In Iceland, start-up founders invent new methods to sort out environmental crises

Julie Encausse, founder and chief govt of the bioplastic start-up Marea, and Jan Eric Jessen, head of analysis and growth at Algalif, work on the Algalif manufacturing facility on Iceland’s Reykjanes Peninsula. (Heida Helgadottir for The Washington Publish)


REYKJANES PENINSULA, Iceland — The electrical purple and inexperienced glow of the manufacturing facility resembles the Icelandic aurora borealis. Algae of their progress stage move by way of tons of of glass tubes that journey from ground to ceiling, all a part of a multistep course of yielding vitamins for well being dietary supplements. Quickly, all components of every alga shall be used.

The ability, operated by Icelandic producer Algalif, is an area of inspiration for Julie Encausse, a 34-year-old bioplastic entrepreneur. Throughout a July summer season storm, Svavar Halldorsson, an Algalif govt, was guiding her by way of a tour of the corporate’s latest facility on the Reykjanes Peninsula.

By the top of 2023, this new facility goals to triple its manufacturing. After Algalif dries the microalgae and extracts oleoresin, a 3rd of this output then goes towards well being dietary supplements. Algalif has historically used the remaining as a fertilizer. Now Encausse, founder and chief govt of the bioplastic start-up Marea, hopes to make use of that leftover biomass to create a microalgae spray that may scale back the world’s reliance on plastic packaging.

Her latest partnership with Algalif is a part of a start-up community in Iceland that focuses on ingenious and inventive applied sciences to deal with the local weather and sustainability disaster. The Sjavarklasinn (“Iceland Ocean Cluster”) community contains environmental entrepreneurs working throughout a number of industries.

Thor Sigfusson based the community in 2012 after conducting analysis on how partnerships between corporations in Iceland’s expertise sector helped broaden that trade. On the time, he discovered that the fishing trade was not experiencing the identical collaboration or progress.

“Although corporations had been in the identical constructing collectively, fishing from the identical quotas and going through comparable challenges, they had been closed off,” stated Alexandra Leeper, the Iceland Ocean Cluster’s head of analysis and innovation.

Three cod hanging on the wall of the second-floor entryway are the very first thing to greet any customer to the Iceland Ocean Cluster. Lightbulbs shine from their facilities, and the dried scales filter the sunshine to fill the area with an amber glow. The exact design is one which underlines the group’s perception that utilizing 100% of a fish or pure useful resource may give rise to revolutionary applied sciences.

Straddling the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland experiences dramatic seasons in an ever-changing geologic theater. Glaciers sit atop energetic volcano zones — the island exists within the extremes. This additionally signifies that Icelanders face every day indicators of local weather change, comparable to elevated glacial runoff.

These seen impacts have given a heightened urgency to tackling environmental issues, fueling partnerships just like the one between Encausse and Halldorsson.

“It would all work out in the long run,” Encausse says to a rain-drenched Algalif worker in passing as she and Halldorsson focus on the ability’s constructing timeline. In Icelandic, it is a widespread phrase — “þetta reddast” — that folks use to guarantee each other.

Studying to make use of all components of a useful resource

Encausse and Marea co-founder Edda Bjork Bolladottir have partnered with the cluster for 2½ years. Encausse says that involvement was core to their firm’s inception.

“There’s a collaborative mind-set when being on an island,” she stated. “We have to work collectively to outlive, and this was handed from technology to technology.”

In a rustic concerning the measurement of Kentucky, the folks of Iceland have needed to discover ways to guard their assets. Encausse has found that usually means utilizing 100% of any materials — a lesson she’s now implementing in her work with Algalif. She created a meals coating from Algalif’s leftover biomass, a product she’s named Iceborea — in a nod to the aurora borealis.

“We’re repurposing it and making one thing with worth that offers it one other life to keep away from utilizing extra plastic,” Encausse stated. As soon as Algalif’s manufacturing unit expands over the subsequent yr, it can have 66 tons of microalgae leftovers that Encausse’s firm can faucet annually.

When sprayed onto contemporary produce, Iceborea turns into a pure skinny movie and a semipermeable barrier that may shield towards microorganisms. Iceborea can both be eaten with produce or washed off, decreasing the necessity for plastic packaging.

Feminine founders within the cluster

Reusing manufacturing unit byproducts is an entrepreneurial pattern in Iceland.

Take Edda Aradottir. She is the chief govt of Carbfix, an organization capturing CO2 byproduct from the biggest geothermal plant in Iceland, Hellisheidi, and injecting it into stone to be buried underground.

Carbfix’s profitable trials have marked a world milestone for carbon sequestration. It additionally has acquired worldwide recognition — and Aradottir’s management has already served as a mannequin for rising start-ups and different founders within the cluster attempting to sort out in depth environmental considerations.

“It’s inspiring to see that perseverance pays off,” Encausse stated about Aradottir’s work.

One other Icelandic firm, GeoSilica, harvests silica buildup from the Hellisheidi waste stream to make well being dietary supplements. GeoSilica reaches the Icelandic and European markets, and its chief govt, Fida Abu Libdeh, can be working with the Philippines to pilot her silica-removal expertise to create comparable sustainable manufacturing unit processes.

A Palestinian from Jerusalem, Abu Libdeh moved to Iceland in 1995 at age 16, a transition she described as troublesome due to the language barrier and the nation’s small immigrant inhabitants. In 2012, she graduated from the College of Iceland after learning sustainable vitality engineering and researching the well being advantages of silica. That very same yr, she and Burkni Palsson co-founded GeoSilica.

Ever since transferring to Iceland, she was impressed with how the nation produced electrical energy by way of geothermal sources.

“I knew I used to be going to do one thing in reference to that sooner or later,” she stated.

GeoSilica will not be formally a part of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, however the community it has fostered displays the identical collaborative strategy. Abu Libdeh has labored with cluster corporations and held investor conferences at its headquarters. It’s a spot that founders need to be, she stated, the place they need to study from one another even when they’re opponents of their fields.

Whereas there was progress over time, Abu Libdeh stated, it’s nonetheless a problem for girls to enter this entrepreneurial area. In 2020, lower than 1 % of funding went to women-founded start-ups, in keeping with a current European Girls in Enterprise Capital report.

Halla Jonsdottir, analysis and growth lead and co-founder of Optitog, has primarily based her start-up within the cluster for 3 years. Her firm is creating tools to extend the catch space of shrimp trawls with out scraping the seafloor — expertise that’s meant to scale back gasoline calls for and CO2 emissions whereas defending the ocean ground.

As a feminine founder within the Icelandic fishing expertise trade, Jonsdottir is a rarity. Leeper believes Jonsdottir could also be one of many few ladies working in fishing gear innovation.

Jonsdottir says the cluster helped drive her progress. “They put emphasis on making us seen in a male-driven trade.”

What started as a dozen start-ups in 2012 has now grown to greater than 70 members and related corporations related to the Iceland Ocean Cluster. Sigfusson has ignited the blue economic system inside Iceland, however his mission’s attain has additionally gone world.

There at the moment are 4 sister clusters in america, in addition to one in Denmark and one within the Faroe Islands.

The Alaska Ocean Cluster, which was the primary to observe the Icelandic mannequin, has already accelerated coverage change in america. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) proposed laws final yr to create “Ocean Innovation Clusters” in main U.S. port cities, which would offer grants alongside the U.S. shoreline and the Nice Lakes.

“I’ve realized an excellent deal from our mates in Iceland who created a roadmap of innovation and public/non-public partnership after they established the primary Oceans Cluster in Reykjavik,” Murkowski stated in an electronic mail. “I’ll proceed to press upon my colleagues the importance of this laws and the promise it holds for the modernization and resilience of our maritime economic system.”

Again on the cluster home

At 12:30 p.m. on a July afternoon, the cluster’s first-floor meals corridor, Grandi Matholl, buzzes throughout a busy hour. Fish haulers wearing outsized, waterproof waders eat on picket benches alongside staff in skilled fits. Connected to the Matholl is Bakkaskemman, a seating space with a glass window the place guests can watch fish being unloaded off ships. Each afternoon on a enterprise day, there’s a web-based public sale to promote the day’s catch.

Upstairs in her workplace, Jonsdottir works on her trawler expertise. Later within the week, Encausse will use the assembly room area to satisfy with traders about Iceborea.

The pungent odor of cod lingers in Bakkaskemman. It’s etched into the paint, leaking from the histories of the partitions. In half-hour, the public sale will start.

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