UCalgary researchers work on a revolutionary new process to extract phycocyanin.
UCalgary researchers work on a revolutionary new process to extract phycocyanin. Adrian Shellard

May 18, 2021

Synergia Biotech’s entrepreneurial journey

How a team of UCalgary scientists took risks, shifted paradigms, embraced business models, and wound up on a promising new path

Set out on one journey and end up somewhere else. The story behind the birth of startup Synergia Biotech, a new clean-technology company with deep roots in University of Calgary research, is a ringing example of dogged persistence, frequent pivots, the thrill of discovery, and the urgency of delivering blue food dye to a marketplace hungry for naturally sourced, sustainable ingredients.

Starting point

The researchers’ original mission, one of the project areas within the Energy Bioengineering and Geomicrobiology Group in the Faculty of Science, was to find ways to produce carbon-neutral natural gas from algal biomass, a form of organic matter that stores chemical energy from the sun. Their focus was the cyanobacteria growing in alkaline conditions such as those in British Columbia’s Soda Lakes high on the Cariboo Plateau. “We replicated the chemistry from these particular lakes, which happen to be amongst the most biologically productive areas in the world,” recalls Dr. Christine Sharp, PhD’13, an environmental microbiologist who had been studying Soda Lakes as far back as 2013.

Phycocyanin, produced at commercial scale, will help meet global demand for climate-friendly alternatives to chemical colour additives.

Phycocyanin, produced at commercial scale, will help meet global demand for climate-friendly alternatives to chemical colour additives.

Adrian Shellard

Pivot toward commercial potential

Bioengineer Agasteswar Vadlamani, PhD, and biologist Angela Kouris, PhD, joined the research group around 2018. In the early fall of that year, the team discovered their process to extract phycocyanin — a naturally occurring pigment used as a blue colouring agent in the food and beverage industry — from the cyanobacteria (colloquially named algae).  Dr. Vadlamani and the rest of the team grew convinced of the commercial potential of this value-added product. Dr. Kouris, now CEO of Synergia, remembers coming to a point where she “removed myself from the fundamental research that's ongoing and recognized that this is a valuable product, we can do something with this.” They incorporated the company in the fall of 2019.

Off to the races

They applied and were accepted into the Prime stream of the Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies (CDL-Rockies), an objective-setting, mentorship program within the Haskayne School of Business that focuses on massively scalable, early stage science- and technology-based companies. By October 2019, “we were getting positively hammered with questions about what our business model was and what our revenue streams and potential markets were,” Kouris says. “None of us had even looked at a market report at that point. It was very exciting, let’s put it that way.”

Clarifying the focus

By the time the foursome graduated from the demanding CDL program, they had made two paradigm shifts. First, they sharpened their focus from two production streams, natural gas and phycocyanin, into one. “We realized that the actual financial gain for the business side did not lie in the natural gas, but it had everything to do with the actual value-added blue,” Kouris says. Second, the new venture set its sights on the food and beverage industry, the market of greatest demand for phycocyanin, according to their business research. 

“A big goal was to identify some of the biggest players in the world in the natural food colour space, which we did,” Kouris recounts. “We reached out to them and we found it was relatively easy to get their interest, which validated our market assumptions about the need for our product.” At the behest of the CDL mentors, the team also grew to five, adding Ben Lightburn and his vast experience and success in early-stage company commercialization in the ingredient and clean-tech space.

What didn’t change was the founders’ unwavering commitment to their technology’s environmentally friendly side-effect — its ability to mitigate carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a natural part of their process. Synergia plans to begin construction of a manufacturing facility about one year from now on Vancouver Island.

At a pilot-scale pond built on the UCalgary campus in 2020, the team replicated the biological processes at the heart of their venture.

At a pilot-scale pond built on the UCalgary campus in 2020, the team replicated the biological processes at the heart of their venture.

Katy Whitt Photography

Support for commercialization

Kouris says the support from the university’s Innovation Ecosystem was essential to getting the project off the ground. “From my perspective, the Global Research Initiative (GRI) in Sustainable Low-Carbon Unconventional Resources, the big Canada research grant that was awarded to the University of Calgary in 2016, essentially enabled all of the funding for the commercialization,” she says. The federal funding to UCalgary, under the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, supports Canada’s transition to a safer, cleaner, more secure energy future. Alberta Innovates and Western Economic Diversification funded part of the research.  Also key was having staff who work to support commercialization, adds Christine Sharp. “Without having a research group that's actually supportive of commercializing the technology, and then the resources there from the GRI to kind of push this all forward, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Looking back

Part of the team’s success has been a willingness to work closely together, take risks, and try something new, no matter where it might lead. “I think it’s pretty unique that all of us were willing to just step out of our comfort zones and try something incredible in this process,” says Sharp. “And we wouldn’t have made it through CDL and the last two years of actually having a business, if we weren’t willing to pivot and be open-minded and take criticism and feedback and sculpt it into what it is right now.”

Researchers as inventors and innovators

The university enables researchers to think outside of the lab, with supported pathways to innovation and real-world impact. “Great researchers are often great innovators and we have built a robust Innovation Ecosystem with key elements such as the Hunter Hub, Innovate Calgary, and CDL to provide our researchers the tools and advice they need to help make the leap from discovery to inventions and then to commercial outcomes,” says Dr. Stephen Larter, associate vice-president (innovation). “UCalgary-led innovations are helping solve global challenges, creating jobs, and boosting the economy. We are mobilizing our deep knowledge base and translating our expertise into ventures that will make a difference.”

Phycocyanin has emerged as the most viable natural source to replace chemical and synthetic versions in industry.

Phycocyanin has emerged as the most viable natural source to replace chemical and synthetic versions in industry.

Katy Whitt Photography

Entrepreneurial journey

Across the arc of the project, the principal investigator was Dr. Marc Strous, PhD, Campus Alberta Innovation Program Chair in Energy Bioengineering. Reflecting on the “entrepreneurial-ness” of the project’s history, Strous says, “I think what we’ve done countless times is said, ‘Okay, we were wrong. This idea doesn’t work.’ And we’ve pivoted countless times. During those seven years, I think the essential thing was that we always did that, falsified our own ideas, moved on to something that did work and did not get stuck circling a hypothesis endlessly, maybe for years and years and years without actually addressing it full on.”

  • Interested in Synergia Biotech, their all-natural blue pigment, and investment opportunities? Learn more 
  • As part of UCalgary’s partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation, we celebrate Canadian Innovation Week. Join UCalgary experts and researchers May 17-21, for a week of conversation, inspiration and ideas. Learn more

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