February 5, 2012, by David Schwartz
usan M. Kunz, President and Chief Executive Officer of BioVantage, describes herself in part as a “startup addict,” this being her fourth company built from the ground up.
With most of her previous experience being in the high tech sector, this time, she says, “I just wanted to do something more meaningful. It was either do something again in technology or move toward clean-tech, and I chose the latter. I also felt, not being a first time entrepreneur, I wanted to work in a market I thought was fundable, even in this down economy.”
As CEO of BioVantage Resources, Inc., Sue is responsible for corporate vision, strategy, execution and capitalization of a company pursuing two tracks of development in the algae industry, one as a scale-up specialist, enabling cultivators to advance from lab level to commercial production. And two, being experts in water reclamation, in which they use their own products to facilitate algae nutrient removal and biomass development.
Ms. Kunz’s corporate experience includes Sun Microsystems where she was Director of Marketing & Business Development, Six Sigma Director and held various engineering and management positions.
Tell us a little about how BioVantage got its start.
We were basically in our “basement” stage when I joined. There were a couple of founders who were growing algae, literally in their basements, and they were trying to figure out where to take that. Growing algae for biofuels was their initial vision. They had originally thought about growing algae in a distributed fashion and enabling rural America to create their own biodiesel.
Unfortunately no one can manage the end-to-end value chain. And that was one of the first things we addressed when I joined the company: what part of the value chain did we really want to focus on? You can only focus on one or two and be good. So we’ve reinvented ourselves a couple times in the past couple years. I’m very simple minded and I believe in following the money. And this is how we make money, with what we’re good at today.
So what did you decide to focus on?
We chose the scale-up part of the growing system, and water reclamation. There is always that classic build or buy decision, in early-stage businesses especially. We’ve put together a very nice packaged set of products to allow you to grow algae from milligram, to kilogram, to commercial scale in a 21st Century way.
I’ve got some background in manufacturing, and we’ve commercialized a lot of product. So we’ve looked at how to tackle commercialization of systems so that we can really have repeatable and reliable processes. And that is something we’re good at. Anyone who wants to grow algae at volume needs to go through the scale-up process, so we look at that as our biomass business. We’ve built dozens of scale-up systems already, with customers using it for biofuels, biochemicals, for protein, and we’ve just started dialogs about growing for nutraceuticals and cosmeceuticals.
What are you finding in the science of developing the scale-up niche? Any new realizations?
We were able to demonstrate that light limitation is a huge factor in biomass production, and with some top-notch optics expertise we’ve been able to knock out that limitation to growing high densities. We grow very dense cultures, and cracking that nut was critical. We deliver the photons that the algae need. Most of that work is done in the closed reactors, but it’s not limited to closed reactors. It’s about light distribution, and making sure that the photons aren’t the limiting reagent in the whole process.
Basically, we believe in keeping our algae happy, and light is one of those components that I think has been harder than some of the other things algae require.
And how does your company operate on the wastewater treatment side of things?
First off, we are users of our own systems for the wastewater application. I love businesses where you are your own customer, because it usually helps you get your product right. If you feel the pain, then you fix the product.
Describe the process you use to reclaim water and other chemicals using algae.
We focus on secondary treatment and we are an aeration alternative. Today most people on the planet use mechanical aeration for lagoon-based wastewater treatment, or sometimes they just throw time at the problem (or do nothing). Now if you use biology, photosynthesis and sunlight to handle that aeration, then you don’t need to throw a lot of electricity at the problem of pumping air through water, which is what mechanical aeration does.
So think of a biological alternative to the classical mechanical aeration approach. The other upside in using biology is that algae like to eat the nutrients. There are a lot of new mandates around nutrient removal, and if you use biology, it does a much better job with nutrients than you will get out of a mechanical system.
We’ve also done some work in removal of metals, and I see that on the early development side – and we’ll be deploying that technology for metals throughout the course of this year.
How far do you take the process?
We do not focus on the backend. We partner for anything along the lines of dewatering and extraction.
Long-term, do you see those two tracks of the company changing, gravitating more toward one or the other?
This could go either way. It just sort of depends on how the markets develop. Having said that, it wouldn’t be the first time that I would spin out a technology, if both look real and we decide they are better off separated. But they are both very real businesses, multi-billion dollar businesses.
What do you want the company to become known for?
I really think it’s both: a repeatable and reliable system for algae growth, and then have a focus on one or more applications where we deploy our systems. And right now that’s wastewater.
At the moment, where is most of the time and energy at BioVantage going?
Most of our time and energy is going into biomass production, irrespective of the application. We find ourselves sliding mostly into industrial research and production.
Any new markets that look attractive to you?
We are putting a lot more focus into aquaculture – adding that to our product roadmap, and talking to experts in the field to drive that forward. For us it’s just another biomass application with a tasty end-product.