Inside The Solazyme Kitchen
You read that right: Algae. You might have thought it was just for biofuels (or just for floating in the ocean), but algae-based oils are the food additive of the future. And they’re delicious.
During a recent visit to Solazyme, a renewable algae oil company, I had a mid-day snack of crackers, vanilla-tinged milk, pretzels with a honey mustard sauce, ice cream, and a chocolate chip cookie. All of it contained algae, and all of it had significantly fewer calories, fat, and cholesterol than more traditional counterparts. For the record: all of the food items were just as good, and in some cases better, than the same foods containing regular ingredients.
You may have heard of Solazyme before. The company, founded in 2003, at first had the singular goal of producing biofuel from algae, much like a handful of other biofuel companies, including Synthetic Genomics and Sapphire Energy. It has achieved some big milestones on the biofuel front just in the past few years–the first passenger carrier plane to fly with an algae-based biofuel blend used Solazyme’s fuel and the company became the largest advanced supplier of biofuels to the U.S. Navy.
But while news organizations proclaim that Solazyme is “the most promising advanced biofuel play on the market,” CEO Jonathan Wolfson stresses that the South San Francisco-based company is not a biofuel company. It’s a renewable oil company that’s branching out into chemicals, cosmetics, and nutrition. Solazyme has development partnerships with companies ranging from Unilever to Dow Chemical. Why place all your bets on one industry?
Solazyme first realized that it was destined for more than just biofuel production while perfecting its algae oil-making process. “We’re making triglyceride oils. On the planet, there are three sources of oil: petroleum, plant oil, and animal fat. The first two are all triglycerides, which is what algae make,” explains Wolfson. “Literally what we’ve done is produced a new source of oil. We can convert all of this plant-based sugar on the planet into different kinds of oils.”
The basic premise is simple. Feed sugars (sugar cane, switchgrass, etc.) to algae, and the algae make oil. Solazyme tailors the oil profiles for different applications. “We can go out and find all kinds of oil profiles in nature and then using biotechnology we can get algae to either mimic them or create new oil profiles that haven’t existed before,” says Wolfson.
The CEO brandishes a handful of small bottles containing Solazyme’s algae-based oils: a pork lard mimetic, palm oil, oil for jet fuel, dielectric fluid (used in transformers). “We put the same plant-based sugars in. All we did was switch the strain.”
Solazyme has already found success in the cosmetics industry with its Algenist line of beauty products (tagline: “biotechnology from San Francisco), which rely on “alguronic acid,” a compound produced by microalgae that can protect algae–and incidentally, human skin–from the environment. Since launching less than a year ago, Algenist products have become best-sellers at Sephora stores across the country.
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