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Microalgae Cultivation Technology (Euglena Co., Ltd.)

Euglena is a venture company that aims to solve social issues that have attracted great attention around the world: the nutrition problem and climate change due to CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

This article introduces development at Euglena, which, in a world first, has successfully invented technology for mass cultivation of edible microalgae called Euglena (in Japanese, Midorimushi, which means "green bug").

(Fig.1) Microalgae called Euglena
(Fig.1) Microalgae called Euglena

Facing the nutrition problem in Bangladesh when he was 18 years old
(Impetus and recognized issues)

Izumo Mitsuru, president of Euglena, became shocked when he witnessed the reality of the local nutrition problem in Bangladesh when he was an 18-year-old university freshman. This experience ultimately led him to found the company.

(Fig.2) President Izumo Mitsuru during a visit to Bangladesh
(Fig.2) President Izumo Mitsuru during a visit to Bangladesh

At the time, Izumo hoped to work at the U.N. and knew of the poverty in Bangladesh. However, when he visited the country, he found that people did not starve, as they had plenty of rice. The problem was that they did not consume much non-carbohydrate food (such as vegetables, meat, and eggs) and did not obtain the nutrients required for human growth in a balanced way.

Few families in Bangladesh had refrigerators to store fresh vegetables, meat, and fish, and it was not easy to deliver such items to Bangladesh from abroad. In Bangladesh, despite the efforts of many organizations including the U.N., the problem of the shortage of nutrients went unsolved due to distribution routes, costs, and other causes.

Izumo thought that he could solve the problem by finding "dream food" that contained every nutrient included in meat, vegetables, and other foods in a balanced way that could be brought to Bangladesh.

He then looked for this dream food by asking to many people like university professors and specialists, but he could not find such food. Just when he was about to give up, a university friend told him about the microalgae Euglena. At that moment, Izumo was struck like a thunderbolt. The friend was Suzuki Kengo, a researcher who would go on to jointly found Euglena with Izumo.

Solving the nutrition problem with Euglena
(Details of the invention and design)

Like seaweed, Euglena is a type of algae that often appears in science textbooks.

This tiny single-celled organism that can be less than 0.1 mm in size contains chlorophyll in its body like a plant and performs photosynthesis. It can also use its flagellum to move to expose itself to light. In other words, Euglena is a living organism that has both plant and animal natures and nutrients.

Euglena contains as many as 59 nutrients that human beings need, including vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

Izumo was convinced that Euglena is the dream food that could save Bangladesh.

However, no one had succeeded in large-scale cultivation of Euglena, meaning the technology had not been established. Thus, Izumo founded a company to develop technology for mass cultivation of Euglena.

(Fig.3) Both plant and animal natures
(Fig.3) Both plant and animal natures

Mixing in of microorganisms posed a major obstacle
(Travails until completion)

Izumo first visited researchers specialized in Euglena for advice. As he listened more, he came to realize how difficult mass cultivation of Euglena is.

The reason is that if other microorganisms get mixed in during cultivation, they will eat the nutrient-rich Euglena. Technically speaking, this is called “contamination”. Although Euglena can be easily cultivated in a test tube in a laboratory, it is extremely difficult to cultivate it without contamination at large facilities, so no one had established technology for doing so at that time.

Izumo asked around for failed results from Euglena researchers across Japan and drew a conclusion.

For mass cultivation, you must grow Euglena in sunlight because it uses sunlight for photosynthesis. However, needless to say, many microorganisms will get mixed in and cause contamination in outdoor pool facilities, for example.

Because it is difficult to completely prevent microorganisms from getting mixed in, Izumo considered creating an environment in which other microorganisms could hardly grow even if they got mixed in, thus allowing only Euglena to grow.

By employing acid culture, he succeeded in creating an environment in which other microorganisms can hardly grow but Euglena flourishes. Finally, he established a world-first technology for growing edible Euglena outdoors in large quantities.

The company has received widespread attention as a biotech venture that succeeded in mass cultivation of Euglena ahead of large corporations and researchers around the world.

(Fig.4) Cultivation (for image only)
(Fig.4) Cultivation (for image only)

The "Green Bug Cookies" became a big hit
(Travails until completion)

After succeeding in large-scale production of Euglena, which has the potential to solve the nutrition problem in one pass, Izumo was sure that Euglena-based products would sell well once commercialized.

Back then, the public did not consider Euglena, which is called "Midorimushi (green bug)" in Japanese, to be edible; expectations were that people would be unwilling to eat it. In fact, some people mistook Euglena to be a bug like a green caterpillar. To reduce consumer reluctance, Izumo used to use the term "Euglena" rather than "Midorimushi" when selling products. "Euglena" is the formal scientific name, whereas "Midorimushi" is the common name in Japan. Nevertheless, Euglena-based products did not sell at first.

The turning point came in 2009 when the company sold the "Midorimushi Cookies" at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Japan. Intentional use of " Midorimushi Cookies" as the product name at the museum, where intellectually curious people gather together, brought good results.

Some people at Euglena were seriously afraid that including "Midorimushi" in the product name would spread a bad image, which could hinder sales of the product and jeopardize the company's existence. However, the product was covered throughout the media due to its novelty, and the number of visitors who ate the cookies out of curiosity increased. The company gradually cleared up the misunderstanding of people who took Euglena to be green caterpillar and succeeded in widely advertising the advantages of Euglena.

Strategically selecting technologies to patent
(How industrial property rights contributed to the invention)

What intellectual property strategy does Euglena have as a company that has already applied for over 100 patents?

Although the company was the first in the world to succeed in the mass cultivation of edible Euglena, Euglena has applied for few patents regarding the cultivation technology. Because much know-how is consolidated in their mass cultivation technology, the company strategically opted not to disclose the technologies rather than to disclose them in order to obtain patent rights.

In addition, because the microalgae is cultivated in factories, it is difficult to find evidence of patent violations even if another company copies their cultivation technology. This is another reason why they did not apply for patents regarding the cultivation technology.

Meanwhile, the company has applied for many patents regarding its inventions to reduce the microalgae to powder for use. If any of their competitors illegally uses their powder, Euglena can get the products in question and investigate them to check whether they contain Euglena powder. In this case, the company can find evidence of patent violations relatively easily.

Initially, Euglena did not have such a clear intellectual property strategy. They considered the matter when applying for patents on individual inventions and established the current strategy as a result.

Contributing to solving the climate change problem as well

Recently, the company has also attracted attention as a raw material for renewable fuels that contribute to solving the climate change problem in addition to being a solution to the nutrition problem.

During photosynthesis, Euglena takes in CO2, which is a greenhouse gas, from the air. The company noticed this property and thought that Euglena could contribute to addressing climate change.

Research has found that Euglena internally creates an oil that has a nature similar to that of light oil. Although some other microalgae are also known to create oil, Euglena creates a clean oil that does not generate a by-product known as glycerin. Renewable fuel partly made from this oil is now being implemented in jet planes, buses, ships, and other vehicles.

The tiny microalgae Euglena now has a big presence with the potential to help solve not only the nutrition problem but also the climate change problem.

(Fig.5) Renweable fuel partly made of Euglena oil
(Fig.5) Renweable fuel partly made of Euglena oil

What is special about Izumo, the innovator?

What is special about Izumo, the person who achieved this revolutionary innovation in Japan?

Arashida Ryo, who is in charge of intellectual property at Euglena, says, "Izumo has a way with people. He listens deeply and uses all his strength to communicate his thoughts. In particular, I admire him for his ability to make decisions instantaneously, declare them, and not give up until he succeeds. This makes his words persuasive and trustworthy. So, the people at Euglena can hang tough to tackle the goals he has set."

At Euglena, Izumo advises to try challenges during daily work as well.

There is an anecdote about Izumo. When he reduced cultivated Euglena to powder for the first time, he ate it on the spot even though it had not gone through a component test or other safety confirmation. His decisiveness and passion are probably the driving force behind this world-first innovation.

Make people and the Earth healthier
(Effects of the invention)

Euglena can also help solve other social issues in addition to the nutrition and climate change problems.

Euglena contains a substance called paramylon.

Paramylon is a sort of β-glucan found in mushrooms. This functional component is expected to be useful in the healthcare field. Research into paramylon's functionality has reported results including colorectal cancer suppression, immune balance adjustment, mitigation of flu symptoms, and mitigation of gastric ulcer symptoms. A variety of other studies are also underway.

Izumo set a goal of making people and the Earth healthier, and he believes that the company's growth supports people's health and will lead to the reduction and solution of various social issues.

(Fig.6) Paramylon (* Courtesy of Professor Fukuoka, Aoyama Gakuin University)
(Fig.6) Paramylon
(* Courtesy of Professor Fukuoka, Aoyama Gakuin University)

Message from Arashida, who is responsible for intellectual property

What is critical for startups is their unique core technologies.
It is important to believe in the technologies and never give up until you succeed.
Izumo always says, "Failure won't kill you."
You can start again each time you fail. I hope that you try many different things.

[Last updated 4 July 2022]


General Affairs Division,

Japan Patent Office