Natural blue colouring pioneers win collaboration award

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and biotech firm Scot Bio have won a prestigious Scottish Life Sciences Award for their pioneering collaboration on natural blue colourants.

The partnership won the Innovative Collaboration prize for two years of work that has developed new molecular biology and extraction techniques to boost the yield and purity of Scot Bio’s phycocyanin product, a blue pigment it derives from spirulina algae.

Scot Bio aims to be a global leader in the rapidly growing market for natural food and drink colourants, and to become a major player in the pharmaceutical market, where phycocyanin has potential uses in cancer and liver treatments.

Polly Van Alstyne, Chief Operating Officer at Scot Bio, said: “This award is a welcome endorsement of the hard work carried out by everyone at Scot Bio and the University of Edinburgh, and a clear example of how collaboration between academia and the private sector can have huge potential in the creation of high value jobs and in commercialising intellectual property.”

Phycocyanin occurs naturally in spirulina. Scot Bio, based at BioCity Scotland in North Lanarkshire, uses a patented growing method to increase the volume of phycocyanin that the spirulina produces, resulting in higher yields than traditional pond-grown spirulina.

By producing spirulina in reactors rather than open-pond systems favoured by other suppliers, the company can offer traceability and security of supply that is highly desirable for brands using the blue colourant in their products.

The company has collaborated with the University since 2013 on multiple research projects, led by Dr Andrew Free, Dr Attila Molnar and Dr Alistair McCormick from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, and involving several PhD and masters students. Scot Bio’s head of R&D, Dr Rocky Kindt, began his company-sponsored PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2013 and joined the company in 2016.

On winning the award, Dr McCormick said: “We are delighted to have developed such a strong relationship with Scot Bio – our collaborative projects have been highly beneficial for all staff and students involved.

“Working with Scot Bio has helped to develop an interdisciplinary culture, and our research has since expanded into several new areas. This has led to significant fundamental and applied scientific advances, and high impact publications.

“This is a prime example of what can be achieved when academia and industry work together. We look forward to continued success in the future.”

Supported by Edinburgh Innovations, the University’s commercialisation service, the partnership has included a PhD studentship funded by IBioIC, two EastBio Case PhD studentships, an EastBio NPIF PhD studentship, a BBSRC Case PhD studentship, two MSc projects, two Phyconet Proof of Concept Awards, a Phyconet IB Seeding Catalyst Fund, and two IBioIC Micro Company Accelerator project awards.

Edinburgh Innovations has also helped connect the company with potential customers.

Two of the collaborative research projects are focused on synthetic biology, seeking to manipulate the gene sequence to increase pigment production, while a third developed an economically viable purification process to produce phycocycanin at scale at medicinal grade purity.  

A new collaboration backed by IBioIC and BBSRC has just begun with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Physics & Astronomy to investigate mechanisms for improving the stability of the molecule.

As the collaboration has developed, Scot Bio has won the backing of investors who see the potential of the company’s innovation. In November 2018 Scot Bio secured £2 million in an over-subscribed funding round to scale up its production, which followed a previous investment of around £500,000 in August 2017.  

Scot Bio has recently scaled up its production capability to 16,000 litres and is looking to move from 2,000-litre tanks to 50,000-litre tanks within months. Its staff has grown from three to nine, and it has plans to increase its team by around 20 to accelerate its R&D and sales and marketing.

ENDS