Tucson-based Startup Licenses Technology for Creating Sustainable Products from Algae

March 9, 2021

The UArizona-invented Air Accordion Photobioreactor produces low-cost, large-scale and environmentally sustainable microalgae products used to create vaccines and health supplements like omega-3 fatty acids.

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The Air-Accordion Photobioreactor
Photo courtesy of Joel Cuello The Air-Accordion Photobioreactor

University of Arizona researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering and the BIO5 Institute have created a system capable of sustainably producing industrial-scale microalgae and other microorganisms used in pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements and vaccines.

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Joel Cuello
Joel Cuello

Biosystems engineering professor Joel Cuello and his team developed the new technology, called the Air Accordion Photobioreactor. The system’s unique zigzag configuration, a departure from conventional bioreactors, is made of a low-cost polyethylene material and is designed for excellent mixing and hydrodynamic properties that promote the optimal growth of microorganisms while maximizing water and nutrient efficiency.

"As an engineering/science professor, commercialization of what my ‘bioimagineering’ team designs and develops is truly the culminating capstone for our research endeavors – enabling our innovations to be productively applied to create sustained value for all stakeholders in society, including the general public,” Cuello said. “It really does make our work so much more impactful and rewarding."

Bioreactors are used for growing organisms such as yeast, bacteria, and algae, as well as plant and mammalian cells to manufacture a host of products, including antibodies and vaccines. Conventional bioreactors for microalgae that use long tubes/pipes or columns and even panels made of glass or polycarbonate are typically expensive to manufacture and often fail to maintain desired mixing characteristics when scaled up for industrial production.

Upcoming product trials for the Air Accordion will focus on producing health supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids and spirulina.

With the ability to scale up, the Air Accordion could have significant implications, representing a leap forward in how bioreactors contribute to sustainability. The impact would be immediate for the omega-3 fatty acid industry, which has been traditionally reliant on fish populations and contributes to harmful overfishing practices.

Supplements like spirulina are farmed in open agriculture environments, often with poor water and nutrient reusability, and can become vulnerable to environmental toxins and other types of contaminants. The Air Accordion’s closed system design allows these algae-based products to be produced with vastly improved yield and quality without causing environmental degradation.

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Hamed Ismail
Hamed Ismail

Through its commercialization unit, Tech Launch Arizona (TLA), UArizona licensed the Air Accordion and five other bioreactor designs developed by Cuello’s Biosystems Engineering group to Tucson-based startup AlgaeCell, LLC in September 2020. In collaboration with Cuello, AlgaeCell Chief Executive Officer Hamed Ismail is spearheading efforts to bring the technology to market, conducting product trials and securing industry partnerships and conducting trials that will document the efficacy of the bioreactor across a variety of potential products.

“Sustainable production capabilities are becoming ever more critical in industries that have reached the tipping point using traditional methods,” said Bruce Burgess, TLA’s director of venture development. “The technology licensed by UArizona to AlgaeCell opens the door for many producers to meet the increasing demands for product.”

Ismail and Cuello worked with TLA commercialization experts Tod McCauley, senior licensing manager for the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, and Steven Wood, mentor-in-residence, to protect the intellectual property for the invention, develop a commercialization strategy and launch the company.

“AlgaeCell’s partnership with TLA helps this startup assemble the crucial launchpad that it needs for a smooth takeoff, and so it is positively enabling,” Ismail said.

TLA is only one member in a continuum of providers supporting the startup. Following the planned product trials, AlgaeCell will be based in the UArizona Center for Innovation incubator, located at Tech Parks Arizona, where the team will get hands-on consulting and further mentorship to grow the company.  

Paul Tumarkin, Assistant Director, Marketing & Communications