Sunday | April 26, 2015
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It’s a big day for microalgae

When other companies were struggling during the recent economic downturn, at least one West Hawaii business saw steady growth.

“Our company has continued to grow,” Cyanotech Vice President of Quality Control and Regulatory Affairs Jen Johansen said Thursday, before taking Gov. Neil Abercrombie on a tour of the expanding microalgae plant at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. “There is such demand for our produce, even during the economic downturn.”

Johansen credited consumers with “progressing” toward alternative modalities, or medical treatments, as one reason for the increasing interest in the company’s two microalgae products, Spirulina Pacifica and BioAstin. She said she also believed people were taking a greater interest in preserving their good health during the economic downturn, because they worried about losing their jobs and health insurance.

Founded in 1983 and opened in Hawaii the next year, Cyanotech is the largest company operating at NELHA, Johansen said. It now employs 96 workers, in fields ranging from manufacturing to research, sales and marketing to information technology. About a dozen of those employees work at a warehouse and corporate headquarters in California, with the bulk of workers based in Hawaii. Johansen said between November and this month, Cyanotech increased its workforce by 20 percent and company officials are looking to grow more.

They just completed construction on a two-story office building, Johansen said.

“We’re almost popping out of the seams of that,” she said.

Abercrombie asked Johansen and Founder and Chief Science Officer Gerald Cysewski about how the plant is powered. Right now, they buy electricity from Hawaii Electric Light Co., though they plan to install a 500 kilowatt solar power system, Cysewski said. That system will run the plant during the day, but HELCO’s grid in the area cannot accept more photovoltaic tie-ins, he said, so they will still buy power from the utility at night.

“Your business is being restricted because of another company’s business plan?” Abercrombie said.

Thursday, in addition to hosting the governor, employees were moving into those offices, which still smelled of new carpet and fresh paint. Boxes, some unpacked and flattened, some still full, lined the walls upstairs, where employees gathered to speak with the governor.

Abercrombie told employees he had visited the plant, which opened in 1983, years ago, while still a U.S. representative. And, he said, he was involved in pushing for the state to open NELHA, an idea he said received significant opposition.

“This is a big thrill for me to be with you,” Abercrombie said. “The kind of vision some of us in the Legislature had decades ago about what NELHA may do (was embodied in Cyanotech’s success). There were lots of skeptics. Lots and lots of reasons why (NELHA) shouldn’t be done and couldn’t be done.”

Abercrombie also recalled Cyanotech’s early marketing efforts — a few small bottles and packets of spirulina on a card table. People were also skeptical of Cyanotech’s proposed business model, the governor said.

“It’s just remarkable today,” he said. “To come here today and see what you accomplished really, really puts a smile on my face. You’re succeeding.”

The governor said he wants to see the growth Cyanotech officials told him was coming soon.

“You certainly have a friend in me,” he said. “I will certainly endeavor to do everything I can to be supportive of you.”

Cysewski said in the early 1980s, the market for spirulina was growing, but the product was all being grown in Mexico, particularly in an area near polluted Mexico City. He saw an opportunity in Kona that offered year-round warm temperatures, the most sunlight of any American coastal area, land available at NELHA and access to cold, deep seawater, which the company uses in its algae drying process.