Start - Up Turns To Algae As Business And Social Savior

Start-up turns to algae as business and social saviorInspired by a manga he read as a child, Mitsuru Izumo set out to develop a "magical" food capable of curing the real-world problems of hunger and malnutrition. The result—a form of algae known as euglena—may have the potential for use in everything from feeding the world's poorest countries to cleaning up the environment.

Izumo, 33, was a student at the University of Tokyo when he visited Bangladesh and encountered children suffering from malnutrition. Inspired to work in a field that could help to resolve the world's hunger problem, he returned to Japan and switched from liberal arts to the Agriculture Faculty in his third year.

An ideal that has propelled him forward is an imaginary food that appeared in the "Dragon Ball" manga Izumo read as a boy. In the story, a hermit raises magical beans, called "Senzu," on the top of a tower. A single bean provided nourishment for 10 days.

Embarking on his own journey to find such a food source in the real world, he heard about euglena from Kengo Suzuki, 33, a friend in the same faculty.

Euglena, known as "midorimushi" in Japanese, is a microorganism only about 0.05 millimeter long and thinner than a human hair. It contains 59 types of nutrients, including amino acids and vitamins, making it a well-balanced food source.

Suzuki developed the technology to mass-cultivate euglena, and in 2005, he and Izumo established Euglena Co. Suzuki now serves as head of research and development in the company.

"We want to provide surprises to society," said Izumo, who serves as president.

The mass-cultivation technology is one of the company's strengths. Because euglena is typically consumed by other living organisms, it was difficult to cultivate the algae in large numbers in nature.

The company has been involved in research and development of euglena for application in a number of fields, and the door to company headquarters in Tokyo has signs that say "Our weapon is euglena" and "The possibilities are limitless."

To gain experience for his eventual move into the business world, Izumo worked for a year at a megabank after graduating from the University of Tokyo. He then helped a friend who had started a company and waited for his own opportunity to make the move into entrepreneurship.

"Although many entrepreneurs who set up their own companies are carnivores, I am a herbivore," Izumo said.

His patience and planning paid off, and now euglena is available throughout Tokyo in everything from sweets to ramen.