While most ink products out on the market are made from petroleum-based ingredients, startup Living Ink’s version is made from something that’s, literally and figuratively, greener.
According to the Denver-based company, traditional ink contains harmful materials, such as heavy metals, fossil fuels, and toxic solvents. And with ink used in every print item ever made – like books, newspapers, price tags, and work documents, to name a few – its environmental impact is pretty substantial.
“Normal ink consists of 80 percent petroleum products and 20 percent pigments,” said co-founder Scott Fullbright. “Approximately four billion kg of ink are produced annually, which produces about 13.2 billion kg of CO2 equivalent.”
So to remedy this, Living Ink made a safer, more sustainable alternative by using algae cells as bio-pigments. The result is algae ink, which the startup uses for letterpress and screen printing. Some of the items they currently produce include business cards, stationeries, invitations, and packaging products.
The technology is fairly new, and it will probably take some time until plant-based materials catch up with their petroleum-based counterparts. However, the company is already hyped over what mass adoption of algae ink can do.
“Not only are we replacing petroleum products in ink production, we are also able to use environmental CO2 during the algae growth,” explained Fullbright.
“Every ton of algae removes two tonnes of carbon dioxide. We’re ‘pulling’ CO2 out of the air to get the materials to make our ink products… For us, that is beyond exciting.”
We recently caught up with Fullbright to find out more about Living Ink and their revolutionary product.
There are lots of startups developing different products – ranging from solar power to electric cars – to help the environment. Why specifically did you choose to develop a product about ink?
“My co-founder and I met during graduate school while we were both studying algae. Algae has great potential as a biofuel and animal feed, but we understood that these products are several decades away from impacting the word.
“Thus, we want to use algae for products that can help the world now. We have thought of many product ideas and using algae for ink is neat because it’s very visually appealing to the general public. We are essentially gluing algae cells onto substrates that act as an ink. This allows the general public to understand our product and see it with their own eyes.
“About 4.4 billion kg of ink is produced globally per year. The majority of this material is derived from petroleum, so by changing the way ink is made, a huge environmental impact will be felt. Most ink is pretty toxic too, so we are developing products that are safe for humans and the environment.
“In the end, energy needs massive solutions and build out, but so does almost every product we use. Most people don’t realize how many of the products we use daily are derived from petroleum. At some point, petroleum will run out and we will need alternative materials.”
What was the inspiration for algae ink? How’d you discover the potential of this material?
“I was shopping at a store one day and looked at all the packaging and saw ink everywhere. I didn’t know much about ink and went home to understand it better. After doing some research I thought we could apply algae to help make petroleum alternative inks.
“My best friend in graduate school and I started a company (while we were still students). This included staring a lab, in which we could mess around with algae and other materials to start developing these inks. That was in 2014 and now we are starting to launch products and build a well-rounded team.
“We have had several breakthroughs in the lab which encouraged us to keep working on algae ink innovation. A few months ago we used our ink on a commercial print run with a large-scale printing press.”
It goes without saying that it’s going be an uphill battle against more traditional ink suppliers. What’s the key to successfully competing against them?
“Products that use petroleum alternatives definitely have an uphill climb. For us, it’s keep the cost as low as possible while educating consumers/brands/printers about the problems of traditional ink. We want to partner/print for end users that can help tell the story of ink/algae ink.
“For the first couple years, we will be considered a “specialty ink” so we won’t have to compete directly with low cost, commodity ink. However, in several years we want to scale up and get costs down so we can keep with the large commodity ink market.”
How do you plan to scale up?
“We are going to work with toll manufacturers in the near-term to help develop and better understand the scale up challenges. After that, we plan to either build out a small manufacturing facility to produce algae ink.
“Or the other option is to partner with existing ink companies that already have the capital costs in place. This could be done by a joint venture or licensing of the technology. We are still trying to figure this question out.”
Where do you see Living Ink some five years from now? What’s your vision for the company when it’s all said and done?
“In five years, we plan to have several flexographic ink products in the marketplace which will be used mostly for packaging. In the next 2-3 years, we will have finished developing inkjet ink (since this is the fastest growing ink technology in the world), which will allow us to print on a variety of substrates/products.
“We hope to print on packaging and coffee sleeves of well-known brands so consumers see ‘printed in algae ink’ on packages (such as Amazon). Or when consumers go to the store there will be an algae ink option for the home printing needs.
“The final vision for the company is to continue developing products/innovations using algae. This will include food colorants and other biotech products.”