by David Schwartz
ent Peterson, founder and CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies, Inc., has, for the past ten years, watched the algae industry develop through a microscope. His Yarmouth, Maine-based firm builds and markets the FlowCAM®, a portable, image-based analyzer of cells and particles in fluid medium, currently used at hundreds of locations in 35 countries around the world.
He sensed early on that understanding the dynamics of microalgae—at an up close and personal level—was going to be increasingly important. His determination, as well as the advice he has long promoted to those pursuing algal biofuel, echoed the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”
In pursuit of that objective, Kent was recently named Mainebiz Magazine leader of the year in the small business category. Fluid Imaging won the U.S. Small Business Administration’s New England Exporter of the year award, as well as the Maine International Trade Center’s Exporter of the Year for 2010.
We caught up with Kent recently via email while he was in Hong Kong after attending Algae World Asia, and asked about the path he took to becoming a key technology supplier in the developing algae production industry.
How did Fluid Imaging get started?
Over ten years ago, I was involved in pioneering a novel water treatment technology utilizing cavitation as the mechanism to lyse microscopic cells. I was discussing the matter with a colleague about the need to study the process at the cellular level in real time. My colleague mentioned a breakthrough instrument that could do just that. An introduction was made to the inventor, Dr. Chris Sieracki, and I learned about what appeared to be a game-changing system, called FlowCAM, for real-time analysis at the microscopic level.
So Dr. Sieracki and I partnered up and began commercialization efforts. I was convinced that the fundamental core competency of digital imaging flow cytometry, as well as digital imaging particle analysis, was a technology that the market badly needed. The existing methods were slow and labor intensive, so relatively little data could be developed in a reasonable amount of time. That was when I decided to go all in, and facilitate the growth of this business.
Which market were you looking at when you started the company?
The initial application of the FlowCAM was for oceanographic research for phytoplankton (algae) and zooplankton because of the novel combination of microscopy, imaging and flow cytometry. The specialty was toxic harmful algal bloom species (HABs). For over ten years, FlowCAMs have been deployed worldwide in laboratories and oceanographic research vessels providing timely and extensive biological information. That led to studying taste and odor causing algae for municipal water supplies.
And then with the growing interest in studying optimum algae species for lipid production, algae growing conditions and predator monitoring of raceways and photobioreactors, applying the FlowCAM to this market was a natural application extension.
Tell us a little about the evolution, or the process, of building the company.
Fluid Imaging Technologies was a case study in bootstrapping on the belief and vision that someday industry would appreciate the value of real-time digital imaging analysis. An active marketing campaign began which principally relied on showing the FlowCAM being run at trade shows and expos.
No brochure or phone conversation could elicit the “wow factor” experienced when a microscopist saw that, in seconds, the instrument could gather more data then he or she could in hours or weeks of manual labor—and without operator bias or fatigue.
When we received an order and a down payment, we would assemble the system and take it to a trade show, or show it to another potential customer, before shipping it to the first customer. The gains from one sale were put into additional marketing and sales efforts. We just kept proceeding to go in an upward spiral as word got out and industry started to accept this technology, all the while adding employees to leverage our efforts.
Your company’s growth has paralleled the development of the modern algae industry. What are some of milestones you’ve observed as the industry has grown?
I am continuously amazed and excited about technological developments along the path to algae-to-biofuel commercialization. These developments have centered around better understandings of algae growth principles, cost improvements in construction materials and technological developments such as the use of LEDs and advanced extraction methods.
While the jury may still be out in terms of raceway vs. photobioreactor, or natural vs. genetically modified strains, I see opportunities to support the industry participants regardless of methods or means to the end. The FlowCAM is useful for algae analysis and process monitoring, irrespective of the approach taken, as it can image a PBR strain equally as well as a GM strain.
I am not a phycologist, but I am peaked by some new peer-reviewed research I saw that makes the observation that mixed cultures versus mono cultures may be a more stable approach to grow algae in large, sustainable environments. It points to some role of symbiosis that may not be fully understood.
If you extrapolate the future of the FlowCAM technology, what do you see down the road?
Never before has any technology offered high speed, real-time imaging of thousands of individual algal cells in seconds—in full color, automatically. That said, I believe it can be expected that more sensitive instrumentation, smaller and lower cost instruments, as well as in-line capabilities, will be seen in the coming years.
As you travel the world, what interesting trends or developments are you noticing in places that will eventually influence the algae activities in other areas?
The acceptance that there is no holy grail algal species, and that maximum lipid production may not be the ultimate objective. Adaptation to local species and not trying to grow a species not indigenous to a geographic location is taking hold more and more.
Local needs and conditions are playing a fundamental role in formulating algae-to-biofuel strategies, such as incorporating the need to treat wastewater becoming part of the agenda.
Also, economic reality is settling in more and more in regards to the development of high value products from algae, so that entities can survive in the long haul until further technological developments and advancements in knowledge pave the way to (hopefully) economic success in algae biofuels.
In point of fact, at the recent Algae World Asia conference held in Beijing, a rather small percentage of the talks focused strictly on algae-to-biofuel, and this bodes well for the long-term sustainability of algae-to-biofuel development.