In March 2023, the InvestEU Blue Economy instrument awarded €28 million for blue economy SMEs and small mid caps, primarily within Portugal and Spain. The funding was a win for the Portuguese government, which has been trying to develop its domestic marine biotech industry for the past half decade.
Marine (or blue) biotech falls under the blue economy, which encompasses any economic activity dependent on seas and other waterways. Although the majority of the Portuguese blue economy today remains tied to fisheries and the food sector, the government is particularly keen to grow higher value blue industries that turn bioresources from the sea into chemicals for the pharmaceuticals, biomaterials, and cosmetics sectors.
In 2019, Portugal collaborated with the EU to publish a policy roadmap for stimulating “sustainable innovation” around marine bioresources. One strategy it recommended was to encourage more accelerators around the country for startups working within this area.
Two years before the release of the roadmap, Portuguese based Blue Bio Value accelerator had started running. Blue Bio Value is still Portugal’s best known blue economy accelerator and remains one of the few schemes in the world tailored to help marine biotechnology startups scale and commercialise. It spotlights and supports many of the kinds of startups that Portugal, as well as many other countries implementing national frameworks for blue biotech growth, are keen to attract to their shores.
What does the accelerator look for?
Blue Bio Value scouts for early stage startups developing sustainable, bio-based products made from marine resources. The entities behind it are MAZE, an impact investment firm, working in partnership with BluebioAlliance, a Portuguese NGO promoting the blue biotechnology industry, conservation group Oceano Azul Foundation, and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, a charity founded by a Portuguese oil magnate in 1956.
Eligible startups can be based anywhere in the world but must have developed products that meet certain criteria. On top of having demonstrable market potential and scalability, the products they develop should be based on scientific or technological breakthroughs that solve major technical challenges. They should also address climate, environmental and social issues.
In 2022, the programme received 84 applications from 39 countries and 5 continents. In June, eighteen of these were selected, all earning a place on a 7 week business strategy mentorship course , an invitation to the final pitch event in Portugal, and a 1 year membership in the BlueBio Alliance.
Blue Bio Value “best in class”
Each year, Blue Bio Value selects a few ‘outstanding’ entrants within the cohort, awarding them € 45,000 to spend in BlueBio Alliance’s Blue Demo Network. This grants them access to Portugal’s blue bioeconomy-related infrastructures and services.
The three winners last year were Exogenous Therapeutics from Portugal, which turns industrial byproducts from microalgae processing into nanovesicle-based health care solutions, Poland’s Proteon Pharmaceuticals, developing bacteriophage-based feed additives for aquaculture, and Sophie’s BioNutrients from the Netherlands, which produces plant-based proteins made of microalgae.
Exogenous Therapeutics is an usual marine biotech entrant. It primarily focuses on health biotech but its Blue Bio Value proposal showcased a new project that bridges between their specialism and the industrial microalgae industry.
They are developing a way of recovering microalgae exogomes, the part of the microalgae cells that carry genetic material, protein, lipids, and metabolites, from microalgae processing wastewater.
Using this waste, sourced from Portugal’s homegrown microalgae food and feed sector, the company has developed a way to form medical biomaterials that the company says could boost the original value of the biomass by 2.5 to 10 times. The filtered water left after the process can then be re-used by the microalgae producers.
In 2021, the three best-in-cohort startups were similarly international and wide-ranging in their R&D. Portugal’s Blue Oasis Technology, a conservation-tech startup building and installing carbon-neutral artificial reefs, Norway’s Tekslo Seafood that uses seaweed for new food products, and Argentina’s FeedVax prepares oral vaccines for aquaculture fish.
With applications in food security, conservation, and health, these are just the sorts of marine-based startups that the Portuguese government are keen to see develop in its country.
The Portuguese strategy for blue growth
Accelerators like Blue Bio Value feature so heavily in Portugal’s blue growth strategy for several reasons.
Because there are still relatively few businesses working within marine biotech, the idea behind accelerators is to concentrate these enterprises in one space. This benefits the host country as much as the programme participants: new connections among similar startups, as well as between the startups and the established companies they are exposed to during the accelerator, make it more likely that a coherent value chain of mutually supporting manufacturers will emerge. Programmes like this forge links between potential suppliers and consumers, right from biomass harvesters to processors.
One of the key components of the programme is that the three startups selected as the best of the cohort gain access to the Blue Demo Network, which helps startups find solutions for their business needs within Portugal’s infrastructures and services. By offering startups on a taste of its blue economy business ecosystem, Portugal gains exposure as a potential bio-based business hub.
These events also make it clearer to Portuguese authorities what kinds of viable blue biotech projects are emerging around the world. This can inform policy work on further infrastructure and services needed in the country to attract foreign and native startups to expand there.
Accelerators, however, are only one part of Portugal’s long term vision for developing the advanced blue bioeconomy. In its 2019 roadmap, it envisaged a public-private blue investment bank and bank support credit lines for the blue sector.
Building out infrastructure for marine biotechnology enterprises is also a priority. These would include prototyping and pilot upscaling facilities as well as a ‘biobank’ containing genetic resources that biotechnologists can use to develop functional strains.
A key target for the Portuguese government is to focus on building a bio-industry around marine algae and microbes. For many countries lining up to develop their bio-industries, algal products check two boxes: they are capable of yielding high value chemicals across multiple sectors while the plants themselves offer a low-carbon, renewable feedstock.
A limitless expanse?
Coasts and oceans represent a new resource frontier for business around the world and Portugal is just one of many countries implementing “blue growth” programmes to capture more revenues from its coasts and seas. These include Kenya, Vietnam, China, and Costa Rica.
The attraction of blue growth is that it aims to reconcile growth with sustainability, technological innovation with reduced ecological impacts. It put forward the notion that industries and governments can increase revenue from untapped natural resources even while remaining within ecological limits, protecting biodiversity, contributing to net reductions in carbon emissions, and avoiding water pollution.
Advocates for blue growth say that biotechnologies are uniquely capable of replacing non-renewable mined materials with renewable, biological and low-input feedstock from the world’s oceans. The broader claim is that by growing biotechnologies around marine resources, the profit motive will promote economic actors to use the sea more sustainably and in ways that aids the wider decarbonisation of goods and industry.
The other draw of blue growth is that the oceans remain, for the most part, untouched natural spaces. Mariculture, the practice of growing aquatic crops in coastal waters, is still uncommon. Most of the sea’s harvesting still revolves around wild catch. Underwater biodiversity spans the phyla, classes and orders and the unworked genetic resources offered by under-studied sponges, molluscs, fish, and plankton are a biotechnologist’s dream.
It’s exactly the vastness and wildness of the sea that could invite over-extraction from the new blue bioeconomy, however. An under-developed natural space can easily become a degraded one and although bio-based industries use renewable sources, and advanced biotechnologies can offer efficiencies that non-renewable mined resources cannot, there are still limits on how much can be removed from ocean ecosystems sustainably.
Like every other area of economic life, there is little evidence that resource use can be decoupled from environmental impacts – even when it comes to the hardy, chemically versatile marco- and micro-algae that features in so many blue growth development programmes.
For this reason, it is necessary for national programmes for developing the marine biotech sector to outline robust methods for how much a particular bio-resource can be exploited before it becomes damaging to ecosystem functions.
Environmental impact assessments for the entire life cycle of marine biotechnology are also needed to understand whether they are truly offering net gains for biodiversity, carbon emissions, and the local inhabitants of the region the biomass is being sourced from. These programmes must be tied to national carbon reduction goals to assess how much they are contributing to global climate targets.
As we are seeing within the renewable energy sector, new industries do not emerge spontaneously. They need political backing, regulatory certainty, and spaces for new partnerships to form. In a similar way, sustainability does not flow from marine biotechnology automatically – they must be examined and re-examined at every step.