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Pond scum with promise

Algaeventure Systems CEO, Ross Youngs. Photos Ben French
Algaeventure Systems CEO, Ross Youngs. Photos Ben French
Most people refer to it as “pond scum.” To Ross Youngs, however, it’s a miracle of nature and nothing short of “vital to the future of civilization.” 

The “it” is algae, and, according to Youngs, this microscopic plant provides tremendous value to everyone on the planet. “Every single plant on earth can trace its roots to algae,” he explains. “This little plant is at the base of the food chain, and so many other organisms completely depend on it. In fact,” he notes, “algal biomass worldwide is less than one percent of the biomass on earth, but it provides more than 50 percent of the oxygen produced on earth annually. That makes it a pretty important organism.” 

Youngs, 54, is so enthusiastic about algae that he took a big gamble in 2008 on the plant playing a major role in the future of biofuels and other products. Long interested in the environment, Youngs earned an associate’s degree in environmental science from the Florida Institute of Technology. He also studied industrial engineering technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Concerned about pollution, he was dismayed by the proliferation of standard plastic CD cases at the time and was convinced he could develop something more environmentally friendly. He subsequently moved to Ohio for a job in CD production and packaging.

Youngs recalls that, as a young kid, he spent hours tinkering around with mechanical and electrical things. He also went with his dad on jobs repairing X-ray machines. “I’m always looking for ways to do things better, faster, and cheaper,” he explains.

Youngs did just that in response to those plastic CD cases. He designed an alternative -- the Safety-sleeve® -- that uses 90 percent fewer materials yet protects CDs just as well. With a personal bank loan of $20,000, he established Univenture in 1988 to manufacture his invention and other environmentally-friendly packaging solutions.   
Univenture was a big hit. The company earned a slot in Inc. magazine’s “Hall of Fame” for being on the Inc. 500 list of “Fastest Growing Companies” for five years. In 1998, the U.S. Small Business Administration honored Youngs as their “Business Person of the Year.”

Still concerned about the environment and always looking for a challenge, the entrepreneur recalls a conversation he had one day with one of his Univenture staff members about bioplastics and where bioplastic products were going to come from in the future. “That prompted me to look into algae, and I discovered that it was under-investigated commercially,” Youngs says. 

So in 2008, Youngs and four of his staff members started researching the biggest obstacle to doing anything with algae – getting it out of the water, where it grows in minuscule concentrations.

At that time, the traditional way to extract algae was with a centrifuge, which was very expensive because it required a lot of energy. Youngs, however, looked to Mother Nature for a better approach. “Plants take in water through their roots and transport it through capillary action to all their leaves,” he explains. This wicking action gave Youngs the idea of combining the adhesion property of liquid with porous treadmill belts to extract algae.

Not only did the process work to dewater algae, it had an important secondary benefit. Once the algae was extracted, the water from which it came was left much cleaner. Youngs established Algaeventures Systems (AVS) in Marysville to develop and market his new technology as an efficient and cost-effective way to harvest, dewater and dry algae.

The process worked so well, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) awarded Algaeventures $6 million in 2009 to develop solid-liquid separation (SLS) and rapid accumulation and concentration technologies. That same year, the company also received an Air Force Research Laboratory award for $360,000.

The equipment that performs the solid-liquid separation to produce dark green flakes of dewatered algae is called the AV Harvester, and the company has developed a pilot model, a smaller lab model and an industrial model. Youngs notes that the pilot and industrial models basically function the same way but are different sizes. During 2009 and 2010, AVS sold its lab model to other algae researchers in Japan, Hungary and the U.S. and its pilot system and licenses for the technology in New Zealand, Austria, Australia and the U.S.

Also in 2010, the company received a $25,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to test an algae strategy in Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio. “We conducted a test in a small portion of the lake to help a better non-toxic algae outgrow toxic algae,” he notes.

According to Youngs, the company has collaborated with a host of Ohio-based research institutes, universities and corporations, including the Ohio Aerospace Institute, Edison Material Technology, the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson, The Ohio State University, Rockwell Automation, Ohio University, Case Western Reserve University and Battelle. Beyond Ohio, AVS has worked with NASA and Marathon.

AVS also offers evaluation and processing services. “Since we have a unique technology, a variety of businesses contact us,” Youngs says. “We’ve provided evaluation and processing services for companies and organizations in the fields of energy, petroleum and food processing.”

There are other applications for the company’s technology in a variety of non-algae industries, including pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals, mining and minerals, wastewater and industrial effluents and food and beverage. Youngs, who holds 56 U.S. and international patents, established a third company -- AlterE -- specifically to handle sales to these industries. He also recently added a patent attorney to the AVS team.

Youngs remarks that one of the most exciting things AVS has on tap right now is using the company’s technology to discover biomolecules. “Our technology is unique and very differentiated,” he notes. “It holds great promise for very early stage biomolecule discoveries, and we’ve cultivated relationships for this purpose. There’s significant potential for the drug discovery pipeline and other uses.”

With all three companies located in the same facilities in Marysville, Youngs is aggressively seeking funding for a $9 million expansion that includes equipment and building improvements.  "We're adding a 2,200-square-foot lab for our chemical and biological operations, and we're continuing to add more internal research and growth capacity for our work with algae," he explains. "The Ohio Department of Development has provided low interest funding, which, combined with previously raised equity, totals more than $2.5 million toward our fundraising goal." The company is looking to land private funds to finance the rest. The project could result in as many as 200 new jobs.

Youngs is enthusiastic about all things algae and sees a bright future in Ohio and the Midwest for continued algae technology. “We have plenty of water, and that’s a huge advantage,” he says. “We’re actually ideally suited for advancing algae technologies to full commercialization for a variety of products and uses.”

Where do things go from here?  With algae showing so much future promise, perhaps the first step from here on out is to stop referring to it as “pond scum.”
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