The Big Interview: Polly Van Alstyne of Scottish Bioenergy

Van Alstyne officially joined the company in October last year having worked as an adviser since its inception. Picture: Neil Hanna
Van Alstyne officially joined the company in October last year having worked as an adviser since its inception. Picture: Neil Hanna
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A burgeoning biotech firm may conjure up images of test tubes, lab coats and highly complex experiments under way. But Polly Van Alstyne has a much more relatable target for her firm, which has ambitious plans to take its natural blue food colouring to the mass market.

The Scottish Bioenergy chief operating officer would one day like to walk into a shop and see M&Ms and Coca-Cola drink Powerade tinted with the company’s signature product. Such a moment “would be fantastic, that’s what we aspire to”, says the Ohio-born businesswoman laughing.

The company, based at Lanarkshire life sciences hub BioCity Scotland, has created and produces ScotBio Blue, made from spirulina algae and suitable for colouring the likes of sweets, ice creams and cocktails (“the fun side of the food business”, says Van Alstyne).

Scottish Bioenergy started out in 2007 and specialised in its current area after sponsoring a PhD student, Chelsea Brain, who found that a specific type of red light boosted production of phycocyanin, the blue pigment in spirulina.

And the business is looking to tuck into a market estimated to be worth $500 million by 2020, from $50m in 2015, as consumers increasingly shy away from synthetic additives.

A 2016 survey by Nielsen found that 61 per cent of more than 30,000 global respondents said they tried to avoid artificial colours, believing them to have a negative impact on health. “A back-to-basics mindset, focused on simple ingredients and fewer artificial or processed foods, is a priority,” the market research giant said, adding that consumers were “backing up their sentiments with their wallets”.

In Van Alstyne’s view, brands are listening to such feedback. “They’re being driven to reevaluate the ingredients they’re putting into their products and that ultimately means that they start looking for natural colourants.”

Global giants to have announced a move away from artificial additives include General Mills, home to brands including Häagen-Dazs and Old El Paso, as well as Nestlé, Hershey and Kraft.

M&Ms producer Mars says it is dedicated to removing artificial colours from all its “human food” products, but says this will not be easy, covering more than 50 brands, “many of which are known for their vibrant colours”.

And being spurred by consumer pressure to tight timescales is one of the biggest challenges that large brands face, says Van Alstyne.

She had informally advised Scottish Bioenergy since its inception, with her husband David “DC” Van Alstyne in the chief executive role, but she officially joined in October 2016 from London-based telecoms software company Brainstorm Mobile Solutions.

Noting that the firm is somewhat unusual in being a ten-year-old start-up, she explains that it had been examining various avenues, but latterly turned its focus to its current offering, where it saw the greatest potential.

“We’d always talked about when the company got to a point of being ready to really scale up and start to go out to market – when we had confidence that the product was going to work – that I would join in the operations area,” says Van Alstyne, who brought experience of significantly expanding very small companies.

And while the issue of moving beyond start-up stage is an oft-cited hurdle in Scotland, and Van Alstyne believes that while such a step can be difficult for a firm if the timing is not right, Scottish Bioenergy is hitting the market at exactly the right moment.

Securing investment of more than £500,000 to develop its technology has certainly boosted its chances, after closing an over-subscribed funding round with private equity firm Kelvin Capital and angel investment group Investing Women.

The latter’s founder and chief executive, Jackie Waring, praised Van Alstyne, who was among the winners at this year’s AccelerateHER Awards.

And Van Alstyne wasn’t daunted by the prospect of pitching for the funds. She was no more daunted than when she announced as a child that she wanted to play football, and her father promptly had her added to the boys’ team in the absence of a girls’ equivalent. “I never had that thing of something I can’t do, and I think that’s served me well in terms of how I’ve gone about business,” she says.

Van Alstyne’s award netted her a trip to meet renowned angel investors and venture capitalists in California. The advice she received really made her reconsider Scottish Bioenergy’s approach to the US market, which she says looks to be the largest for natural blue food colourants.

But for now the focus is on Scotland as the firm pursues its initial growth phase, a crucial element of which is building its showcase facility. The aim is to be able to bring in large global brands “who might be interested in natural blue colourants and being able to show them how it scales and how it works”, amid plans to crank up production and add clients. Already on board is Edinburgh-based Firkin Gin, with the tie-up resulting in a blue version of their spirit.

One of the obstacles Van Alstyne faces is the consistency of artificial colourants which are not sensitive to environmental factors such as temperature. “When you start getting into natural colours it’s much more challenging because you’ve got different regulatory environments everywhere in the world.”

But a major advantage Scottish Bioenergy has over other producers of natural blue colouring, is its security of supply, compared with those who grow their products outside the laboratory.

“We’re inside. We have big stainless steel tanks, we have lights that we drop down inside of those tanks, and we have control over every single thing that goes in there. We have tested every ingredient that’s used to grow it including the water… and that’s a real appeal to companies that are putting this into their food.”

Looking ahead the firm is examining ways to boost production of phycocyanin, focused on the food market, but also considering pharmaceutical use, for example, given the substance’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

But with Van Alstyne wryly admits a rebrand is under consideration, given that the name Scottish Bioenergy has so little to do with its core product. The moniker harks back to the company’s early stages looking at areas such as using algae as a source of biofuel, but that market was deemed too young, needing development and much more capital.

Indeed, Scottish Bioenergy’s somewhat circuitous path to success has been honoured with a nomination in the London Business School Real Innovation Awards 2017 in the If At First You Don’t Succeed category honouring those “who tried something that didn’t work out – but which provided the stepping-stone for a subsequently successful outcome”.

Van Alstyne says: “We’ve gone through a lot of changes… and each of these lessons from each of those have built into the foundation of what we’re doing – so it wasn’t all a waste of time.”

The company now plans to move to the second phase of development as soon as possible. Part of this growth will be reflected in a raising the head count, which currently only numbers three full-time, to 12.

“We almost certainly will raise some more money at some point,” says Van Alstyne, eyeing the potential to tie up with much larger global players. Indeed, Unilever believes start-ups and corporates will be working “side by side in the same office” by 2025.

And returning to the potential $500m market for Scottish Bioenergy, Van Alstyne is bullish. “We would aspire to take as much of that as we can. There is actually a reasonable chance to do that, and to be honest that figure could easily go up. There’s a huge market there. Somebody’s going to move into that and if it’s not us it’s going to be somebody else.”