Bloom and bust – regenerative business lessons from a microalgae start-up

True sustainability pays attention to means, as well as ends. Here’s how Brilliant Planet are demonstrating regenerative design principles in practice.

Tell me twelve things about algae. It’s ok – I’ll wait.

I’m joking, of course; but also admitting that before I sat down with Riccardo Gubbioli, I don’t think I could have told you much about algae beyond, “it’s green.” Now, after one of the most unusual and fun episodes of Conversations on Climateso far, I can tell you that algae is a lot more green than I realised. And yes, I’ve got those twelve things for you – but first, some context.

Gubbioli is the Director of Corporate Finance at Brilliant Planet, a start-up that is pushing the boundaries of what agtech can offer in the struggle against climate change. By growing microalgae – a tiny eukaryotic organism that eats sunlight and turns it into colourful ocean blooms – Brilliant Planet have big plans to sequester carbon affordably, naturally, and at the gigaton scale.

The trouble is, we’ve heard this before. The biofuel boom of the early 21st century made similar promises, but turned out to cut a destructive path through the world in its wake – and may even release more carbon than the fossil fuels they claim to replace. Just because a technology harnesses a biological or natural process does not mean that it will operate in harmony with the planet. In fact, we have already seen one generation of microalgae firms, such as Sapphire Energy, bloom and die. What makes Brilliant Planet any different?

This is where the lens of regenerative agriculture comes in –specifically, permaculture. For those who aren’t familiar with it, permacultureis the name for a loose set of design principles, which help agriculturalists create systems that work with, rather than against, the natural world. A form of holistic systems theory developed in Australia in the 1970s, it was inspired by a critique of unsustainable industrial agriculture, together with a rediscovery of indigenous land use practices – and has spread around the world today.

Brilliant Planet aren’t deliberately using permaculture design – at least as far as I know – but I was struck by how similar many of their business choices were to permaculture’s core principles. That is the wonderful thing about this type of systems thinking – it is remarkably adaptable, and has lessons for sustainable start-up design just as much as for creating a garden.

After my conversation with Riccardo, I wanted to celebrate Brilliant Planet not just for the sustainability of their product, but for the sustainability of their business design. So here is a breakdown of what I learnt, filtered through permaculture’s twelve principles of regenerative design.

Brilliant Planet


Principle 1: Observe and Interact

“This is all a scientific process, which obviously takes a fair amount of observation and analysis before we get there. We’re constantly evolving this thinking.”

Brilliant Planet are led by ecological science, rather than what makes sense in a business plan -– with scientists outnumbering finance folk by 2:1 along the way. They have spent eight years in R&D, a continuously iterative process of observing algae reproduce over and over, with the team gently guiding their evolution along the way.

Principle 2: Catch and store energy

You’re getting carbon dioxide from the air, and you’re growing it with photosynthesis…physically growing algae.”

What makes microalgae such an exciting technology is that it is a natural form of carbon capture and storage, which requires little more than water, air, and light. The algae can then be buried or sequestered to lock that carbon away. This is a decarbonisation technology that doesn’t require complicated equipment or rare earth minerals – but is equally as effective.

Principle 3: Obtain a yield

“We have two key markets. The most important one for us – and obviously, for compensation – is carbon removal.”

One thing capital markets and permaculturists have in common is an interest in return on investment. “you can’t work on an empty stomach,” as the farmer’s proverb goes. Brilliant Planet have a clear plan to integrate their technology in the voluntary carbon offset markets in the first instance.

I was also intrigued to learn about their second market growing algae as a source of beta carotene, an increasingly popular food supplement – one which is more niche and offers healthier margins than traditional feedstock routes.

Principle 4: Apply self-regulation and accept feedback.

“What we did as a company is: we looked at our failures and we learned from them. And that’s why we then moved to very natural processes.”

Precursors like Sapphire Energy came to market in the years before 2008, when the oil price was high and the opportunity for petroleum substitutes was booming. That lead to expensive, brittle design choices which were unable to respond to the decade-long slump in oil which followed the Financial Crisis. Public markets are nothing if not frank in their feedback, and Riccardo was very clear that they have learnt from their forebears and will not make the same mistake.

Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services.

“We build a pipeline into the ocean and pump the water in. At full scale, this becomes a water project.”

Biofuels have a long and dirty history of relying on fossil fuels for their production. By contrast, Brilliant Planet’s set-up is centred around renewable resources: the twin abundances of sunlight in the Moroccan desert, and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a perfect example of a local, non-extractive approach to industrial design.

Principle 6: Produce no waste

“It’s a beautiful location in the middle of the desert, and it’s perfect because this land has no alternate uses.”

Alongside using natural, renewable resources, Brilliant Planet is also very aware of its emissions and footprint, across multiple categories. Its production process uses no fresh water (a scarce resource in the desert), and even acts to deacidify seawater, playing a part in maintaining the balance of its ecosystem. By using otherwise uneconomic land, it also doesn’t take space away from food production

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details.

“We have a so-called modular system where we grow the algae: the lab, the greenhouse, and the outside ponds”

This is one of the more subtle tenets of permaculture –focus first on big relationships, and worry about the small matters of execution later. I heard this principle throughout our conversation, particularly as Riccardo described moving their strains of algae up from lab to ponds only once they have worked out the big-picture issues with the design through many cycles. Nothing is rushed, and they only scale when ready.

Principle 8: Integrate rather than separate

“Survival of the fittest. That’s kind of how we’ve adopted the technology.”

Brilliant Planet realised that to build the most resilient production process possible, they needed to ensure their algae were integrated into natural ecosystems from the start, rather than protected from them. Riccardo stressed the risk of relying on lab-developed strains that had never been tested by predators or environmental variation. This in-situ approach may be slower and more frustrating, but it pays dividends in the long run.

Principle 9: Use small and slow solutions

They had a very synthetic process, a very complex process.”

The failure Riccardo identified in the first generation of algae firms was a reliance on complex synthetic infrastructures like bioreactors, which were only feasible when capital was abundant and oil prices were high. By contrast, Brilliant Planet’s natural methods are slower and locally bound, but more resilient and cost-effective as a result.

Principle 10: use and value diversity

“We have a large library, and within this library we can select algae for different uses”

There is no one-size-fits-all strain of algae for every purpose and environment. Instead, Brilliant Planet have spent years researching and building their own library of over 1,200 distinct species – from fishmeal strains to carbon capture specialists.

Principle 11: Use edges and value the marginal

‘Imagine the things you don’t want growing in between your bathroom tiles…’

As Riccardo jokingly noted, algae has got to be one of the most marginal technologies in the human imagination – it literally grows between things, and you’d rather it didn’t! To turn it into a climate change start-up just shows what is possible at the margins. To build your plant just ten metres from the ocean, along a stretch of coastal desert, is also a great example of working at the interface of two spaces.

Principle 12: Creatively use and respond to change

I would argue that this whole business – indeed, any start-up that is founded to tackle the climate emergency – is making a creative response to the most profound change humans have faced in millennia. To do so with a species that can double itself in a matter of hours only makes this more remarkable. Nothing stands still for long in the world of microalgae.

If that piqued your interest, I really recommend listening to Riccardo’s full Conversations on Climate episode a listen here.

To watch all of the episodes in the series go to the Conversations on Climate YouTube channel.


Written by Chris Caldwell CEO of United Renewables, originally published on Linkedin on October 25th 20222.


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