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EU Blue Economy Observatory

Blue Biotechnology

An insightful analysis of the blue economy sector's recent developments can be gleaned from Hub Azul, a platform launched by Fórum Oceano, Portugal's Blue Economy Cluster. Hub Azul serves as a networking tool connecting blue economy businesses with potential investors. While the data provided is not comprehensive2 due to voluntary participation, it still offers valuable insights into emerging industry trends. As of March 2024, there are 163 European start-ups and scale-ups from blue biotechnology that are registered on Hub Azul, with an economic value in 2023 of about €1.1 billion.

In terms of employment, Hub Azul reports 3,957 workers in the sector in 2023. Employment remains concentrated in smaller companies and start-ups. Large enterprises currently employ a relatively small portion of the overall blue biotechnology workforce in Europe. This is usually a typical sign of a nascent and vibrant industry, where most of the business takes place in relatively new and small companies, which have not yet had enough time to grow large. At the same time, the distribution of employment and the predominance of small companies is also a sign of inherent fragility, though it is expected that, as the EU blue biotechnology ecosystem continues maturing, employment at larger companies may increase over time.

Examples of applications that have been funded are a patented technology to produce therapeutic proteins from spirulina; a technology to develop microalgae-based alternative proteins; seaweed-based feed supplements for reducing cow methane emissions; sustainable, low-carbon, algae-based jet and diesel fuel; and seaweed-based bioplastics.

While seaweed and algae startups dominate the funding landscape, a few companies are exploring other marine resources for innovative applications. For instance, jellyfish are used to produce Collagen Type 0 for complex tissue engineering and regenerative medical applications. Purified hemoglobin from lugworms (Arenicola marina) is extracted to develop marine oxygen carriers for industrial and therapeutic uses.

The substantial and growing investments in blue biotechnology underscore the increasing recognition of the economic and environmental opportunities presented by harnessing the potential of marine resources across various sectors, from pharmaceuticals and healthcare to food, energy, and sustainable materials. As the industry continues to evolve, further innovations and breakthroughs are expected, driven by the influx of venture capital funding and the vast unexplored potential of the ocean’s biological resources.

Opportunities for growth in blue biotechnology underscore the sector's potential to address global challenges related to human health, food security, energy sustainability, and environmental protection. By leveraging marine biodiversity, technological innovation, and interdisciplinary collaboration, stakeholders can unlock the full economic and societal benefits of blue biotechnology while safeguarding marine ecosystems for future generations. 

Some promising applications of blue biotechnology include:

  • Development of novel therapeutics
  • Nutraceuticals and functional foods
  • Bioprospecting and biodiversity conservation
  • Bioenergy and bioremediation

1 The NACE classification does indeed have a code that groups enterprises working “Research and experimental development on biotechnology” (M 72.11), but this does not allow to discriminate between blue and non-blue.

2 It should also be noted that, as subscription is voluntary, there might also be self-selection and survivorship biases, meaning that the companies that are actually on Hub Azul might also happen to be the most proactive and successful ones, and so they are not representative of the whole population

3 Note that data from the past 12 months are not yet consolidated, and thus are most certainly underestimated.

4 Proksch, P., Putz, A., Ortlepp, S. et al. Bioactive natural products from marine sponges and fungal endophytes. Phytochem Rev 9, 475–489 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11101-010-9178-9

5 Kurniawan R, Nurkolis F, Taslim NA, Subali D, Surya R, Gunawan WB, Alisaputra D, Mayulu N, Salindeho N, Kim B. Carotenoids Composition of Green Algae Caulerpa racemosa and Their Antidiabetic, Anti-Obesity, Antioxidant, and Anti-Inflammatory Properties. Molecules. 2023 Apr 6;28(7):3267. doi: 10.3390/molecules28073267.