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Write it with algae: CSU grad students take their science to the business world

The idea of using algae as an ink source started in the greeting card aisle while Scott Fulbright, graduate student in cell and molecular biology at Colorado State University, was searching for a card for his grandmother. Dissatisfied with the cost and lack of unique and meaningful options, he and Steve Albers, also a graduate student in CMB, began thinking about growing greeting card messages using algae.

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This initial idea has broadened into creating Living Ink Technologies, a company using algae as an ink source in ink pens and in tools for science, engineering, technology and math education. Fulbright explained that through Living Ink Technologies, he and Albers have a desire to help people understand science in a fun and non-threatening way.

Living Ink participated in the Innovation Fair and Pitch Slam at the CSU Ag Innovation Summit Friday. Following evaluation by a panel of experts and investors, they won 2nd at the Pitch Slam.

Prior to CSU, Albers taught high school for 6 years while Fulbright worked for several algae-based companies. Since coming to CSU, both have been involved in algae research, primarily as a biofuel source. Their interest in algae research, and desire to make science fun and inviting, led to co-creating Living Ink Technologies.

“I think some people are scared of science because they haven’t been exposed to it,” Fulbright said.

When kids are engaged and curious about the world around them they begin to ask questions, according to Fulbright. Watching the algae cells grow and divide provides kids with this opportunity.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, algae are organisms that produce oxygen through photosynthesis. Algae can be found in most environments, but are most common in and around bodies of water. Through photosynthesis, algae play an important role in providing oxygen to the atmosphere.

Algae contain a light-absorbing molecule called chlorophyll that is involved in photosynthesis and gives algae their color. Algae come in a variety of colors, which can change depending on nutrient availability. Fulbright and Albers have developed technology for ‘living inks,’ where algae cells grow and divide to act as ink for greeting cards. They also have developed ideas for extracting pigments from algae, which could replace traditional ink such as printer ink.

Using pens containing algae cells, people can draw or write on a piece of paper that is then placed into a thin plastic box they call a growth chamber, which has an environment optimal for algae growth. With a little bit of sunlight, the algae cells divide, and with increasing cell divisions the pigment becomes more intense. Over the course of several days, the message becomes increasingly visible.

Albers explains that bridging the gap between science and art is not always easy, but algae pens have sparked interest from science and art teachers.

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“It makes teachable moments, and that’s really good especially for teachers who are grasping for something that’s tangible in a world that’s microscopic,” Albers said.

Fulbright and Albers were part of the New Economy Venture Program with the Institute for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business, a program designed to help entrepreneurs develop their ideas.

“The incubator in the College of Business really helped us expand,” Albers said. “The program was really instrumental in helping us.”

The program culminated with the Blue Ocean Enterprise Challenge, which was a pitch competition sponsored by Blue Ocean Enterprise and CSU. Living Ink was awarded 2nd place and $10,000. The money has helped fund intellectual property rights for their idea and renting lab space at CSU.

Fulbright and Albers have enjoyed interacting with the general public and sharing their ideas. They agree that it is fun to see their ideas spark interest and new ideas in others. These interactions have enabled them to see their ideas and products from new perspectives.

“We like to talk to non-scientists, because their brains go to different reasons why they like it or what you can do with it,” Fulbright said.

Currently, Living Ink Technologies has generated interest from toy companies wanting to use their technology to create STEM based toys to be sold worldwide.

Fulbright’s and Albers’ success in branching out of the lab and applying science technology in new ways can be encouraging to students and researchers looking for alternative careers in science.

“We hope to be able to inspire people by what we are doing,” Albers said.

Albers explained that regardless of the future, the skills they have learned working with business partners and through opportunities at CSU have been valuable to their professional development.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Christina Dennison can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @csdennison.

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