Us A Line

18 Northtown Drive  Jackson, MS 39211  p: 601.977.9200  f: 601.977.9257

Tag: creative economy

December 2nd, 2016

Interview: Ashton Zeller, Director of Research at Algix


If you’re like most people, you probably don’t associate algae with cutting-edge technology. The thought of algae may call to mind things like pond scum and oceanic dead zones. But, contrary to their lowly reputation, algae are among the most diverse and widespread organisms on the planet, and algae research is fueling some very exciting new research and applications.

Based in Meridian, Mississippi, Algix is one of the companies at the forefront of algae research and commercialization. I spoke with their Director of Research and Development, Ashton Zeller.


Tell me a little bit about what you do at Algix and how you got involved with the company.

ZELLER: I got involved with the company back in 2011 when our co-founders Michael Van Drunen and Ryan Hunt decided to spin-off a business to develop an algae-based plastic. They got a Georgia Research Alliance grant from the state of Georgia in order to pursue that business opportunity. So, with the grant and some assistance from the University of Georgia, they started a research program and hired me to lead the research.

I started out with them at the University of Georgia. Today, our research scope has broadened beyond just trying to demonstrate algae-based plastics to focusing on making specific formulations for different customer applications – for example, we have a range of 3D-printer filament. As a company, we focus on algae harvesting, drying, dewatering and collection opportunities because we had to develop our supply chain.

I saw that you have a fish farm in Jamaica. Is that part of the supply chain?

ZELLER: Yes. We acquired that fish farm so that we could have year-round production capability in Jamaica. The long-term goal is to produce fish and produce algae as a byproduct. But we don’t currently operate the farm for algae collection. We’re currently working to stabilize that business for fish production.

What led to the decision to pursue the commercialization of algae-based plastic?

ZELLER: Our chief technology officer, Ryan, came from a bioengineering background and was working on a project at the University of Georgia for making fuels out of algae. They were trying to look at wastewater treatment strategies for algae and trying to produce fuel off that algae, but they were not having a whole lot of success. And what they realized is that it’s really hard to get the algae that produces fuel from competitive strains of algae. They ended up with a lot of protein-rich algae and not a lot of fuel-rich algae. So Ryan, through his relationship with Mike Van Drunen, began working with a professor at UGA to try to make a plastic out of it.

Mike Van Drunen had been working in the packaging industry making packaging machinery for a decade and he realized the potential value of algae’s environmental story and the environmental impact it could have on the packaging sector. So that pushed Ryan to have a significant interest in researching algae-based plastic, and that’s what led Ryan and Mike Van Drunen to start the company.

So you can use a broad range of algae species to produce plastics?

ZELLER: Right. That’s really what made our technology successful since we aren’t limited to specific strains or species to create algae-based plastics. The algae fuel industry has been around for a while and people haven’t demonstrated a lot of success in going that route. And that’s mainly because you do need these specific species and strains. But, for us, as long as we are working with areas that have very nutrient-rich waterways, the most beneficial algae for us are also going to be the fastest-growing algae in those environments. The most competitive algae are also, generally speaking, the most protein-rich algae because those proteins help in the process of growing and cell division for those algae.

What’s the basic process for turning algae into plastics?

ZELLER: It’s very simple in terms of explanation, but very complicated to actually accomplish.

Our process is based on some very old technology. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the opening of the Middle East for crude oil production to global markets, most plastics were protein-based. Henry Ford’s door liners for his original Model Ts were all made using soy-based plastic. So proteins have a long history of being used for plastics, but they lost out to cheap and readily available crude oil. That’s largely because the crude oil alternatives outperform algae in the sense that they can be easily processed into a bulk material that can take on a variety of shapes. They also have a lot better elongation characteristics than protein-based materials.

The process for turning a high-protein content material into a plastic uses high heat to denature and elongate the proteins so that, when they cool, they form a solid object that’s a grouping of polymer chains rather than folded proteins next to each other.

We more or less took that old process and figured out how to make it work using modern plastic processing technology so that we could blend the algae-based plastics with more conventional materials and deliver products that are competitive in terms of performance and processing ease in the marketplace.

What types of products are you now producing?

ZELLER: Right now, we have two divisions that we own: We have a product called Bloom for the foam market. In that market, we currently have surfboard traction pads. We’re also looking at, in the near future, to be selling those foams for yoga mats and also shoe insoles and midsoles. Those foams really offer a tremendous improvement in the performance of the material.

The 3D printing market is another opportunity. Currently, 3D printing creates a lot of landfill waste because you’re using plastics for typically short-term applications. The algae filament that we produce offers a significant advantage for that market because it biodegrades much faster. It has a better environmental story and a cool, natural aesthetic that you don’t really get in conventional plastics.

We see huge possibilities for algae in those markets. But we’ve also worked with extruders, injection molders, blown film, cast film, blow molding – a very wide range of markets and opportunities for our materials.

How do algae-based plastics compare to traditional plastics in terms of environmental benefits?

ZELLER: Our algae-based plastics that use compostable resin significantly increase the rate of biodegradation. So we have taken materials that could not biodegrade in marine environments and made them marine biodegradable through the addition of algae, which is good for our marine and aquatic environments.

We’ve also shown that the algae can provide a slight nutrient supplementation for agricultural products that need to decompose. So instead of a material just decomposing and providing no benefit to the soil, you have a product that decomposes and provides nitrogen and phosphorus which both enhance plant growth.

In the durable plastic market, we’ve shown significant carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions relative to almost every resin that we’ve compared to our products. In fact, we have not yet put out a resin that doesn’t significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. That’s largely due to the algae consuming large amounts of CO2 during its growth cycle and then storing that in the biomass that we are providing to the plastic process.

We’ve had third-party, peer-reviewed, LCAs (life cycle assessments) done which, depending on which resin you’re talking about, show a wide range of positive impacts. Depending on which resin you’re talking about, you see human health impacts, ecosystem impacts and non-renewable resource utilization impacts.

What about the environmental benefits of harvesting algae?

ZELLER: Algae has been really hitting the news over the last several years. As human populations increase and we pollute our waters with more small molecules that feed algae growth, and as global temperatures increase, we’re creating perfect growth conditions for algae. All around the world, you’re seeing algae take over ecosystems and really get out of control.

Most algae blooms are caused by high levels of nitrates, nitrites or ammonia in water and/or high levels of phosphate. Those are important biomolecules that all plants need in order to grow. Those contaminates typically come from over-fertilization of fields somewhere upstream from where the algae bloom is occurring, but those nutrients may end up in our waterways where they feed algae growth. But if we harvest that algae biomass, we’re basically ending the cycle of those nutrients cycling through that ecosystem because, instead of those nutrients being returned to the water through the breakdown of the algae, the nutrients are removed from that ecosystem with the algae biomass.

We work with local governments and wastewater treatment providers – a wide range of people in different areas all over the world – to harvest that algae and make use of it. So we, basically, take that “pond scum,” that annoyance to everybody and make it something that’s useful to them, a viable product that has tremendous environmental benefits.

Do algae-based plastics have any performance benefits?

ZELLER: From a material properties standpoint, you do see some benefits. In injection molding, for example, we’ve been able to show reduced cycle times due to quicker hardening of the material in the mold. With foams, we’ve been able to show increased properties like tear strength, elongation of foam materials which extends the life of foams that need to survive several iterations of being compressed, like a shoe insole or a yoga mat.

For our 3D printing markets, we just had a high school student place pretty highly in the Mississippi state science fair using our algae filaments and showing that algae filaments can be stronger than PLA filaments that you can find and buy on the market. In general, algae is not going to enhance the strength of 3D-printed materials, but it is definitely not being scoffed at in terms of the material properties it can deliver combined with the benefits of enhanced biodegradability and low toxicity. So the benefits to using algae are really myriad and situational. It depends on what market you’re talking about, what the potential benefits might be.

How did Algix come to be located in Meridian?

ZELLER: Our company spent a good bit of time acquiring the ability to tap into these algae blooms, these algae problems around the world. When we first started out with our business and first demonstrated that we really could make an algae plastic, one of the biggest problems that we had was the supply chain. There’s just not enough people out there that are growing large enough quantities of algae for you to be competitive in the plastics market. So what we had to do is really develop the supply chain ourselves.

We built our first production facility in Meridian, Mississippi, because of the algae problems faced by American catfish farmers. Catfish farmers introduce nutrients into their ponds every single day in the form of fish feed. Some of those nutrients don’t get consumed by the fish and they just rot in the pond and create algae problems, and those algae problems can be detrimental. At night, algae consumes oxygen rather than creating oxygen because there’s no light for photosynthesis and that can suffocate fish causing massive fish kills if the farmer doesn’t control it. Meridian just happens to be in the center of the majority of the catfish farms in the United States – I think about 90 to 95 percent of the catfish farms we were aware of are within a 100 mile radius. Since catfish farms are where we started developing our supply chain and developing our technology, Meridian was an ideal location for us.

Related post
Interview: Robert Thompson of the Mississippi Polymer Institute

Subscribe to Innovation

February 18th, 2016

Guess what’s back…


…ziggy zaggy ziggy zaggy hoy hoy hoy!

UpInFarmsAfter a football-induced hiatus, #MWBeer30 is back! On Friday, 2/26 at 3:30(ish) our inaugural gathering of 2016 brings together two of things that make the creative economy hum: Good craft beer, and locally sourced cuisine. Our very special guests are uber-famous Jacksonians Terry Sullivan, Jeff Good, David Watkins, Jr., and Nick Wallace. They will be discussing the concept and mission behind Up In Farms food hub. What’s that, you might ask? How about a little back story:

In 2014 a small group of entrepreneurs, restauranteurs, and chefs came together to create Soul City Hospitality. Soul City’s mission is to develop and support businesses that lead to Mississippi having a resilient and sustainable local food system—one that contributes to the health and wealth of all Mississippians.
The first business to emerge from the Soul City partnership is the Up in Farms Food Hub.  The hub is located in an historic produce distribution building at the site of the former Farmers Market on Woodrow Wilson Blvd in Jackson. Up in Farms will coordinate production schedules with farmers based upon the demand by regional buyers, such as grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and commercial distributors.
The hub will provide its producers with the support and training necessary to deliver a high-quality product on time and at a sustainable price. Additionally, the hub will physically aggregate produce directly from farmers across Mississippi to its warehouse in Jackson. The warehouse is designed to wash, grade, pack, cool, and store fresh produce—activities that are prohibitively expensive for many individual farms.  Up in Farms will help Mississippi’s small- and medium-sized farms meet the standards of commercial buyers, plan and operate profitable businesses, and satisfy emerging federal and state standards for food safety and security.​

And there’s free craft beer…

So please make plans to join us as Terry, et. al, as we hear about this great addition the to creative economy of Jackson and Mississippi.

We will also have a few exciting announcements related to the Kids Code Mississippi project, and make the official award for the MWB Cosmos “Name Planet 9” contest that we sponsored last month (NOTE: winner must be present to claim prize… you know who you are…).

And there’s free craft beer…

Friday, February 26, 3:30ish at the Maris, West & Baker global headquarters. It’s good to be back. #MWBeer30.

June 23rd, 2015

MWB Creative Fire Podcast: Craft Beer, Matthew McLaughlin, & TECH JXN

On this edition of the MWB Creative Fire Podcast, host Tim Mask talks with “Craft Beer” attorney Matthew McLaughlin about the challenges and opportunities of the burgeoning craft beer industry in Mississippi. We also give a brief overview of the exciting upcoming TECH JXN student hackathon and innovation townhall summit happening in Jackson June 30 – July 1.

June 9th, 2015

New MWB Creative Fire Podcast w/ Chef Tom Ramsey

Checkout the new MWB Creative Fire podcast. In this episode we talk the culinary side of the creative economy with raconteur Chef Tom Ramsey. We’ve also got an update on the Fast Forward Mississippi Initiative. Check it out.

February 17th, 2015

The healthcare economy in Mississippi: MWB Craft Beer Friday 2/27


UPDATE 2/25/15:  Unfortunately craft beer legal expert Matthew McLaughlin has a conflict and will have to make a speaking appearance at MWBeer30 later this year. However, Butler Snow counsel and former gubernatorial policy advisor Tray Hairston will be on-hand to give a brief talk about the exciting things happening in healthcare in Mississippi, and the concept of healthcare as an economic driver.  Join us at 3:30-ish, Friday, February 27th at MWB’s world headquarters for a great line up of Mississippi craft beer, innovative discussions, and some Mississippi iconic-in-the-making photos taken by MWB Producer of Multimedia Tate Nations.

Great Mississippi from the folks at LD’s Beer Run will be available for sampling.

To stay up with the next #MWBeer30 event and learn about topics discussed at previous gatherings, sign-up for #MWBeer30 alerts. Sign up today and get a free beverage at our next event!

(OK so the beverages are always free. You should sign-up, anyway).



October 14th, 2014

Eyes are on us. Let’s give them something to see.


The eyes of the universe are upon us. At least the college football universe. And that’s a pretty big universe. Mississippi State and Ole Miss are both unbeaten, on top of the strongest division of the strongest conference in the country, and sit #1 and #3 in the polls, respectively. Game Day came to Mississippi two weeks in a row. There’s a lot of football left to play but for the first time ever, it is possible that the two best teams in the land will square off to decide the next year’s residence of the Golden Egg.

Right now Mississippi is one of the most, if not the most, visible state in the United States. We do have some amazingly good football going on for sure. But folks taking a look at Mississippi need to understand that athletics and football are just one thing we’re great at. We all know there is so much more to this state.

While everyone is looking, let’s give them a show.

Chances are if you’re engaging someone out of state in the next few weeks, the leading topic of conservation will be football. Let’s claim it. Then let’s use it. Use it as a springboard to say, “now let me tell you what else…”

What else? The University of Southern Mississippi has one of the best polymer science programs in the world. Back in Oxford we have the corporate headquarters of one of the fastest growing private software companies in the country. Skip down to Starkville and we find the corporate headquarters of a company working to solve issues arising from the “Internet of Things”… solutions to problems that don’t yet exist! The capital city area is home to a corporation working to ensure Mississippi is the first to have fiber-to-home networks essentially statewide. A financial services firm is focused on solutions to increase health care quality while also lowering costs. Speaking of health care, we should evangelize the incredible research happening at our state research hospital. Some of that research will be instrumental in mankind walking on the surface of Mars. Speaking of space travel, the propulsion systems that will take us there will be tested on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It should be no surprise that Mississippi is playing such a pivotal role in the development of commercial space flight.

World Class IT companies who call Mississippi home are expanding. We’re the home to the headquarters of the second-largest nuclear power fleet in the U.S. We’re a top state for entrepreneurial activity. Yes, we are the last state to host a TEDx event, but one look at the TEDxJackson speaker list and you realize that we’re about to host one of the best. Contrary to popular belief, we’re a state on the rise. So let’s make sure that we actively contradict that popular belief.

Absolutely talk about how we have leading college football teams. Then talk about how we are poised to be a leader in the Knowledge Economy. I know it, you know, and this is our chance to let everyone know it.


More about #MSKnowIt


Related Initiatives:

Fast Forward Mississippi


December 12th, 2013

Digital Skills Set Stage for Mississippi’s New Creative Economy


We understand the importance that innovation and creativity play in creating an expanding and thriving economy. As 2014 has been proclaimed the Year of the Creative Economy, we want to emphasize how important creativity and creative thinking will be beyond what is traditionally thought of as “creative” jobs. Mississippi is rich in art and architecture, music, writing, and fine art compositions of all sorts. We are equally as creative in our approach to innovating business and industry.

Examples abound. Recent ones. Dr. Hannah Gay thinks outside the box at University of Mississippi Medical Center and implements an HIV treatment regimen that will likely one day prove to save millions of lives. Academics in Oxford have an idea for a software product that literally revolutionizes the mortgage origination business: Thus is born FNC, one of the fastest growing private companies in America. Also on that list is Bomgar, an IT support technology that is the brainchild of a few college students and which has grown to be a model of the digital economy. This creative innovation extends to large corporations, as well. Mississippi’s energy and aerospace clusters are second to none. As Governor Phil Bryant often says, “Man may walk on Mars, but he’ll go through Mississippi to do it.” Virtually every commercial airplane operational in the world today contains a component that was either produced or tested at Mississippi facilities.

How do we ensure that creativity and innovation drive our economy even farther, faster? How does Mississippi effectively position ourselves to be a leader in the 21st Century knowledge economy? As we celebrate 2014 as the Year of the Creative Economy in Mississippi, we believe that we must take a creative look at how we are preparing our youth to win in the world of tomorrow.

HourofCodeJust prior to 2014 being declared the Year of the Creative Economy, the month of November, 2013 was proclaimed as “Mississippi Innovation Month.” A series of events throughout the month highlighted the creative and innovative things happening in Mississippi’s public and private sectors. As one event for the month, MWB teamed with the Mississippi Department of Education and Innovate Mississippi to host a series of coding workshops at schools across the state. Through a partnership with Highland Elementary School in Ridgeland and Ridgeland-based IT company Venture Technologies, one of the workshops focused on training educators in how to teach coding to elementary students. We believe that in order for Mississippi to lead in the new economy, we must ready a workforce familiar with the digital skills that will likely dominate it. Hence, our commitment to the initiative.

Through their participation in a national contest sponsored by Code.org, Highland Elementary was actually awarded $10,000 and spent the week of December 9th participating in an “Hour of Code” initiative. (See story here). The purpose is ultimately to draw attention to the kinds of digital skills education that will ensure Mississippi maintains a highly competitive workforce well into the future.

The simple fact is that innovation, education and creativity cannot be separated. The most creative among us are the most influential innovators, and vice versa. A creative solution to 21st century workforce and economic development likely means incorporating things like coding into our educational system.

We should all be proud that Mississippi is taking a leading and visible role in this effort. For more information on how you can get involved with Mississippi’s Creative Digital Skills Education initiative, please contact us.

Subscribe to Innovation

December 11th, 2013

Creativity making Mississippi a leader in the new economy.


A few years ago, a study was commissioned to explore the existing and potential economic impact of the “Creative Economy” in Mississippi. The study uncovered that over 60,000 jobs in Mississippi, and millions of dollars in tourism revenue, are directly related to “creative” industry jobs. This set Mississippi along a path of thinking about the impact of “creativity” and the creative economy differently compared to years past. We have realized that in addition to being a valuable cultural aspect, creativity is actually an economic driver.

Our investment in the creative economy has evolved to the point that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant has declared 2014 to be the Year of the Creative Economy. As a company that operates as part of the creative environment, we are excited about the events and celebrations planned throughout the year. We would also like to add that creativity isn’t just limited to organizations tied to the arts. A creative atmosphere is conducive to innovative problem solving, entrepreneurship, and technological advancement.

Market Alley in Cleveland, Mississippi. One of numerous community-related aspects of Mississippi’s Creative Economy.

Market Alley in Cleveland, Mississippi. One of numerous community-related aspects of Mississippi’s Creative Economy.

Silicon Valley wouldn’t have grown into the world’s innovation incubator had creativity not existed alongside technical know-how. Pittsburgh couldn’t have shed its rust-belt shackles to become of hub of advanced manufacturing and bioscience were it not for visionary creative leadership. As much is true for the robust economy of Texas, mixing rich creative culture with industry to produce an excellent environment for quality of life.


Jackson, Mississippi has been identified as one of the best cities in America for new artists.

So it is that so much creativity exists within businesses and organizations in Mississippi. Our entrepreneurial environment has been ranked among the best in the nation. Our health care sector continues to produce world-changing results. Innovative energy projects have vaulted our state to the forefront of a revitalized energy sector. And as Governor Bryant has mentioned before, man might walk on Mars, but he’ll have to go through Mississippi to do it. Our state is a leader in aerospace component development and production with one of the most robust clusters in the industry today.

As the Year of the Creative Economy is upon us, it is time that we stop apologizing for where we are from and what we have to offer. We are no longer a backwater. The days for playing catchup are over. The time for us to lead is now. All Mississippians should be proud of our contributions to creativity and what lies ahead. Hold your heads high. Learn about our creative achievements, the impact that creativity and innovation has for our economy and the nation as a whole. Mississippi is a creative place, and that creativity will drive us into being a leader in the 21st century economy.

Show your pride. Join the celebration of our Creative Economy #YoCE:

Click here for more about Mississippi’s Year of the Creative Economy.

See the proclamation here.


Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant announces 2014 will be the Year of the Creative Economy in Mississippi.

Subscribe to Innovation

October 9th, 2013

Mississippi Creative Economy Weekly Photo Contest

Screen shot 2013-10-09 at 1.15.39 PM

Have you heard? Next year, 2014, is going to be declared the year of the Creative Economy in Mississippi. In advance of this, we are sponsoring a photo contest via @MSCreativeEcon. Pick a subject matter you believe depicts our state’s creative economy, and tweet it to @MSCreativeEcon using the #msCreative. We pick a winner each week who receives a $5 iTunes credit. Oh, and businesses are eligible! We’re really looking forward to seeing all the creative photography our creative people take of our creative economy!

July 17th, 2013

Mississippi’s Creative Economy – First Twitter Forum 7/25

MS Creative

Thursday, July 25 2013, 7pm – 8pm CST. The inaugural Twitter forum sponsored by Mississippi’s Creative Economy will be held 7/25 at 7PM and feature visionary technology executive Bruce Deer as the special guest experts. Topics will focus on Mississippi’s role as a leader in emerging technologies, and how a culture of innovation is helping Mississippi leap forward in the new knowledge economy. Follow @MsCreativeEcon and use #msCreative to track the conversation and contribute. Please contact me if you would like further details.

Mississippi’s Creative Economy is a forum for sharing information about, and promoting Mississippi’s role as a leader in technology, creativity, and innovation within the context of driving economic development. The forum is a service of Maris, West & Baker.

Bruce Deer is a visionary and progressive executive for companies with national and international operations with a focus on emerging business opportunities. Bruce has extensive experience in strategic planning, business development, product development, technical operations, engineering, software and systems development, management consulting, and development of consumer products and services. Bruce as served as as Chief Executive Officer/President for a number of prominent Mississippi technology and communications firms, including Spread Networks, Neopolis Technologies, Origin Technologies, and SkyTel.