by David Schwartz
atthew Carr was recently named executive director of the Algae Biomass Organization (ABO), the leading trade association for the algae industry. His presence will soon become familiar to the industry when he hosts the Algae Biomass Summit, the largest algae conference in the world, taking place September 29 – October 2, 2014 in San Diego, California.
Prior to his leadership role at ABO, Carr served as director of the Policy, Industrial and Environmental Section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), the world’s largest trade association representing biotechnology companies, academic institutions, state biotechnology centers and related organizations across the United States and more than 30 other countries. Carr holds a doctorate in atmospheric sciences from the University of Washington and a bachelor’s degree in atmospheric and ocean sciences from McGill University.
AIM spoke with Dr. Carr recently to get his assessment of the algae industry, and his plans and aspirations for the ABO.
Coming from your post at BIO, you had a perspective on many forms of potential fossil fuel alternatives. What was it about algae that influenced you to take the step into the ABO organization?
In my nine years at BIO I had the privilege to work with a really broad set of companies and institutions developing the next generation of biofuels and other applications of biomass and biotechnology to address energy and manufacturing challenges. In algae I saw a technology that really had the ideal story to tell. The issues with first-generation biofuels – such as food versus fuel – were turned on their heads.
When you choose algae, you’re introducing a crop that can deliver a new fuel source, but also additional sources of protein, carbohydrates, and nutritional oils. It addresses the water-energy nexus by its ability to work with wastewater or salt water. It really helps bring in new geographies and new constituencies to the conversation about biofuels and, in doing so it really helps to broaden the base of support for the sector.
Most of all, coming from a background of private research, I really saw algae as being a huge opportunity in terms of addressing greenhouse gases – whether the emissions are from power plants, industrial sources or otherwise. It takes on carbon dioxide emissions at the source.
When I had the chance to visit Sapphire’s algae crude farm in New Mexico, the experience really made a believer out of me. So when the ABO opportunity came along I couldn’t pass it up.
Now that you have your feet planted in the algae world, what are your top priorities?
First and foremost is getting to know the companies, their technologies, and their needs from the ABO. At the same time, we have a lot of work to do in Washington. The recently proposed rules from EPA on regulation of carbon dioxide from power plants is an opportunity to really boost investment in algae if it’s done right. If not done right, it could be a real blow.
Organizationally, we’re looking to grow, strengthen and diversify the membership. There are partners throughout the value chain – suppliers, distributors, end users of algae biomass – that have an interest in seeing the sector succeed and I’d like to bring them all together to help strengthen our voice.
What new directions are developing in the strategy for ABO and its initiatives?
The thing that I think is the most striking is in the evolution in the range of products that companies are investing in. As with all of BIO’s members, it wasn’t that long ago where the development was focused on fuels. Today we’re seeing a range of markets being explored alongside fuels, and I think it’s an encouraging trend of identifying opportunities that bring in early revenue as they build out towards the more challenging fuel markets. It’s also brought in some really interesting partners in the personal care and consumer goods space, which has made for a more interesting and dynamic environment.
Where do you see potential in the developing algae industry that has yet to be played out, or been given its due? Are you seeing the tips of any new icebergs?
While those in the industry know about the diversification, my conversations with folks in the general public show that many of these new areas for algae are almost completely unfamiliar to them; particularly in the area of omega-3s and other nutritional oils and nutraceuticals – a really rich opportunity where we’ve been seeing tremendous interest from those markets.
In addition, a number of companies are talking about the animal feed markets. They might not be sexy markets, but they are extremely important markets, both in terms of creating initial revenue from production and also in terms of addressing global challenges, while telling a good story about algae.
And we don’t want to lose sight of fuels. In particular military and commercial aviation markets are both hungry for sustainable alternative liquid transportation fuels, and we are eager to work with those developing for that application.
How will that growth in product sectors affect the ABO membership? Has ABO’s pallet expanded to the point of accepting any organization that is dealing with algae in any positive aspect?
We embrace the full range of applications and markets that are available to algae biomass developers, and certainly encourage it – the more diverse the market, the more diverse the stakeholders, and the broader the awareness of the underlying technology. And the more players that we can bring in and educate on the tremendous opportunities that algae can provide, the more success that the industry can hope to have. So we definitely embrace those pursuing all of the applications.
What from your background with BIO do you see affecting the way the ABO might operate in the future?
The big change is the move to Washington (D.C.). During my time at BIO, ABO was a great partner in pursuing favorable policy for the entire biomass and biofuels sector. But, without a permanent presence here, it was challenging to really tell the algae story as effectively as we would have liked. By moving to Washington it allows us to engage on a daily basis with policy makers as well as other stakeholders, the environmental community, and key personalities here in Washington.
How do you see ABO influencing training and education in the algae industry?
Certainly a fundamental component of any advanced and emerging technology is the people who bring the innovation to the sector, and a strong and highly educated workforce is essential to the success of that sector. I’d like to work with ABO’s academic members to ensure that the future of the workforce is strong. We are somewhat unique in that we have both corporate and academic members and we want to build on that strength to make sure that we have the good people that we need for the corporate members to succeed in their endeavors.
What will be your message to Congress, when you have the platform to address them?
The message to Congress is that algae represent a tremendous opportunity to address the most pressing environmental and social issues of the day: climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy security. We have to make sure that policy supports the development of the technology. That means, in the case of power plant rules, ensuring that carbon utilization by algae and other technologies is an eligible compliance strategy.
In the case of biofuels, EPA needs to make sure, as quickly as possible, to approve new algae biofuel pathways to qualify for federal fuel programs. And we need to work together to make sure that any other regulatory barriers that stand in the way of developing the technology are minimized to encourage investment and innovation in the sector.
What is your strongest message to those currently working in the algae industry?
I’d say to all working in the algae industry that you are doing good and important work. The promise of the technology is strong, and the need is urgent. Climate change is the pressing environmental issue of today and you’ve got the technology that can make a real difference.