By John Garvey | May 28, 2020
Bio-based inks and pigments
Living Ink Technologies develops carbon-negative, algae-based pigments and inks for use in packaging materials, textiles, and mailers.
Fulbright and Steve Albers founded the company in 2013 as Ph.D. candidates studying cell and molecular biology at Colorado State University. "The reason I started Living Ink to begin with was that we wanted to bring sustainability to the marketplace in places that it wasn't currently," says Fulbright.
People curious about Living Ink will likely stumble upon the 2016 Kickstarter campaign featuring time-lapse ink and accessories for greeting cards and artwork. But as alluring as that product was, it served its purpose and has been scrapped for now.
"I think we achieved one of our goals which was to make science cool to the normal person, inspire people with what biology can do," states Fulbright. "The challenge is that biology is really fickle." Living algae-based pigments perform very differently in Southern California than they do in Northern Michigan.
Living Ink now leverages partnerships with packaging companies, printers, and consumer brands rather than selling direct to consumer products. Fulbright says they're not sure whether they'll ultimately be producing and selling most of their own ink or selling pigment to ink companies that use established equipment and distribution channels.
Sustainable packaging is increasingly recognized as an important brand differentiator -- and in some cases, an expectation. So while Living Ink hasn't achieved economies of scale and cost can be an issue, it's somewhat beside the point. If brand managers see value in sustainable packaging, Fulbright says they tend to make it work.
"In the end, they're just using our product to market their product. In my mind it's not just the raw material price or cost, it's what's the marketing [value] going to be here?"
Living Ink has received significant market validation through partnerships with EcoEnclose, a Louisville, Colorado-based shipping supplies company, Denver-based screenprinting firm Superior Ink, and several consumer brands -- most notably Patagonia.
"Through EcoEnclose, we've printed with a lot of different printers, and they've had a lot of success using our ink in terms of its printability, shelf life, cleaning of the ink, everything that they look for," says Fulbright.
Challenges: Printers can be reluctant to rework and rethink vendors, processes and distribution. If they think it's going to be a headache to figure out, they won't play ball.
Living Ink's technology is bio-based, so temperature and other factors can affect it differently than traditional ink. This sometimes requires troubleshooting. "The first few batches of ink that we took to EcoEnclose we sat with them for a few hours and just kind of tweaked it and made it work on their printer," notes Fulbright. "And you know you go to a big printer where they get paid by how many things they print, they don't want to spend a minute tweaking anything. Time is money for them."
It's also challenging to stay on top of managing and responding to inquiries from vendors. It entails a lot of conversations and emails, and it requires discernment about who's serious about a prospective partnership versus who's just going through the motions. "I never thought I'd tell a billion-dollar company to just screw off unless they're ready to make a decision," says Fulbright.
Opportunities: Fulbright has spoken with several of the top ink companies in the world about working together on technology and production. He's also optimistic that they'll be able secure large accounts with brands that print millions of units annually.
One of the goals at Living Ink is to develop a technology that can be agnostic to any algae strain. If validated, that capability will create a broader potential to create value from other waste streams such as runoff from breweries and water treatment plants.
Living Ink's pigments can be coupled with soy- or linseed-based inks so companies using those oils in their packaging don't have to change vendors. (Ink can be water- or oil-based.)
Fulbright says bio-based, renewable ink will follow a trajectory similar to that of soy ink: "When that was first brought into the market, there was major pushback. Nobody wanted to do it, and then all of a sudden when some of the early adaptors started to use it then everybody else fell into place because they're like, 'It's making us look bad that we're not using soy ink.'"
Needs: Finding the right downstream partners. Developing ink formulations unique to different types of cardboard, plastics, textiles, and other materials is best done through partnerships, rather than in-house. "We've spent a lot of time developing ink that works," says Fulbright, but established ink companies are more efficient by orders of magnitude "because they've got a thousand Ph.D. chemists that that's all they do."
Capital is another need. While Living Ink has received over $1.1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation, that funding can't be used for marketing and business development.