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MiAlgae is July's Featured Business of the Month

Mon, 23 July 2018

Earlier this year Douglas Martin, of MiAlgae, was crowned our 2017 Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year!
MiAlgae cultivates lower cost microalgae using by-products from various industries that might otherwise by considered waste. The advantages of this process are multi-faceted: the algae are rich in omega-3 oils and can be used as a replacement feed in the aquaculture industry which in turn reduces the impact of world fisheries on our oceans; the algae also clean up the by-products before they are discharged safely back into the environment, reducing the risk of algal blooms in our waterways.
 
The idea for the business started while Douglas was completing his MSc at the University of Edinburgh and, while the core concept that underpins the company has remained the same, it hasn’t always been an easy road for Douglas and MiAlgae.
 
Refreshingly honest about the challenges of business, we sat down with MiAlgae founder, Douglas Martin, to find out what’s next for his award-winning business.
 
What was the inspiration behind MiAlgae?
The inspiration behind MiAlgae was actually an algae bloom. These algae blooms are caused by nutrient-rich waste and by-products being pumped into the seas. These blooms can have a devastating effect on the environment, killing fish and other aquatic life. The algae grow so thick and fast that they can often be seen from space. The idea was: can you recreate that in a controlled environment to reduce the impact on the environment, all the while reducing the cost of producing valuable algae?

How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself?
I have always been entrepreneurial and the idea of setting up and running my own company was always a part of my plan. It took some time to find an idea that I thought would really fly and MiAlgae certainly ticked all the boxes. I took a few entrepreneurship courses, but I think the main thing is to put your head down and just make it happen.

What challenges did you face when setting up your business?
Setting up a tech company takes time. All those pesky hurdles you face before getting it going take longer than you think and often feel like they will never end. The biggest issue I faced was at the outset. I was working 4 days a week up in Aberdeen to pay my rent and working 3 days a week on MiAlgae. After 6 months of that I took a very scary leap of faith and committed to the company full time. It took me another 6 months of working without pay before I raised my first round of investment and could take a salary. It took me a year to pay that debt off.

What is your biggest (or proudest) achievement with the business?
There have been a few huge moments for me and the company. That first round of investment felt almost surreal. The fact that people believed in me and my company to the extent that they were willing to bet their hard-earned savings on us is a special (and horrifyingly scary) feeling. It was a truly proud moment for me. Being named the Shell LiveWIRE Young Entrepreneur of the Year was definitely one of the key highlights for me, it is amazing how much weight that title carries and how many doors it’s opened for us. I feel very privileged.

You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2017, how have things changed for you since then?
When I won the Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2017 it was just me and a laptop. We are now a staff of 6 people with our own offices and laboratory. We’re scaling-up production with global partners and have just raised a much larger seed round of investment. It has been an amazing journey.

What’s next for MiAlgae?
Global domination. The next thing for MiAlgae is definitely scale. We’re currently proving the systems at a commercial scale and from there it is all about getting as many sites onboard as possible, as quickly as possible.

What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low-carbon society?
I think entrepreneurs will be the cornerstone of a low-carbon society. Getting things to change at scale is, with very few exceptions, based on economics. If you generate value and money while doing good in the world, it is a whole lot easier to make that a global change.

What’s your approach to risk as an entrepreneur?
My approach to risk is simple, if you know you are taking risks you are far more likely to be able to mitigate them and eventually reduce that risk. Making decisions can be risky, ignoring that decision and letting time go by is regularly riskier. I try to quantify the risk and build possible outcome cases. That lets me find backstops in case things go horribly wrong. As an entrepreneur you are doing things that have never been done before and that inevitably carries risk. I guess to a certain extent you get used to it.  

What’s the most important personality trait to have as an entrepreneur and why?
I think there are two that are very closely linked, resilience and lateral thinking. You are going to hit problems that no one else has faced before, and you are going to hit many of them. You need to be resilient and keep fighting even though things aren’t working. Resilience without lateral thinking has you running down the same track that isn’t working, I believe that the lateral thinking element allows you to find novel ways around those problems, sidestepping problems rather than having to run through them.

If you could return to this time last year would you do anything differently?
Honestly, I don’t think there is anything I would change. I have had a great year and all the failures we’ve had were definitely required to get us to where we are today.

What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs?
I have a few bits of advice I would give:
  • Everyone suffers from imposter syndrome. Just knowing that makes it easier to keep going despite feeling like you are inadequate.
  • Just make it happen. There is nothing special about many of the most famous entrepreneurs out there. They just kept going until they made it happen.
  • Ask for help. The entrepreneurial community is fantastically supportive, and most people will gladly help you.
  • Chaos is normal, “If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.” – Mario Andretti
Got a Smart Idea for a Business? 
Do you have a smart business idea that will provide a solution to the world’s future transport, food, energy, or natural resource challenges, or make our urban environments cleaner and more sustainable places to work and live in? If so you can apply online now for funding!

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