, having that understanding at the beginning would have allowed us to speed up the company’s development. Something else we have learnt is that we work exceptionally fast and sometimes you have to give people a chance to catch up.
TS: Can people get involved with what you’re doing? If so, how?
We love working with partners and have tried to work with the spirit of open innovation wherever possible. We are always looking to work with people who have technology that we can integrate with our system.
We always seek to use the best technology we can find and we are also always interested in meeting parties who see applications for our process and would like to work with us to investigate how we may be able to apply it.
TS: What’s the advantage of being based in Bath?
DM: One of the best advantages is the Innovation Centre – all the other technology companies based there and the support this brings.
The South West is also a good region in the UK for us to be based at the moment. It has the country’s most sustainably minded utility, Wessex Water, and there is a wealth of other sustainable science and engineering in the region, from large multinationals based in Bristol and in the surrounding area and some interesting work going on in the Avonmouth area. Being in Bath gives us great access to all these interesting developments.
There are also some good technically minded universities in the region and nearby in Wales, such as UWE and Swansea, who have provided us with some valuable support and information. We want to continue working with them, so in the future it should also mean that there is a valuable pool of relevantly skilled people whom we can hopefully bring in as the company develops.
We’d like to thank Dan for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. You can see more, or get in contact to get involved with the projects they are running yourself, at the Industrial Phycology website.