More In This Article
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO—The ice cream and caramels are delicious, but it's the brioche that really convinces you eating algae could be a winning idea. The oily, yellow, flour-like residue of wrung out algae—dubbed "algalin" by its marketers—can easily replace the butter and eggs in prototypical French pastry bread.
Even on its own, the algalin isn't bad. It tastes like pancake mix, minus the salt and baking soda but with the addition of olive oil. It definitely doesn’t taste like licking a bright green pond. "We were looking for biodiesel but found a product that's good for delivering fat," says Ken Plasse, vice president for business development at the algae company Solazyme. The brioche retains the oily, satisfying texture of baked goods but without the trans fats consumers have been taught to fear. The self-professed former consumer products guy adds: "I've never seen anything like it."
A tour of Solazyme takes me to the company’s headquarters, which occupies two nondescript buildings in this business-park city outskirts where companies move for the cheap rents and peace and quiet. The industry industrializing in South San Francisco is often the nascent synthetic biology business. A building that bears the logo of microbial fuel-makers LS9 is just up the road from the company that grows algae in the dark, Solazyme. To survive while Solazyme struggles with its original plan to develop fuels, the company uses its algae as a "conversion technology." In the words of co-founder, company technologist and president Harrison Dillon, the conversion technology of algae is a means of turning sugar into more lucrative molecules—and maybe saving the world in the process.
Plasse says, and my taste buds confirm, that algalin has "magical properties,” which allow it to replace butter and eggs in bread, craft healthy chocolate milk that tastes just a little bit salty or keep gluten-free breads from tasting dried out. An undisclosed set of companies have been testing the product since January, and Solazyme spokeswoman Genet Garamendi assures me sales of "whole algal flour" are expected soon. Making oil and algal flour for food represents a big change of direction for a company that originally intended to make biofuels from algae. "I'm not sure I knew what brioche was until I went down to that kitchen and tasted it," notes Jonathan Wolfson, co-founder and current company CEO.
In 2003, college buddies Wolfson and Dillon started the company called Solazyme in a bid to turn algae into a source of fuel—for the hydrogen economy. That plan didn’t last long. "Hydrogen was not as feasible as we thought it was," Dillon notes, nor did open ponds prove a viable strategy for growing the algae, as they initially reckoned. "Oil is a much better thing to make."
Fuel was the reason they got into the business—it’s their plan to save the world. "Fuels are still a critical component in our future and the reason we get up in the morning," Wolfson says. "We're at the beginning with advanced biofuels. A lot of things people have tried won't work but that doesn't mean this isn't an area that will make progress." The company still has its test fleet of Volkswagens running on algal biodiesel, which employees drive on a rotating weekly basis.