Blue biotech: What is it, and why do European startups have the potential to lead the sector?

The oceans cover 70% of our planet’s surface with a vast expanse of sea water. Marine life has adapted to thrive in the extreme ambient conditions found in the sea. Human beings have been relying on the ocean’s resources to sustain themselves. Fishing is one of the main activities we carry out at sea. 

However, with the rise of modern society and the emergence of new technologies we have been able to explore more the oceans and understand better the many marine organisms that inhabit the seas. So how are we harnessing the ocean’s resources?

Introducing blue biotechnology

Blue biotechnology is concerned with the exploration and exploitation of these marine organisms in order to develop new products. This exciting sector contributes to the blue bioeconomy, turning aquatic biomass into novel foods, feed, energy, packaging and much more.

The blue bioeconomy is an activity based on the sustainable use of renewable aquatic resources and water expertise. Good water quality is the foundation of a successful blue bioeconomy.

Achieving and maintaining good water status supports the development and commercialization of blue bioeconomy products and services. Key sectors in this regard include business activities based on water expertise and technology, water-based tourism, aquatic biomass utilization and the fisheries value chain.

The intangible value of aquatic natural resources is also very high. Aquatic areas are important not only for economic activities, but also for human well-being, recreation and health.

Blue biotech’s entrepreneurship potential

With three quarters of the globe covered by the sea, scientists have realised that aquatic and marine organisms can become a good source of energy and new medicines.

Blue biotechnology is strong in Europe. In the current 2014-2020 funding period, over €238.6 million of EU funds have been invested in 182 projects and initiatives related to blue biotechnology with a total budget of €336 million. So far, 12 EU countries have prioritised this sector, including Portugal and France which have a strong regional focus on bluetech innovation.

Portugal is with no doubt a growing hub for blue based entrepreneurs. Its geographic situation makes it a competitive place for blue businesses looking to innovate with ocean-based solutions.

For instance, in 2018, the acceleration programme Blue Bio Value launched, and supported by Oceano Azul Foundation and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, ran its first ever competition for blue startups looking to grow in Portugal. Since its beginnings, it has accelerated a total of 28 companies of 15 different nationalities. 2020 marks the 3rd edition of Blue Bio Value’s startup acceleration programme, and the 1st edition of its new Idea Sprints, which aim to bridge the gap between university research and the market.

European regions could become leaders in biotechnology innovation

The EU coastline is 68,000 km long — more than three times longer than that of the United States and almost twice that of Russia. If the EEA (European Environment Agency) member countries Iceland, Norway and Turkey are included, the coastline reaches to 185 000 km long. 

With so much space to cover and unique marine habitats within European jurisdictions, there are great opportunities for EU-based bluetech startups to tap into. Whether it be in the food sector, the pharmaceutical sector, energy or the fashion industry, ocean-based solutions can provide many new disruptive innovations and have the potential to solve some of today’s greatest societal challenges. 

We are currently working on a list of disruptive European bluetech startups, so stay tuned if you’re interested in the future of biotechnology. 

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