Sector Insights

Marine Biotech is Blooming in the Highlands

As part of this month's Sciences theme, ScotGrad's Alexis Evans has been finding out about marine biotech.

Published: 23/02/2018

Marine biotech

With one of the longest coastlines in Europe, Scotland has a fantastic natural resource on it doorstep: seaweed. And it’s good stuff.

In fact, the seaweed industry is the fastest-growing of all aquaculture sectors, with an annual growth rate of 10% and a value in excess of $5bn.

You’ve seen lots of it on the beach. You might like it wrapped around your sushi, you may bathe in it, you may even use it to fertilise your garden. But you can do so much more with it. Seaweed has many innovative uses in pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, water treatment and even fuel.  But seaweed isn’t our only marine resource.

What is Marine Biotechnology?

Marine Biotechnology is the use of marine products in biotechnology processes to make commercial products. With the urgent need for industries to find alternatives to fossil fuel derived chemicals and components, there has never been a more exciting time to be in the field on Marine Biotechnology.  

The Highlands and Islands have a thriving aquaculture industry, producing thousands of tons of waste or bi-product a year. Instead of using this waste for products like animal feed, advances in technologies means that a large variety of high value chemicals with all sorts of potential applications could be extracted.

Similarly, micro algae are a vast source of chemicals and processes with enormous commercial potential.  Europe’s largest culture collection of algae and protozoa is housed at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban, Argyll.

Part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, SAMS is one of the oldest oceanographic institutions in the world, undertaking innovative research into all aspects of the marine system but with particular strengths in Marine Biotechnology. Academics at SAMS work in partnership with industry large and small on exciting new marine biotechnology developments. SAMS is also leading the way in advances in seaweed cultivation, and works very closely with European partners on an array of projects.

What's happening in the Highlands and Islands?

With growing infrastructure, academic strength, an existing business base and lots of available marine feedstock, the Scottish Highlands and Islands are becoming an attractive destination for a host of dynamic companies.

It’s a wee town, but Oban really is at the centre of marine science advancement. As well as SAMS, the European Marine Science Park is there and is already home to a cluster of marine biotech enterprises. For example, Xanthella, a business producing advanced photobioreactors, and GlycoMar, who refine the active ingredients found in marine feedstocks to use in a range of pharmaceuticals and cosmetic products.

Most of us have been shocked by the growth of the world’s plastic pollution as highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II recently, but what if our shopping bags and food wrap were naturally derived and biodegradable?  Innovative companies like CuanTec are exploring sustainable solutions by extracting chemicals from langoustine shells to use as an alternative packaging material.

And as well as smaller enterprises, global companies such as BASF are already in the Highlands exporting their products all over the world.

What opportunities are there in this sector?

Even for graduates with non-science degree disciplines, there are other career opportunities emerging in this sector.  For example, software engineers are involved with the development of apps such as Bloomin’ Algae, created in collaboration with environment and health protection agencies, which enables users to submit photos of any algal blooms they come across, so that potential public health risks can be gauged.

And the marine biotech sector is great at helping students and graduates get a foot in the door. The Industrial Biotech Innovation Centre supports businesses to offer placements, offering an MSc course featuring the opportunity to undertake a 12 week industry placement, and an HND in Industrial Biotechnology.

So if marine biotechnology sounds like the right path for you, find out more about what these visionary companies are doing. Sign up to newsletters, look at what internship schemes are available, and keep an eye on ScotGrad’s website for placements.  Remember, there is lots of kelp available to help you get your foot on the (B)ladder (wrack).


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