Angela Wulff takes algae research from academics to business.
I reach professor Angela Wulff as she is packing her bags for an upcoming expedition.
– Nothing too exotic, just Askö in the Baltic Sea, says Angela while recovering her phone from under the layers of things she will need when away from home.
She usually goes on at least one expedition per year, sometimes more. It can be the Baltic Sea, but just as well the Arctic or Antarctica. There are no limits to what a day can offer the marine biologist that chose to make her algae research into a business.
Angela tells me that packing for expeditions means packing everything, including backup plans B, C, D, E and F. Anything can happen at sea and you often need to improvise, even if it means building research equipment out of metal scrap, plastic film and dental floss. Her research is her passion, as well as teaching at Gothenburg University. The 30% of work hours that she has to spend on administration and bureaucracy is however something she just has to endure. And this is what her life has been like for the last 10-12 years, since she became a PhD in marine biology.
She was born in Gothenburg but grew up in Flyinge, Skåne. She studied biology in Lund and sports in Örebro and was heading towards a career teaching the two subjects at high school. But as an avid sportdiver she took an interest in marine biology, and after attending a lecture with her soon to become mentor, about algae at the bottom of the ocean, she was hooked. Angela got the opportunity to do a master thesis on the subject and when she was offered the spot as a PhD she had to make a decision on which way to go.
– I had this romanic image of marine biologists, that I would swim with dolphins and pet whales. Now I knew so much more and I had to go with my heart. I still love teaching though, I would love to be a PE teacher as well if I had the time for it!
10 years later her research on polar algae is the foundation of Swedish Algae Factory, a company that took form within the Encubation process (formerly known as Encubator) at Chalmers Ventures. The polar algae really struck a chord with Angela, they could survive within ice where the cold temperature, high salinity and lack of light was against it. She had been reading up on biofuel and the thought of this algae enabling a change for our planet was too fascinating to let go. When encouraged to send it off for idea evaluation she was matched with Sofie Allert, and the rest is history.
”It was a match made in heaven”
– It was a match made in heaven. When Sofie presented her conclusions and that she wanted to continue our work together at Chalmers School of entrepreneurship I was all for it.
I can tell by the tone in Angelas voice that she means every word of it. With Sofie she has found a business partner with whom there is an openness to ideas and no prestige. The have the same drive and passion, but the tasks Angela finds boring, such as calling, taking long meetings and reading agreements, Sofie does with great pleasure.
She expresses a great gratitude towards both Chalmers and Gothenburg University. Angela was very involved with the project throughout the Encubation process, but also got a lot of support from GU where she is employed, and regard it as a great example of collaboration between the two. She takes with her a lot of new learnings concerning business models, IP and budget work and appreciated the appointed business coach.
– But in the end it’s all about the team. Sofie put all her time and effort into this and showed so much spirit. Now we have a great team of board members and advisors, and that is how we are able to move forward and get better every day.
She is still involved in the daily operations of Swedish Algae Factory, that has been forced to do a slight turn in their product focus since the beginning. Since oil prices are down, so is the demand for biofuel. Because of this, the company is now working with production industry around the nano-porous silicon dioxide that they have been trying to fabricate, but that can be extracted naturally from the algae.
Angela tells me about how being a part of a business venture has changed her. How when speaking about business and industrial application she no longer see that huge and compact wall, but a wall with holes in it.
– As many of us academics, I was naive and believed everything was evaluated fair and objectively. Now I know the importance of contacts, networking and communication.
That describes a consequence of a relation between the academic world and the entrepreneurial dito that could do with some improvement. According to Angela there are still many obstacles for one looking to commercialise an idea and university incubators play a very important part by connecting researchers with the people who can do the business development.
”I have had both colleagues and students coming to talk to me about how they can do what I did. That makes me happy”
– Since we started Swedish Algae Factory, I have had both colleagues and students coming to talk to me about how they can do what I did. That makes me happy, that I can make that positive change.
And it strikes me that Angela in all her responses is consistent in that it’s the greater good that drives her. Building company that can employ people and giving them experiences, a company that can provide for a more sustainable future, and a company that inspires others to contribute.