Polly Van Alstyne, Chief Operating Officer at ScotBio, talks about an exciting project which derives a blue food colourant from spirulina and how IBioIC supports the project.

ScotBio was founded in 2007 and was originally set up to research algae as a biofuel source.  Over the following years we explored different areas, including working with whisky distilleries to investigate carbon capture, but things started to take off for us in 2011 when we sponsored a PhD student, Chelsea Brain, from Newcastle University.  Chelsea discovered that growing spirulina under red spectrum light vastly increases the amount of phycocyanin – a naturally occurring blue dye.

ScotBio spent the next five years carrying out research into optimising the quantity and quality of phycocyanin in our spirulina and scaling up operations. During this time, in 2013, the USFDA approved phycocyanin as a natural food colourant. At the same time, consumer demand was growing as people became increasingly concerned about artificial colourings.  This convergence of market conditions was an incentive for us to push forward with our project to develop spirulina extract for the food and drink industry.

Our recent Scottish Life Science award for ‘Innovative Collaboration’ on this IBioIC industry-led project, highlights the strong and rewarding collaboration between business and academia. Throughout the development of our product we partnered with leading academics, such as Dr Andrew Free, Dr Alistair McCormack and Dr Attila Molnar, from the University of Edinburgh, and the award recognises the excellent working relationship we have. 

IBioIC has been a fantastic support to us throughout our journey. They have not only helped us to secure financial support for projects aimed at extracting the phycocyanin molecule in a more cost-effective way and increasing its purity and stability, they have helped to future-proof our company through supporting R&D projects using gene editing to achieve an improved product. These are key drivers for the future and commercially critical for us.

In addition to the practical support they offer, IBioIC facilitate work placements for university students. Last year ScotBio sponsored an MSc Industrial Biotech student, Alexandros Zouliatis, who initially joined us for a three-month project.  He was so good we hired him and Alex is now our process engineer. Finding good quality, skilled staff would be much more difficult without support from IBioIC.
Aside from the practical support offered directly from IBioIC, the networking opportunities with member companies is hugely beneficial. We have benefitted from members and partner agencies giving up their time to offer advice and guidance and put us in contact with other businesses and organisations who can help. It’s also helpful to have a forum to connect and hear what other companies within our growing sector are doing.

We have worked on a total of four projects supported by IBioIC and are currently collaborating, along with the University of Edinburgh, on projects including using a 3D printed column chromatography system for purification and another project looking at the stability of the phycocyanin molecule, which  can be sensitive to pH and heat.  If we are able to achieve a better stability we can open up use of the colouring to other applications within the food, drink and pharmaceutical industries.

There is still research to be carried out on additional applications of high purity phycocyanin, but initial findings suggest that it could have potential uses within pharmaceutical markets for cancer treatments and liver repair. Another potential application is to use the colouring as a molecular tag – phycocyanin fluoresces at particular wavelength and could potentially be added to drugs and alcohol to see if they are counterfeit. Considerable research is still required into each of these cases and we are scoping what future exploration areas could be. 
Our work on the spirulina project and the continued support from IBioIC has helped us to secure a recent investment of £2m in a deal with Scottish investment syndicates Kelvin Capital and Investing Women, as well as London-based Oghma Partners and private investors in the UK and the USA.  This investment will see us grow from a micro-lab facility at BioCity Glasgow, to a larger-scale, commercially viable business.

We’re aiming for further expansion in the future – ideally we want to be a market leader and a global business. As consumers continue to push for natural products, it’s a very exciting time for ScotBio. Our success so far is a prime example of what can be achieved when academia and industry work together.


Further Information

Find out more about IBioIC's MSc programme.

Find out more about taking a student on placement.

Find out more about IBioIC's Project Funding opportunities.

For more information on the funding support that IBioIC can offer, contact our Technical Development Manager, Johan Belfrage at