Living Ink: replacing petroleum pigment with algae

Living Ink CEO Scott Fulbright on building a company, replacing petroleum, and collaborating with Nike.
|

Carbon black is a widely used pigment, ubiquitous in common household items. It’s what gives black coloration to things like pen ink and tires, and it’s also what gives mascara its dark color. Unfortunately, conventional carbon black is derived from petroleum and has been linked with cancer. 

Scott Fulbright, Founder and CEO of Living Ink, is on a mission to provide safer pigments. Living Ink produces a bio-based alternative made from algae waste. The pigment, and inks made from it, hold promise for safer means of printing on paper, fabric and more.

I sat down with Living Ink CEO Scott Fulbright to learn about Living Ink and how their team thinks. Our conversation challenged my assumptions about the company. 

Living Ink pigments have been adopted in a variety of applications, ranging from screen printing, to packaging, to using pigment in products with brands such as Nike and Checkerspot. Read on to learn more!

Nike ISPA Footwear featuring Algae Black™ (Photo: Living Ink / Nike)
Nike ISPA Footwear featuring Algae Black™ (Photo: Living Ink / Nike)

Sage Shelton: Thanks for taking the time to connect, Scott! I’m curious about how Living Ink fits in with your personal journey. How did this project find you?

Scott Fullbright: I grew up surrounded by nature and always loved playing outside. I first got interested in algae while lifeguarding over a summer on Catalina Island. I went on to study algae blooms for Michigan State at a research site in Florida. The context of that research was about finding methods for producing biofuels from algae. This innovative research helped me develop an entrepreneurial mindset. 

Sage: When did you make the connection between algae and pigment? 

Scott: When I was in graduate school, I had a huge realization while flying into the San Francisco airport. I saw algal blooms in the ponds below, displaying a variety of red and brown colors. This was my aha moment. I wondered: “Can we harvest the colorants in these microorganisms and use them in the world”? That’s the moment that started the path I’m on now with Living Ink. 

Sage: Wow! You witnessed the phenomenon of colorful algae in the world and wanted to find out if it was possible to harvest the pigment. 

Scott: Exactly. Innovation is just connecting the dots in your life, right? One day, I noticed there were algae of many different colors. Another day, I was thinking about everything that I touched or put in my body. I wondered: “What is this, where does this come from? How is it made? What’s its composition?” If I hadn’t had the prior experience of studying algae, I may not have had those dots to connect. 

Sage: Yay, neuroplasticity, for helping us connect dots!

Scott: Exactly. That's why I love talking to people. I love visiting new places, whether it's a wastewater treatment center or a label printing business. It’s fun to learn how the world works, right? 

Sage: Absolutely. We’re all here helping each other connect the dots. I’d love to know more about the rest of the Living Ink team. 

Scott: Sure, I think one of the breakthrough moments for Living Ink was finding Terry Clayton. I knew that my background in biochemistry, though relevant, was not specific to inks or colorants. When looking around on LinkedIn, I found someone named Terry Clayton, whose profile really spoke to me. Within seconds of reading his LinkedIn bio, I realized he was someone I wanted to work with. 

Finding someone who has a different, yet complementary, set of dots to connect really makes all the difference. At the very beginning, I said to Terry: “I can't guarantee you a specific outcome. But I can guarantee you you're the only person right now who’s working on how to turn algae into ink.” When no one else is doing it, it feels like good things can happen. 

Living Ink Co-Founders Stevan Albers and Scott Fulbright, 2017 (Photo: Living Ink)

Sage: Can you walk me through the timeline a little bit? 

Scott: Yep. Steve and I started the project during grad school, around 2014. By the time we found Terry, it was 2017. We went through an accelerator and took entrepreneurship classes. We made a few pivots during the early stages. We got our first grant dollar in 2017 from the National Science Foundation to begin proper R&D. 

Sage: What was that like? How did you find out about the right grants?

Scott: My co-founder and I both had academic backgrounds. We had exposure to things like grants and fellowships. We had a bit of a foundation there. For small business grants, the government wants the project to be very industrial/commercial focused. I think the SBIRs are really great programs at DOE, NSF, EPA and USDA. The program managers are helpful at those organizations. Talking to other founders that have been successful in obtaining those grants is huge. We always want to be talking to someone that's two steps ahead of us. What I’ve noticed in my time with Living Ink is that we’re probably at our worst when our heads are down and we're only focused on what we're doing. It’s a fine line to walk - getting things done and also continuing to talk to everyone that we can. 

Sage: Thanks for that insight on your experience with grants. Indeed, life’s a juggling act! I’d love to pivot and learn a bit about the product itself. What is Living Ink? How does it compare to what's historically been on the market? 

Scott: Yep. To start, carbon black is the most prevalently used black pigment compound. It’s in a lot of the black things surrounding us: computer keyboards, monitors, phone cases, headphones. Carbon black is created by heating petroleum to a very high temperature and collecting the soot. Like many petroleum products, it's very good at what it does. This process has been used for hundreds of years. 

Research and development at Living Ink (Photo: Living Ink)

At Living Ink, we make an alternative to that black pigment. We don't use petroleum. We use biomass waste. For example, we work with algae farms that have byproducts or waste products. In the case of a business growing green algae to extract nutraceutical compounds, they grow and harvest algae each day. They extract different molecules for their food business, and we take the remaining waste. We use a thermal treatment, which is less energy intensive than that of the traditional carbon black, to make a black pigment from that waste stream. The biggest differentiator is that we are using biomass instead of petroleum as the input. It's a little bit different in its chemistry. In terms of acting as colorant, it's a great drop-in alternative to traditional carbon black. 

Here’s an overview of the carbon black alternatives landscape

Sage: If I were to run a chemical analysis on Living Ink’s black pigment, is it fundamentally the same carbon black, just from a different carbon source?

Scott: That’s a really good question. Our pigment is slightly different. It’s a larger particle size than traditional carbon black, which is really tiny at only 15 nm. Our colorants are about a micron in size, so much larger. For safety reasons, a larger particle size is a good thing because it’s easy to manage and workers are less likely to breathe it in. We also don't have impurities on our pigment, due to the large particle size. In traditional carbon black production, there are impurities called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and Living Ink’s materials are free of those. PAHs are what give traditional carbon black a bad name, and what lands it on Prop 65 in California. 

Sage: So, PAHs are carcinogenic? 

Scott: PAHs, yep. They also have a really small particle size. So, they’re very easy to breathe in during production, which is not a good thing. 

Sage: With Living Ink’s colorant having a larger particle size, can you share some of the pros and cons? Especially for industries adopting it as a drop-in? What are some of the challenges? 

Scott: The major “pro” of the larger particle size of our colorant is that it's safer. So that's a big positive to having a large particle size. We actually launched Living Ink in cosmetics recently. Our powder was used in a liquid form to make Algae Black eyeliner and mascara for beauty brand The Unseen. Our larger particle size means that it doesn't actually go into the pores of the skin, unlike traditional carbon black. Learn more about the Unseen Beauty x Living Ink collab

“Absorption” Eyeliner & Mascara Collection featuring Algae Black™ (Photo: The Unseen Beauty)

Sage: Are there any challenges, especially when using Living Ink for printing? Are there any challenges to the larger particle size?

Scott: For very high performance and excellent color density, typically a small particle size is preferred. The surface chemistry of our ink works well and looks really good. We navigate which types of applications work the best with the ink. In the case of digital ink, you need a really small particle size to fit through the tiny openings. 

Rasa Coffee Alternative Packaging featuring Algae Black™ Ink (Photo: EcoEnclose)

Sage: So, for my HP home printer, Living Ink wouldn't work (yet)?

Scott: In its current form, no. We're actually working with some partners who’ve been able to shrink the particle size to get it to work in that application. There are some ways to make the ink work in digital printing. The applications that we really excel in right now are drop-in colorants for rubber and plastic. In that application, the particle size we have looks really good from a color standpoint. So there's really no drawback on that side of things. 

Sage: What’re some specific applications you’re most excited about right now? 

Scott: We’re excited about our ongoing collaborations with Nike. We’ve collaborated on a shoe design and screen-printed a T-shirt. This season, we printed designs on Nike ISPA’s shoe boxes

Nike ISPA Box printed with Algae Black™ (Photo: Nike / Living Ink)

Sage: How do you envision the expansion of Living Ink? 

Scott: I envision a decentralized business, where our production centers are co-located with large sources of biomass. That's the most sustainable thing we can do. Shipping biomass itself is extremely expensive from a carbon emissions perspective. We have to co-locate with the biomass and process it locally. We’ll make the finished pigment and ship it where it needs to go. Rather than having three large production plants, we're going to create 30-60 smaller plants in order to source biomass as locally as possible and to serve businesses who need pigment in that region. 

Sage: That's very smart. I love the decentralized model. At this stage, where in California are you sourcing the algae and making the pigment? 

Scott: Right now, we source the material from an algae farm in an agricultural area of Southern California. We take their waste byproduct and bring it to Denver for processing. As we scale up this year, we plan to select our favorite biomass supplier and co-locate with them. 

Sage: For a pilot, Southern California to Denver seems like a reasonable distance. I wonder, have you thought about breweries and wineries as sources of biomass? 

Scott: Yeah, that's the vision going forward is working with breweries and other fermentation companies. Is there a lot of biomass waste from wineries? 

Sage: Yes - there’s a ton of biomass waste in the wine industry. Grape pomace is what’s left over after pressing the grapes at the end of fermentation. Wineries are always looking for ethical ways to dispose of pomace.

Scott: Wow, you’ve got me thinking about wine waste. This is what I love about the world though, right? When you start digging deep enough anywhere you start to realize: “Oh, there's opportunity here!” Living Ink went from being a molecular biology-focused company to becoming more of a waste management company. On the thermal treatment side, for creating black pigment, we can make use of even the lowest quality waste streams. 

Sage: Super inspiring stuff. I wonder - is there a pathway for colored pigments? Is that a part of the Living Ink business plan? 

Scott: There's a separate technology at Living Ink where we are using traditional microbes like yeast, bacteria, algae, to upregulate pigments. This is much like the San Francisco Bay, which has naturally occurring yellow, browns, greens, reds, blues in bodies of water. 

Brown and Green Macro alga in Northern California (Photo: Aaron Nesser).

Scott: We started Living Ink with a focus on colored pigments. Right now, there's a huge opportunity within the black pigment space. We’ve had no shortage of opportunities. What's gotten me the most excited in the last 12 months is working with sourcing biomass from different waste streams. Waste is a true problem - both in terms of economics and sustainability. Many of our potential suppliers are currently paying to send materials to landfills.

Let's save everyone money and make the value chain more sustainable in the process. The value chain structure differentiates the black pigment production from R&D for biologically producing colored pigments. 

Sage: What’re the biggest challenges you’re tackling right now at Living Ink? 

Scott: We had luck connecting with the right people at Nike, who work on smaller lines and have freedom to experiment. We’re in the “experimental” category with Nike. Now, we need to focus on lowering our cost of goods. With a lower cost, we have access to being used for production of mainstream clothing and footwear lines. Especially in the case of packaging, everyone is sensitive to their bottom lines down to the penny. 

Nike x Billie Eilish Shoe, featuring Living Ink pigment (Photo: Nike)

Cost sensitivity is one of the biggest challenges we face in the widespread adoption of Living Ink. We’re gaining a foothold in this world. Petroleum, a trillion dollar industry, has dominated carbon black for a long time. 

Living Ink is turning waste into something valuable, which is a no-brainer. We’re removing carbon from the value chain and giving value to downstream customers. It's just common sense. When the entire value chain is included in the decision-making process, Living Ink is a clear winner for brands genuinely concerned about their carbon footprint. 

Sage: Thank you for sharing such a thorough and inspirational overview of what Living Ink is up to. I can’t wait to see what interesting partnerships roll out in the next year! 

The Living Ink Team (Photo: Living Ink) 

Living Ink has done a phenomenal job of responsibly sourcing biomass for its production, de-risking their supply chain and putting them in a strategic position to scale in the years to come. Keep your eyes peeled for more exciting Living Ink brand collaborations to be announced this summer. 

To stay up-to-date on all things Living Ink, find them on LinkedIn, Instagram 

Learn more about bio-based materials at Material Factors and discover career opportunities in biodesign at biodesignjobs.com