The potential of Euglena as a new source of sustainability

By Staff Writer
October 17, 2022
Despite all of the economic advances of the past century, the world still faces numerous crises, ranging from climate change and energy insecurity, to millions of people not having access to sufficient nutrition. Throughout Japan, innovators and entrepreneurs are searching for unique solutions, exploring avenues that may have been overlooked by traditional industries. In the case of Euglena Co., Ltd,, a solution to several of these crises may be found within a unlikely organism.

Euglena Co., Ltd. is a Japanese biotech venture company that runs businesses in the field of Healthcare, Renewable Fuels, Social Business, AgriTech and Bioinformatics. As indicated by the company name, their business includes R&D and production of Euglena, a microalgae much like seaweed or kelp. They achieved the world’s first outdoor mass cultivation of edible Euglena in Ishigaki island, Okinawa, and from this and other similar microalgae the company produces food and cosmetics, and is also developing renewable fuel technologies.

Euglena is a primitive organism performing photosynthesis and moving around in search of light. It has both characteristics of animals and plants and thus it is biologically unique. As they grow through photosynthesis, they can be cultivated anywhere as long as there is water and CO₂. They are known to thrive even in environments with CO₂ concentrations about 1,000 times higher than in the atmosphere.

A microscope view of Euglena
Microalgae Euglena

Mitsuru Izumo, the founder of Euglena Co., visited Bangladesh as a student in university. He was extremely shocked by the malnutrition problems he witnessed there. He says that it was then that he decided to take on this social problem through business development. From this start, he would go on to establish Euglena Co. in 2005.

Mitsuru Izumo with a Bangladeshi family
Euglena Co. founder Mitsuru Izumo as a student, during his visit to Bangladesh

Ishigaki Euglena, which Euglena Co. cultivates, contains 59 kinds of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and unsaturated fatty acids such as DHA and EPA. The rich nutrients in Ishigaki Euglena can be used to help some of the problems people face today, such as malnutrition, fatigue, and weakened immune systems.

A plate of powdered Euglena
Ishigaki Euglena in powdered form

The philosophy of Euglena Co. is “Sustainability First” and the company’s purpose is “Make People and the Earth Healthy.” Through its work, Euglena Co. aims to create a society in which individual happiness can coexist with that of others. In other words, they hope that the expansion of Euglena Co.’s business will have a direct impact in terms of the improvement of various social issues.

Since its establishment, Euglena Co. has worked on sustainability issues. In 2014, they started the “The Euglena GENKI Program” to distribute nutrient-rich Euglena cookies as part of school lunches to children in Bangladesh who are suffering from malnutrition. As of July 2022, over 14 million of the cookies has been distributed.

Children in a school eating cookies
Children eating nutrient-rich Euglena cookies

In addition, in December 2017 the company delivered 200,000 Euglena cookies with customized specifications to a Rohingya refugee camp in Myanmar that was struggling with an increasing number of people. Later during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the company distributed 400,000 of the Euglena cookies free of charge to slum residents who could not easily access food due to the shortages and rising prices.

Boxes of Euglena cookies being delivered to a refugee camp
Euglena Co. delivered 200,000 Euglena cookies to a Rohingya refugee camp

In addition to The Euglena GENKI Program, Euglena Co. has also started its journey toward social business with its “Mung Bean Project”. Mung bean is a vitally important ingredient in dal soup, a widely consumed local food in Bangladesh, and is also the source of bean sprouts that are widely consumed in Japan. By working with local small-scale farmers for mung bean cultivation, Euglena Co, provided benefits for the farmers such as technical guidance and higher sales prices. This project aims to eradicate poverty and stabilize the food supply by providing Bangladeshi farmers with advanced Japanese agricultural techniques for mung bean cultivation and supplying high-quality mung beans in both countries.

Farmers in Bangladesh growing mung beans
Cultivating mung bean in Bangladesh

The project has seen huge success. In 2018, it created approximately 8,000 employment opportunities small farmers, and in 2019 Euglena Co. became the first company in Japan to have a business tie-up with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The project is not on a voluntary basis but as a business effort to produce profits and continuously invest to solve social problems. In 2022, Euglena Co. Signed a Business Partnership Agreement with WFP for second time.

Chart of the mung bean project business model
Business Model of the Mung Bean Project
But Euglena is not only rich in nutrients. It has the potential to become one of the solutions to Japan’s energy shortage problems as a renewable fuel source. Since 2010, Euglena Co. has begun a joint development with other companies to manufacture Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) from Euglena lipids.

In 2018, Euglena Co. constructed Japan’s first demonstration plant to manufacture renewable fuels under the brand name SUSTEO to facilitate the shift from fossil fuels for the realization of a sustainable society. The use of SUSTEO as a renewable diesel fuel began in 2020, and the first flight using SUSTEO as a SAF succeeded in 2021. SUSTEO is now used for land, sea and air transport. And In 2021, a Mazda competition vehicle fueled with SUSTEO (100 % renewable diesel fuel) completed the three-hour Super Taikyu Endurance race.
Two bottles of Euglena-based fuel
From left, SUSTEO as SAF and renewable diesel fuel
Green jet airplane at an airport, fuelled with Euglena
Airplane fueled with SUSTEO
Bus and boat, fuelled with Euglena
Bus and marine craft fueled with SUSTEO
Euglena-fuelled race car
MAZDA SPIRITRACING’s Bio concept DEMIO, which is Mazda Motor Corporation's SKYACTIV-D 1.5 (conventional diesel engine)
Izumo says, “Our concept of sustainability is preciously “our own happiness continues to co-exist with that of others”, which is also the goal we are striving for. No matter what the issues are, how long they might take, and even if all the ups and downs are continuously changing or leaving us unexpected challenges along our way, we are ready, well prepared, and equipped to make our dreams come true.”
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