by David Schwartz
hen Syed Alwi speaks about the algae industry, you get the feeling that he really has his finger on what’s going on globally. He gets around, and is a bit of a kingpin in the Asian algae world, orchestrating much of the disparate algae talent and intelligence throughout his 12-country region.
Syed Isa Syed Alwi is the CEO of the Algaetech Group of companies, based in Malaysia, and comprised of Bio Herbal Extract, Sasaran Biofuel, and PT Biomac Batam, all algae-based renewable energy and bio-technology companies.
The Algaetech group’s business activities include research, development, consultancy and commercialization of microalgae for biodiesel feedstock production and processing, as well as microalgae for other applications and high value products, such as anti oxidants. Located within the Malaysia Technology Park, Algaetech operates a 17,000 sq. ft. R&D and processing center, with a state-of-the-art microalgae laboratory, and some microalgae ponds.
Algaetech International Sdn. Bhd. was founded in 2004 by Syed to specialize in microalgae research and development, as well as consultancy services, for the Malaysian and Indonesian markets. Algaetech’s consulting services are based on its trademarked Algae Integrated Management System (AIMsys), which provides real-time monitoring of an algae cultivation facility, including computerized automation control system of the process’s conditions, customized reporting and analysis.
We spoke with Syed recently while he was in Seoul, Korea—to sign an MOU with the owners of one of their powerplants—just before he headed back home to Kuala Lumpur.
What was the stimulus that got you involved in algae research and production?
I started with the renewable energy business looking into the cultivation of Jatropha in Indonesia and Malaysia. We purchased a lot of equipments, and on one of those buying trips to the Netherlands, the supplier told us about algae. We started doing a lot of research and eventually received a grant from the Malaysian Government through the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Techno-Fund allowed us to do further research on algae for biodiesel. And, of course, this led us to dedicate more effort and resources on further research into algae.
Tell us about your educational and employment background?
I started off my career in Europe as a chef, and then worked in Malaysia in the hotel industry, and returned to Europe after that to work in the food industry.
We produced meals for KLM, SABENA, and the top supermarket chains in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. When we produced food in Europe, the laws and regulations were very stringent, and there were hundreds of pages of checklists when we do production. That was really good for me as a processing person, and prepared me for the laboratory scenario today. I also worked in a few publically-listed companies in Malaysia—in food processing and food services—which also helped me gain knowledge and experience in those processes.
Describe the operation you currently run in Malaysia, and what your long-term goals are for the company?
The Algaetech operations now have a few offices. Our head office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, runs the operations for our Batam, Jakarta and Guangzhou, China offices. We have started some activities in Korea, and most recently Brunei. The Brunei Government, through its body the Brunei Economic Development Board, are showing us keen interest to have us set up facilities there.
We manage five core activities: R&D for algae in our lab, where we do all tests and fine-tuning work for our ongoing algae projects.
Second, we run a consultancy and project unit, which basically deals with clients that have an interest in looking into algae, such as for CO2 sequestration, wastewater treatment using algae, and algae culturing. Currently we are completing a project in Indonesia that, I would say, is the largest PBR for Nannochloropsis in the world – and comes with a CO2 sequestration model.
We have recently signed an agreement with Pahang Biodiesel Corporation, a Pahang State-owned algae farm in Malaysia, which is planning a US$400 million project that would be one of the largest algae farms for biofuel in the world. It’s still at the planning stage. There will be a global incubator program with other algae experts, in the Malaysia Integrated Algae Valley.
We also created AIMSYS, an integrated algae farming process and system that will assist algae businesses. This system will define and automate the entire set of project parameters—sort of like conducting an orchestra.
Then we have our primary production: our farm in Thailand, a spirulina farm in Jakarta, Indonesia, and we are currently planning an acquisition of a 70 hectare algae farm in Nakhon Ratchasima, in Thailand. In the pipeline are the farms in Korea and also in Brunei.
Lastly we operate the PREMIA brand, which markets our own brand of consumer goods. The PREMIA ex Spirulina, is already on the market in Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. We are planning to expand into Korea and the Middle East soon, as it goes along with the planning of the primary production in our new farms.
What are the current milestones you are dealing with at Algaetech, and how do you feel about the progress you are making?
Preparation wise, 2011 is when we will liftoff to become a global player for the algae industry. We started in 2004, and it was not an easy ride for us. Literally speaking, at first it was like trying to sell ice to Eskimos. Many people never heard of algae the way we talk about it, and trying to explain to people who had no idea what it’s all about is a big challenge. However, thanks to the huge leap made by a few larger companies, many people are beginning to see algae as the saviors of our world. Many years ago, at an exhibition in London, I saw a postcard that read, “Can algae save the world?” And that little image always pops into my mind. I really and truly believe that it can!
As a company, one of the most important breakthroughs that we made is when we completed the “Algae for Biodiesel” project. Because of that we are now working hand-in-hand with EADS (the x
Progress-wise, I wish we had more money to do more research, but based on what we have done and achieved, I am especially thankful to my wonderful team of young, energetic people. It proves that if we set our minds to it there is nothing we can’t achieve.
As someone who travels the world observing developments in the global algae industry, please share some of your observations about how you see the industry developing around the world?
Everyone in the world that matters is talking about algae—many for energy and biofuel, and some for chemical resources. As the world shies away from chemicals, more and more companies are looking into algae as the source for many products. I once met an Ajinomoto representative who wanted a different alternative to tapioca as the source of monosodium glutamate fermentation. Another time I met a lady from IKEA, and they were looking for alternatives to oil for making candles. It’s amazing—all of the applications that are out there!
What is your view of the algae industry’s development In Asia?
Asia is emerging; I think that South East Asia will be the new Middle East of the world. We have land, water and plenty of sunlight.
It has been a dream of mine to create the Asian Algae Institute; a body that will regulate algae research in the 12 Asian countries, and move on with mega projects of millions of acres of algae—both offshore and onshore. Yes, I must say, Asia is the place to be, and the time is now!
What about algae in Europe?
Weather is a main issue. Clever people are there, and they will try to prove a point, but eventually it will make sense, if we all agree, that we must do it in a place where the land, labor, and other resources are cheap. Europeans are very determined, and from the point of view of technologies, I think that in the long run, the idea to work together will benefit all. Having said that, however, issues such as wastewater and agriculture waste for algae are not bad ideas, and could be something that can be further developed there.
What about North America?
I think there are a lot of clever people in the USA as well. I think they are going to make some great breakthroughs in algae soon, with Aurora and Sapphire and Exxon Mobile putting millions and millions into algae research. The sad part is, though, that if the same amount of money could be put into Asia, they would be able to do 10 times more here than what can be achieved over there. I think we must create consortia to bridge the algae technologies across the continents. I am glad that we are already doing this with some of our fellow colleagues in the US, Europe, Middle East and other parts of world.
My main concern with American companies is with their eagerness to patent, which means that if a company discovers something, no one else can use it. It’s like creating a monopoly.
I think that algae technology, to a certain extent, should be for all to use—it’s for mankind. It’s something like cooking. Everyone is allowed to cook food, even though not everyone can cook well. These “breakthroughs” in the lab don’t guarantee that an end user will get anywhere near the same results, for so many reasons. So why have such a restrictive system?
Australians are passionate. They spend millions on research and are not scared to take risks. I have seen many ventures in Australia where they are far more daring than in other countries. I think that there will be some major breakthrough in Australia soon. I met a brilliant Professor from the University of Queensland recently, and we are making progress to work together!
What do you see as commonalities among the various algae operations around the world that would be good for all to understand in order to drive the progress of the industry?
What’s common is that algae culturing involves four main steps: preparation work, which includes what the scientists do, like cell isolation, strain developments, and other things to propagate pure cultures.
Then we have to do the actual culturing, which can be done in PBRs, in ponds, in bags onshore or offshore, or in whatever containers you can have. And then there is harvesting, where you have centrifugation, flocculation etc., and processes such as quantum fractionation, etc.
Lastly, we have to refine the harvest and make it into biomass ready to be used further. It can be dried or frozen or in any form that the industry wants, even cracked directly for oil.
Based on these things, we should try to share this information and not have to reinvent what others are doing.
You mentioned earlier that you had a problem with the act of patenting technology in this industry because it more often than not slows down progress for the industry as a whole. Do you believe that an “open source” algae world can exist?
One of the main messages that I would like to suggest is to share everything. There are a lot of small companies out there that are looking for a big breakthrough. And when the breakthrough comes, for example a company puts some algae in particular plastic bag, and they grow the algae in that bag, and they patent it… The moment that they patent it, that means that anybody else who puts algae in that kind of plastic bag and grows it will have to pay them. Otherwise they are not allowed to do it this way.
I’m not a believer of that approach. I think the business of algae should not be the business of selling patents, or securing patents. I think it should be an open source where everybody can grow algae in plastic bags, or in photobioreactors, or whatever, and do it wherever they want.
Now, there are some processes that perhaps should be patented, some black box ideas, but I think the main things—like culturing and harvesting methods—these are all open processes that anybody can do, and everybody should be allowed to do it. For all those people who patent something they think is unique, all they have to do is go to China and they’ll find a thousand people doing the same thing, but nobody knows about them.
Like I said earlier, I think it’s like cooking. Everybody can cook, but not everybody can cook well. Everybody can grow algae, but… How good or bad they become is the meter of how successful they become.
I think a special algae board or association should be created where all the common knowledge would be shared among the stakeholders. There is no single key to culturing algae. You can’t have one company that says, “We have the key and you’ll have all the answers with my company.” I don’t think such a company exists.
What we say is, “We have a couple of answers and, if you want more, we can talk to other people who can give you more answers. And the more answers you have, the more successful your project is going to be.
What we do is, we try to find scientists and researchers who have little breakthroughs, and then put them together into a bigger picture. To look at it another way, we’re not really the musicians. We are more like the orchestra leader conducting the musicians. There are so many musicians, and somebody has to put them together and make music. That is how I see what we do.
What do you see as international stumbling blocks or obstacles that need to be addressed, perhaps on a multi-national basis?
Money—real money for the real people doing the business. I think that grants should be given to both companies and academics. One talks about the technology and the other about business. Each has its own specialty.
Lots of grants are given to big professors from big universities, because they have names like Yale, Harvard, Oxford. I think that’s a little bit misleading. I have nothing against professors, but I think that professors and doctors think like professors and doctors. And I think that a businessman who has very little money….and if a small device had to be created, the professor would go to an engineering workshop and ask for it to be made and he might end up paying $5000. But the businessman, with very little money, will be more resourceful and probably get the same thing built for $500. People who are desperate tend to do what they have to do to make things happen.
A lot of young companies with great ideas can’t move forward because their funds are too limited. Someone should be there to help them, and maybe put them all together, like a Google Development Centre sort of model.
Then there is this really bad attitude of many of the huge multi-nationals of “show me, first.” They want to see it already up and running at scale before they will consider buying it. Now, if you were building a powerplant, you could take the customer to see an operating plant and they’d know what you were talking about. But when you tell them about a 5000-acre algae farm, where are you going to bring them?
They do not want to give small algae companies a chance to prove themselves. They want a big company to come and solve their problems at one go—which will not happen this year, or next year. They need to believe, and invest in the future. As a good friend of mine rightfully said, some people want to be the First Second—let someone else prove the concept, and be the first to copy it.
If you were pleading a case to the United Nations about the place for algae production in the world of the future, what would you say to stir action?
We are in the year 2011, and there should be no more malnutrition and hunger in the world. When we are no longer fossil oil dependent, everything can go back into its natural place. People can eat and live in harmony.
I think that if there is anybody who is going to help us do this, it would be the really rich people of the world—the sheiks of the Arab countries, the Sultan of Brunei—putting aside 1% of their fortunes to create what would be the world’s largest algae farm in the desert of North Africa, and be able to feed all the poor people in Africa. And all they’d need to feed them is five grams of spirulina a day!
And we must stop CO2 emission immediately and drastically. Global warming is not like being a diabetic, it’s more like having a brain tumor. We have to make right what we have done wrong for more than 100 years.