Tech startup: Living Ink Technologies
They're perfecting algae-based inks for consumer packaging
Living Ink Technologies
Where: Fort Collins
After working for an algae biofuels startup in Texas, Scott Fulbright decided to pursue a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology at Colorado State University. “The first day of class, I met my co-founder, Steve Albers,” says Fulbright. “We had the same vision, but we didn’t have any product ideas at the time.”
Algae is now mainly grown for biofuel and animal feed, he adds. “The hard part of the algae industry is trying to find the end-use product that’s higher value than animal feed or fuel.”
But Fulbright had an epiphany in summer 2013. “I was buying a greeting card for my grandma,” he says. “I kind of zoned out and thought, ‘Why is a greeting card $12? It’s just paper and ink.’”
Soon he and Albers were working to develop an algae-based ink that would grow and change over time. “Our first product was a time-lapse ink,” Fulbright says. They launched a kit for artists on Kickstarter before pivoting to the larger market for printing ink.
In a Nutshell:
Living Ink Technologies is perfecting algae-based inks for consumer packaging, paper products and other applications. The company’s green ink is already available as the team works to develop black and other colors by late 2017.
“Typically, ink is petroleum-based and the colors are mined from the earth,” says Fulbright. “Our pitch is we’ve got a biodegradable, sustainable ink product. Our ink is just algae cells and other plant-based materials. “
Many of the pigments currently used don’t biodegrade at all, and the ink manufacturing process isn’t eco-friendly. “One of [Hewlett-Packard’s] largest costs of producing ink is that they’re using so many toxic chemicals in their manufacturing process,” he adds.
The company has support from Aveda, Hallmark Cards and Upslope Brewing as it hones the process with a few small-volume customers on the Front Range. Numerous advertising agencies have inquired, and Fulbright even fielded a call from the British band Radiohead. “They wanted to do a billboard in downtown London that would grow and change over the weeks,” he says.
While the billboard isn’t part of the Living Ink vision, Fulbright says Hallmark hopes to develop a sustainable line of stationery with algae-based ink. “They are desperate for innovation,” he explains. “There just aren’t that many people doing anything innovative in that space.”
After the R&D phase, the plan is to scale production; algae cultivation, ink production and printing all currently take place at Living Ink’s lab in Fort Collins. “For us to go big, we have to make normal ink that can be used to print millions of greeting cards,” says Fulbright.
“The ink market we look at is about $5.2 billion a year,” says Fulbright. “When you look around a grocery store, every package and sign has ink on it.”
“We’ve raised a total of $340,000 of undiluted funding,” says Fulbright. The money has stemmed from business-pitch competitions, Kickstarter and a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant awarded on Jan. 1, 2017. “We’ll need a round of funding to scale and get things going,” he adds.