We all love a splash of color in our lives, but we seldom realize the technology that goes into the dye in a favorite sweater or the precise coloring in a set of makeup. It turns out creating colored pigments takes a lot of science, and sometimes that science has an unexpected source.
Lumen Bioscience, a Seattle-based startup, is looking to a striking source to manufacture color pigments: A bright green algae called Spirulina.
The company announced Tuesday that it has raised $13 million in funding to support that work, and also announced its first product, a “natural” blue colorant that it plans to launch in early 2018.
The new funds include $11.2 million in venture funding raised from Avista Development Corporation, BioEconomy Capital, and Seattle-area biotech investors, along with a $1.8 million grant Lumen received from the Department of Energy earlier this year. It is the first time the company has raised funds since it was founded by CEO Brian Finrow and Chief Science Officer Jim Roberts in April of this year.
“We are excited to announce our series A financing, which will fully fund the commercial launch of our first product, a natural blue colorant for high-purity applications in the food and cosmetics industries,” Finrow said in a statement.
Before founding Lumen, Finrow was a senior vice president at Adaptive Biotechnologies. Roberts is the former head of basic sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute and still does research there.
The blue colorant is manufactured using Spirulina, a bright green algae that was recently approved by the FDA to use in supplements and the manufacturing of food and cosmetics. That makes the colorant “natural” by industry standards, as opposed to a pigment made from inorganic materials in a lab.
Lumen said its Spirulina platform uses the algae’s natural, photosynthesis-driven processes to produce various materials, including pigments and even things like medicines. The company says the platform lets it create proteins and other biologically based materials that are “impossible or cost-prohibitive” to make in traditional settings.
It puts the company in competition with a crowded field of biotech startups and other companies working to create unique materials with innovative biology, including Seattle startup Arzeda. Arzeda uses fermentation to create custom-built proteins that go on to be used in manufacturing and agriculture.
Finrow said the company’s new funds will allow Lumen’s research team “to build out the complete set of microbiology tools and methods needed to unlock our platform’s vast commercial potential. Lumen is poised to have a big impact on the $1.5 billion market for natural colorants, and that’s only a small piece of the larger opportunity we and our collaborators expect to access with this new technology.”
Lumen came about almost by accident earlier this year, when Finrow was still a senior executive at Adaptive, he told GeekWire in an email. His office was right across the street from Matrix Genetics, a biofuels company that Roberts had co-founded in 2006.
By early 2017, the biofuels industry had largely vanished, but Matrix still had a solid scientific base that Roberts knew could be used in other settings. Finrow and Roberts had worked together before when they were both advisors to a different Seattle biotech startup, and after a few chance meetings at Siam Thai restaurant, started working together on a new business plan for Matrix’s science.
Finrow said that culminated in Lumen being founded in April 2017. The company now employs 25 at its Seattle headquarters.