The Big Interview: life sciences pioneer and MiAlgae director Professor Simon Best

Professor Simon Best is a headline act on the global life science industry stage, with his achievements including leading the commercialisation of the pioneering technology behind Dolly the Sheep.

Sunday, 14th November 2021, 4:55 am

He is now one of the directors of and investors in MiAlgae, a start-up from the University of Edinburgh, which takes takes nutrient-rich wastewater from the Scotch whisky industry and uses it to grow marine algae that replaces unsustainable fishmeal, which is made from ground-up, over-harvested wild fish.

His other roles include since 2008 serving as both a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh and a non-executive partner at Edinburgh-based, early-stage venture-capital firm Par Equity, which recently hailed a £100 million milestone, while accolades over the years include being awarded an OBE.

But his ambition while at school was more focused on sound than science, aiming to “compose and play the funkiest possible jazz and coolest contemporary classical music”. Indeed, before entering the biotechnology space, he worked in the music industry with groups including the Human League, Delta 5, and Edinburgh band The Fire Engines.

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'The next 12 months will be a fast-paced and exciting time for the company,' Professor Best says of MiAlgae. Picture: Chris Watt.

Can you explain what MiAlgae does, and how you are personally driving its growth?

MiAlgae is a built on a circular economy model. Using by-products from the food and drink sector it produces microalgae, which can be used as a sustainable source of high-value animal feed.

Focused on the Scottish whisky industry, we are helping to eliminate the reliance on wild-caught fish as a prime source of Omega-3. In one year, with the coproducts from a single distillery, we can save 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, recycle 14.4 million litres of water, and save 51,000 tonnes of wild-caught fish.

As a director, I’m responsible for driving the strategy behind our business. With a decades-long career spanning biotech and agritech, I have connected MiAlgae with renowned specialists across key technical areas. I have also played a primary role in fast-tracking introductions to global partners and driving potential future collaborations.

The firm has said its core technology could be used in other industries, such as food and drink. Where are you seeing particularly strong potential, and to what extent could that catalyse MiAlgae’s growth?

US industries such as corn bioethanol and bourbon present particularly strong avenues to accelerate our technology. Kentucky alone is experiencing unprecedented growth in bourbon production, predicted to double over the next five years.

The industry currently generates close to six billion litres of stillage waste annually (around three times more than the equivalent outputs from the whisky industry in Scotland). The State recognises disposal of this material as a key challenge and is proactively seeking viable green solutions to tackle this.

Over the next 12 months, MiAlgae will be expanding microalgae production to commercial scale in Scotland, using coproducts from the Scottish whisky industry. While there are many potential uses of our technology, we have decided to focus initially on building a strong foundation with the whisky industry and expanding our presence in Asia and Australasia.

The circular economy is key to helping reach global net-zero targets – what is your view on how Scotland is helping to foster the circular economy, such as the proposed Circular Economy Bill. What kind of further action would you like to see?

The Circular Economy Bill will be a key driver in the country’s pursuit of net zero emissions. Creative, green technologies such as MiAlgae’s are critical if we are to successfully deliver against these aims and address climate change globally. To unlock the unrealised potential of waste streams and stimulate economic growth, greater transparency and robustness in reporting around volumes, location, and availability is needed.

You’re known for leading commercialisation of the technology behind Dolly the Sheep. What was it like being involved in this – both then, and looking back now?

Cloning was an extremely controversial area of science when I joined the Roslin Institute in 1998. However, having been heavily involved in the development and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) plant foods earlier in my career, I was well accustomed to the associated challenges.

As the chief executive of Zeneca Plant Science, I successfully launched the first and only consumer-accepted GM food (tomato paste from GM fruit) in the UK with the major supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Safeway.

The science behind Dolly the Sheep posed a variety of public and regulatory concerns, initially around the potential for human cloning, but much of the media attention it attracted was a direct result of public misinformation.

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The Roslin Institute had never regarded cloning to be acceptable in humans – it was animal-based technology that was targeted towards regenerative medicine. The messaging had to be carefully crafted to present the technology in its true light – as a potential solution for treatment of illnesses such as heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson's.

You cannot predict the potential future applications and positive impact that will result from any disruptive technology. At MiAlgae, we have a strong story building around growing higher-value algal products on distillation waste.

Who knows what feedstock we might be able to utilise in the future, or what product our algal strains might be capable of producing? We are open-minded and would invite others to evaluate our technology for other applications.

You then went on to gain experience as the founder and/or chief executive of four biotechnology companies between 1992 and 2012, while sitting on the boards of major industry bodies such as the UK BioIndustry Association and the US Biotechnology Industry Organisation. Can you share some of the key projects you were involved in during this time?

As well as my roles with Zeneca Plant Science and The Roslin Institute, I founded and built Ardana, an Edinburgh-based reproductive pharmaceutical company. It was one of the first biotech firms to target its business model on the commercialisation of speciality pharmaceuticals that were approved in the US but not yet introduced into Europe, as a way of generating revenues to drive in-house research-and-development (R&D) programmes to discover novel, higher-value drugs.

Between 2010 and 2012, I was chief executive at Aquapharm Biodiscovery. Founded in Oban in 2000, this was one of the first UK marine biotechnology companies to take a “bio-prospecting” approach to sourcing novel natural products from marine microbes. The company had assembled a highly specialist team to discover, isolate and culture marine bacteria and fungi as potential new sources of valuable pharmaceutical compounds and industrial biologically derived products.

My skills as a leader of and spokesperson for substantial industry bodies were first recognised in the US during the early 1990s when I led industry efforts to secure a clear regulatory pathway for GM technology with the United States Department of Agriculture, U.S Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S Food and Drug Administration.

This required me to work closely with the U.S Congress and the Executive Branch whilst in parallel building positive media coverage and public understanding and support. Despite vocal opposition by anti-technology non-governmental organisations, our efforts were successful, and I was consequently elected vice-chairman, food and agriculture, for the US Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) – the world’s largest life-science trade association.

I then returned to the UK to defend and build support for another globally controversial technology – embryonic stem cells – which was enabled by the techniques used to produce Dolly. For my work in this sector, I was appointed chairman of the UK BioIndustry Association and reappointed a member of BIO’s board and chair of its bioethics committee.

You started your career in pop music – can you tell us a bit more about that period and your move to biotechnology?

My real passion when I was at Daniel Stewart’s College was music, but I had a natural talent for maths, IT and computer studies. I firmly believe the skills in pattern-recognition and pattern-generation I learnt in music helped my transition to science and IT, which are very interrelated.

I then trained as a musician at the University of York where I formed my own jazz fusion band. The punk revolution was taking hold, and I loved every second of it.

In the late 70s I joined a friend back in Edinburgh to build a record label called Fast Product, which discovered the Human League and put out their first single “Being Boiled”. As they took off, we signed them to Virgin Records. I continued to manage their tours and my partner managed their recording and publishing contracts.

In the early 80s I became interested in the business side of what makes entrepreneurs successful and was drawn in by the field of biotech. Brilliant musicians and scientists have a lot in common and it fascinated me to work out what keeps highly creative people motivated, while still ensuring they deliver value for the company or project.

At the time, my network in the Scottish capital included a group of PhD students from University of Edinburgh, who were working for a start-up founded by molecular biology expert Ken Murray. Listening to them talk about the company, I couldn’t help but think “I could do that…” So that’s exactly what I did.

MiAlgae said earlier this year that it was eyeing further expansion, including international growth, after doubling size in 12 months. Can you explain more about these plans – and what you’d like the firm to look like at the end of, say, 2022?

The next 12 months will be a fast-paced and exciting time for the company as it continues to demonstrate the success of its algal production process at commercial scales. MiAlgae will progress sales into the petfood sector and advance existing plans with distilleries in Scotland to roll out onsite bioprocessing plants early in 2023.

During 2022, MiAlgae’s R&D efforts will be focused on assessing the most promising global feedstock opportunities and identifying additional novel high-value products. To accelerate these activities, the company is set to recruit for a further 15 green jobs over the next six months.

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