It was 1998, and 18-year-old Izumo left for an internship to Bangladesh. He packed a large bag of nutrition bars, assuming he would find many hungry children. But to his surprise, there was hardly any hunger: rice was plentiful. What was lacking were vegetables, fruit and protein sources, which contain essential building blocks for children such as vitamins and minerals. Izumo returned to Japan with a clear mission: he wanted to solve this problem.
He swapped his art studies for agricultural training. As useful as this was, it did not teach him how to get fresh produce to Bangladesh without the loss of nutrients. Fellow student Suzuki provided the solution. When Izumo told him of his mission, Suzuki came up with the idea of using euglena, a microalga packed with nutrients. But how can you extract the beneficial properties of this algae and turn it into tasty food with a long shelf life? It was the start of a unique challenge: the mass production and processing of euglena.
What is euglena?
The microalga euglena was one of the first life forms on Earth some 500 million years ago. It was discovered around 1660 by Dutchman Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. It is part of the kelp family and the seaweed wakame, green in colour and about 0.05 to 0.1 millimetres in size. Euglena lives in fresh and salt water and has both plant and animal characteristics. It uses photosynthesis to grow in sunlight, but it can also survive without sunlight. Then the algae 'eats' plant or animal material, or particles that come from other micro-organisms.
Mitsuru Izumo and his partner Suzuki chose euglena because it contains 59 nutrients: from vitamins and minerals to healthy unsaturated fats and even all nine essential amino acids we need as humans. It is easily absorbed by the body because euglena itself does not have a cell wall to prevent absorption into the body.
After much research, in December 2005 they succeeded in becoming the first in the world to achieve large-scale outdoor cultivation of euglena (with the MSC label): the start of the Euglena company. Several years later, in 2014, scientists from the Japanese company managed to turn euglena powder into nutritious biscuits.
Back to Bangladesh, where Izumo founded the Genki project. Genki means 'things are going well' in Japanese. The project distributes free lunch boxes in remote areas where malnutrition is a bigger problem. Each lunch box contains six biscuits. Eating these biscuits gives children all the essential nutrients they need in a day. Around 15 million lunch boxes have now been distributed.
Having his heart set on Bangladesh, Izumo saw another big problem. Despite all the agricultural opportunities, there is a lot of poverty and unemployment among farmers. As well as creating work for farmers, there was also a great need for nutritious food for the people of Bangladesh. Izumo knew that the mung bean (a nutritious bean that grows into bean sprouts and is the basis for dishes like dahl soup) is a popular ingredient in Japanese cuisine. China is the largest producer of this bean, but imports became too expensive for Japan and Bangladesh.
This prompted Izumo to launch a second project in Bangladesh, in partnership with the Grameen Foundation: the Mung Bean Project. His company provides financial and agricultural technology support to local farmers to grow high-quality beans. Half of the beans are exported to Japan for a higher (market-based) price. This ensures that Bangladeshi farmers receive a fair price for their crop, while keeping the beans affordable for the people of Bangladesh.
From skincare to biofuel
The reason that such great initiatives can be launched is because of the versatility of the euglena algae. Henk Jonker, Head of Research at Triodos Investment Management: "All the testing and research on the algae revealed many more positive properties and uses. The company started producing nourishing skincare. This has been a great success, as Euglena is now the fifth largest cosmetics company in Japan. Euglena uses part of the profit generated from this product group to provide the nutritious biscuits to children in Bangladesh for free."
Scientists discovered that the production of euglena powder (used in food and dietary supplements) created an oil residue. And this oil turned out to be suitable as biofuel. Henk: "Euglena provided CO2 neutral transport during the Olympics, and 80 city buses are now running on this biofuel in Tokyo. They are also working on a plant-based fertiliser, bioplastics and eco-friendly chicken feed."
Henk explains what these seemingly disparate uses have in common. "Euglena's motto is 'Sustainability First'. Tackling the food crisis, producing healthy skin products with as few additives as possible and developing biofuel is summed up perfectly in Euglena's mission statement: 'Make people and the Earth healthy'."
Children in charge
Management is also unique, according to Henk. "In most companies, the acronym CFO means Chief Financial Officer. At Euglena, this has another special meaning." Euglena founder Mitsuru Izumo explains: "We want our products to contribute to solving climate and health problems. Our goal is to create a better future. While talking to teenagers about Euglena, I realised that something was missing from our current management team - the voice of those who will live in that future." So a new position was created within Euglena: the Chief Future Officer (CFO), specifically for young and ambitious Japanese talent under 18. The CFO is supported by 10 other under-18s.
Henk says: "This junior management is not just for show: they attend shareholder meetings, give speeches and presentations and most importantly, come up with ideas for improvements in Euglena's operations." The first CFO, 17-year-old Kyoko Ozawa and her team wanted to see a solution to the use of PET bottles and other plastics. And this was heeded: developments for bioplastics from euglena and its waste products are in full swing. Initial test results show that bioplastic is stronger than petroleum-derived plastic and less harmful to nature.
A new young CFO is appointed every year. Henk: "Kyoko's successor, Rene Kawasaki, came up with the idea of running the pools where euglena is grown entirely on renewable energy. This ambitious teenager has since handed over her CFO post to the third CFO, but she continues to fight for a better world. She won the International Children's Peace Prize in The Hague last year."
Endless possibilities for euglena
Henk praises Euglena's innovativeness. "At Triodos Investment Management, we see the potential of this unique product and the remarkable company. They use the profits they make to give others a better life. There is a continuous effort to discover new uses. Another special property of euglena is that it stimulates skin tissue development. A wound healing cream is now in development. The possibilities seem endless."
According to Henk, the challenge lies in consistent profitability. Being a new ingredient, a lot of time and money goes into research, testing and obtaining certain certifications to prove to both authorities and consumers that it is a natural, beneficial product that does what it promises. "Fortunately, the cosmetics part of the business generates sufficient profitability to continue developments in other areas."
Biofuel at USD 1 per litre
Another challenge Henk sees is scaling up euglena production. "In Japan, you can't just set up big cultivation pools everywhere. So Euglena is looking at countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. These countries are closer to the equator, so have more sunshine hours, and the cost of staff and land there is a lot lower than in Japan."
For now, the euglena biofuel is mixed with old frying fat and cooking oil collected from restaurants. As production increases, mixing becomes unnecessary. And the cost price can come down. "There is plenty of demand for the biofuel," Henk points out. "There are already test flights with two Japanese airlines. Collaborations with car manufacturers Mazda and Isuzu are also underway. Euglena's ambition? Biofuel at USD 1 per litre, as much as current fossil fuel. Then, if all goes well, it's an easy decision for many other car and airline companies."
This is a translation of an article written by Liselot van Kesteren and published on De Kleur van Geld.