Dr. Scott Fulbright: CEO and Co-founder of Living Ink Technologies – Ep. 106

About Dr. Scott Fulbright:

Dr. Scott Fulbright is the CEO and Co-Founder of Living Ink Technologies, a company that’s developing the next generation of ink and coatings from algae.

His innovative business model replaces the ubiquitous petroleum inks that are all around us, from packaging to clothing tags, to shirts—you name it.

Their inks and pigments are carbon negative, and by switching to their product we can save pounds and pounds of petroleum while removing carbon dioxide from the air.

It’s a true win/win/win that’s gotten him millions in funding, several honors, and partnerships with brands like NIKE, Adidas, Patagonia, and more.

Dr. Fulbright embodies the spirit of this show, so I can’t wait for you to meet him and learn about Living Ink.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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2:44 – “When you study marine biology in the middle of Michigan, you end up studying algae and not marine life in the ocean. And so I ended up studying algae blooms and how algae grows fast. And, you know, sometimes it wreaks havoc on ecosystems. And as I was studying these algae blooms as a 20-year-old kid, I said, ‘Couldn’t we use this material for something that’s beneficial to society and use it for its ability to grow fast? And so that’s what kind of got me started in the algae world.” 

On The Importance Of Algae

*3:34 – “Every spring Gulf of Mexico, huge algae blooms. The Mississippi River dumps into the Gulf and it’s bringing all of that nutrient runoff from the Midwest Agriculture and those nutrients basically cause these massive algae blooms. And when the algae dies, it starts to create organic matter in the water and then bacteria start to grow and then basically it sucks the oxygen out of the water. And that’s what leads to these fish kills and can harm other marine life. And so, algae is actually the foundation of the ecosystem, right? Everything eats it. And so when it’s in balance with the ecosystem algae is essential, right? 50% of the oxygen that we all breathe right now, no matter where you are in the world, no matter how inland you are, comes from algae. So it’s critical for all of us just not too much in a specific location, like a bloom.” 

4:46 – “I grew up pretty close with my grandparents who were depression-era individuals. And if you threw a rubber band away, they were outraged – the things that you can do with that rubber band,  and, you know, never throw away aluminum or a glass. And so I grew up with that kind of mindset of reusing things. Back in the mid-nineties, I would spend like half of a Sunday with my father recycling things because you had to break everything up, wash it all out. The green glass can’t be recycled with the clear glass, and then you’d have to go dump it. So yeah, I mean, I was kind of raised with those values of just we have limited resources and we all know that. And we have to be able to come up with these reusable systems otherwise we’re not going to end up in a good spot, which we’re starting to see a little bit right now. So yeah, back in the nineties, my dad and grandparents were into the circular economy, whether they knew it or not.” 

6:52 – “One of the individuals that I had worked with as an undergrad in a laboratory, I was basically washing her dishes, she had gotten a job at a company turning algae into biofuels. And so that was one of my first moments of entrepreneurship. You can have an idea, you can go raise some funding and you can try to make a product or a service and get it into the world. And a little back story on me is that my dad was a professor at Michigan State, so I just grown up in the science world of, you write a grant, you get some funding, you spend the funding to do really good research, you publish it to the world so everyone knows about it. And if it gets used, great. If not, it’s a bank of knowledge that we’ve been creating for millennia. But then this whole idea of impact in scale, really, it was interesting to me of like, oh, unless it actually scales at a material level, then the impact might not be felt. So I got a job at a company that would raise like $20 million turning algae into all sorts of different things, including fuel. That was the next big step. All these kind of ‘aha’ moments kind of blast off in my head of what you could do.” 

8:07 – “There was a couple of companies that made everything from diesel to airplane fuel. So, I mean, there’s been planes that have been flown on algae fuels. There’s been ships in our military that have run on algae biofuels. The big the big challenge is just scale and cost. I mean, fuel is very cheap for the most part. Even though we’re used to right now it’s expensive but really, when you think about it compared to other materials, it’s pretty cheap. And then the scale that we use, it’s just massive. So just trying to get agriculture, so algae farms, that are large enough to fulfill our thirst of oil and fuel is difficult.”

11:28 – “We’re actually working with domestic growers, essentially algae farmers that have these massive 100-acre farms, they grow algae in these very shallow ponds using sunlight and water. And so right now, we’re using that kind of domesticated source of algae, but we’re also using waste streams. So even these farms, they make their product of interest, and then when they’re doing that, they actually generate waste streams, and we take those waste streams and we put it into our process. So we are still finding ways to use waste material in our process, even if it’s not coming from the algae blooms.” 

13:31 – “One of the nice things about algae is that what causes some of these algae blooms is that when you fertilize a standard crop in the Midwest and it rains, all of that nutrient runoff ends up in the Mississippi River, for example, and then washes down. In algae, you’re reusing the nutrients that aren’t getting used and you’re recycling the water that didn’t get used so there’s nothing that’s like seeping into the ground and getting kind of washed away. So again, every crop has its pros and cons.”

15:39 – “I went out to this Safeway grocery store and I was picking out a greeting card for [my grandma]. And it really happened when I saw the cost of the greeting card, I said, ‘Well, what’s a greeting card? It’s paper, it’s an idea, and it’s ink, you know?’ And I was like, ‘Why is it $8 or whatever it was?’ And then I just realized, ‘Well, what’s ink?’ And then I looked around the entire store and everything was covered in ink: the floors, the packages, the signs. And it’s one of those things that I don’t think a lot of people think about. And I went home and I said ‘What is ink made out of?’ And it just came up that it was basically petroleum. Like all of the colorants are made from petroleum or oil. All of the ink itself is typically made from petroleum or oil. The more I researched, the more I realized everything was petroleum.” 

16:28 – “I was studying algae at the time, but I went down this path of just starting to look at the world and asking myself, ‘What is everything made out of and where does it come from?’ And that was kind of a fun exercise, and I still do that today. So that’s how we started to think about ink. And then I said, ‘Well, can we use algae as an alternative to petroleum based colorants and inks?’” 

17:08 – “I went back to my lab and I called my co-founder because we were friends at the time and we were always trying to come up with ideas like, how do we turn this into a career? And I pitched him this idea of a living ink. I said, ‘We can use living algae. We can create a message that grows over time when you put it in front of light, which will power it to grow. So on day one, it can say “Happy birthday”, day two a cake could show up and day three would say: “From Scott. Happy birthday, Ross.”’ And he was like, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t get it. Like, it doesn’t make any sense.’ Which I like, I think that sometimes when you come up with an idea and someone’s like, ‘I don’t get it,’ to be like, ‘This is the brilliance of it.’ Like, it doesn’t make sense, but I think there’s something there. And so that was our first product.” 

19:39 – (Ross) “What substance has been studied more by humanity at this point than petroleum in general? Scientists for decades have been trying to extract every drop of this, finding a million different uses. But it does speak to the idea of, if you’ve heard of the man with a hammer syndrome: ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ If you’re trying to use petroleum to solve every problem, it turns out you can solve a lot of problems with petroleum, a lot of crazy problems. And now maybe we could do the same for algae.” 

22:25 – [On why algae comes in different colors] “Some of it’s just the species, like when you see a rose plant and you see a red flower, that’s the species of rose that’s making that. So some of it’s just the type of algae and then some of it’s actually the way it’s grown. So you can have a really green algae cell, think of it as just a little sphere that’s green, and if it doesn’t have a nutrient like nitrogen, for example, all of a sudden it feels like it’s starved of a nutrient, it can change from green to red within days. And so people can actually control how you grow it to get these different colors. So yeah, species, where you grow it, are the two major ways to control color within algae.” 

23:25 – “We had access at the time of growing a little bit of algae and trying to, like, make our first kind of prototypes just to see if they would even work and go, ‘Okay, there’s something there. It’s definitely not good yet, but we can get there.’ And then we got an LLC. So for $15 in the state of Colorado, I think it was like a company called Grow Your Message LLC and so we submitted a provisional patent. When you submit a provisional patent, I think it’s $100 and you can submit a PowerPoint, a one-page document, it can be really anything to claim, like, ‘Hey, this is an idea I have. I’ll come back to you in 12 months with maybe more information if we’re continue to pursue it.’”

24:17 – “The other thing that was a game changer for us is, we were at the time students and we got into an accelerator within Colorado State University and basically it was like a 10- or 12-week program of like, how do you start a company? What’s a patent? What’s a supplier? Like, just basic things of running a business, which for us was just every evening it was these like ‘Aha!’ moments of like, ‘Whoa, I never thought about that.’ I was typically the person that says, ‘Why is this pen $3 when the materials cost $0.03?’ And then you go, ‘Oh, like there’s that and there’s that and there’s that and there’s that. And then it’s got to get here. And then someone’s got to sell it, okay, that’s how it works.’”

25:33 – “We went down to a toy shop in Fort Collins, Colorado, and we pitched this guy our idea and he said, ‘I really like that.’ He ran a toy shop and you could tell he was a creative individual. And he said, ‘I like that idea a lot.’ And I remember he gave us a dollar and he said, ‘Remember this dollar. This is your first dollar you’ve ever gotten. When you have the product, come back and I’ll buy it from you. But here’s your first dollar. That was like my down payment or prepayment, you know?’ And so I remember him. I remember walking away going like, ‘That’s cool. He actually likes what we’re doing, you know?’”

26:08 – “We did a Kickstarter campaign and we think we got about $62,000 as we did that campaign. And I think we sold like 1300 units of that. And we were going, ‘Okay, people want this. They like the vision.’ And that was the first moment. I think one of the other stories that that goes to what your podcast is all about is the moment we went from this kind of niche, obscure idea, which is how a lot of things start, to more of like, ‘Can we replace ink? Can we do mainstream ink and actually make a really big impact?’ And I was friends with a designer at the time and he was like, ‘You should take my screen printing kit and go see if your stuff works.’ And I’m like yeah, ‘He doesn’t understand what we’re doing. He doesn’t get it. It’s not going to work, like we’re doing our little product here.’ And so he’s like, ‘Just take it.’ So one night at like 10 p.m., I’m in the lab and I take the algae and I’m like just kind of messing with it. And I take the screen, it’s like a squeegee and a screen, which is basically holes that you jam ink through. And I pull the squeegee down on the screen and I pull off the screen and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. It works. Like that’s an ink.”

29:06 – “In Fort Collins at that time, and I’m sure there still is because it’s a very creative community that’s very personable and caring and helpful, I think there was just a lot of people interested in talking to other people, like ‘How do we get ideas off the ground? How do we think of new things that change the world?’ There’s always that rhetoric. But then people that actually showed up to these things at like 7:08 p.m. and to have the conversation so I think we were pitching them saying like, ‘Oh this is what we’re doing.’ And they said, ‘Well, this is our area of expertise. You should try doing these, not to try to like make money or do it or claim intellectual property, but just like I think this would be really interesting to do.’ When I think back to Living Ink, there’s been very few moments where it’s just me…a lot of the things that move the needle since then have been other people, just conversations or getting helped and so that’s why I spend a lot of my day talking to people because I think that’s where those moments happen.”

30:09 – “One of our big moments of the first ink, a true ink, that we ever made that could go on a real commercial printing press was with an ink chemist. He’s like, ‘I’ve never thought about algae. I’ve never really taken a biology class, but I’m a chemist and I’ve been in this industry for 30 years.’ And then there are some really cool conversations and products that came out of that collaboration.”

30:30 – (Ross) “I think that that’s one of the best features of Colorado as a state. Again, growing up there, there is that collaborative sense. I really do feel that people are there to help each other and there is a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit that Colorado seems to have where it’s really not about getting a leg up or getting the money. It’s just people do genuinely seem to kind of want to help each other in the entrepreneurial community.”

31:43 – (Ross) “I live in one of the most cutthroat areas, maybe not quite Silicon-Valley-cutthroat, but Los Angeles is pretty close and everybody’s nice, but it’s different. You can’t say that it’s the same thing. People are collaborative, but there’s an undercurrent of something else that you just don’t find. I don’t want to say ulterior motives, but it’s more intense. And in Colorado there’s more of an exploratory vibe. People say, ‘Oh, come on, let’s just try this thing.’ There’s less pressure. And I don’t know why that is, but it’s something that I’ve definitely noticed that’s a strong positive of the state, in my experience.” 

32:58 – “The harder I work and the more in the weeds I am, the less creative I am, the less big thinking I do, and the less breakthroughs there are. Now when I step away and, you know, if you’re in Colorado and you go skiing or you go for a hike, I think people take a little bit more time to get perspective on the world and to think a little bit more creatively. And so I think that’s the challenge I have right now is trying to grow this business, is I have all these very interesting, different ideas, but I have no time to really think about pursuing them or even further because we’re so busy with the day to day.” 

33:39 – (Ross) “These phases that we go through as entrepreneurs or business people, sometimes we willingly subject ourselves to these phases. Sometimes we know we’re doing a bit too much and we say, ‘Okay, for the next two months, I’m going to go really hard. It’s probably not sustainable, but I’m just trying to get this one specific goal.’ But some part of you recognizes that after this, I really need to dial it back. And I go through phases like that as well, phases where I know I’m kind of pushing the envelope a little too hard and burning the candle at both ends a little too hard, tackling too much. And you can do it. But you recognize if I do this forever, I’m going to be in some kind of trouble.”

35:23 – “One of the fun parts of Living Ink is, before I even heard about like what growth mindset was, like, really kind of pursuing that. And so I think one of the first days we did Living Ink and my co-founder and I, we said, ‘What are we trying to get out of this? Like, what’s the number one priority here?’ And the number one priority after we talked was, let’s learn something like every day. If we’re learning, we’re pursuing our curiosity, which is big, both scientifically and how does the world work? And how do supply chains work? And at the time, we had no idea. And it’s been fun to learn that we’re still learning.”

37:10 – “I have three kids. I got a ten-month-old, five year old and seven year old. And they’ve actually been great because when you are in the moment with them, like you have to be in the moment with them. Even if I know things have to get done, but they need to go to bed, like I can’t do two things at once very well. So they’ve actually been a blessing for me to reduce my stress in some ways, which is just like just block everything out, go play for a little bit and then come back when the time is right. And then also perspective, right? I used to have on my wall the sticky notes of events of Living Ink and how it started and always reflect and like, ‘Look how far we’ve come. I know today is a challenging day maybe, but look how far we’ve come. We’re really good at solving problems. We’ll get through this problem.’ So that that perspective always reduces my stress level.” 

40:19 – “A lot of it for us just comes down to determination and then talking it through and having a very practical approach, like we de-risk the technology before we launch with brands and we’ve worked with – like we have this partner in Colorado called EcoEnclose, they are a big sustainable packaging company. And we first met them, they weren’t that big, they were kind of small. And that was what these breakthroughs were like. No one else wanted to work with us because like, we don’t really want to work with a company that doesn’t have a product yet that will probably muck up my printer or whatever. And I LinkedIn messaged the owner and he said, ‘Come in whenever you have the ink and like, let’s try it. This is really cool. I think my customers would really like this, at least some of them,’ and so you just have enough of those kind of moments. But I was probably like, 0 for 20 at that point of getting responses from printers…so persistence goes a long ways, I think, in all of these pursuits of what people are doing to make it work.” 

What’s Next For Living Ink?

*41:30 – “Right now we’re really in the middle of raising a pretty big round of funding to basically fuel expansion and scale of the product. So we just launched with Nike recently, we did all of Patagonia’s hang tags. We launched products with American Eagle and Marmot, and we had some nice footwear projects coming out this year. So yeah, it’s getting in a little bit of funding to it to build the business the right way and continue to launch with brands in a very practical way of doing things. So that’s a lot of brand conversations, a lot of factory conversation. So we send samples to factories of brands and then we get feedback or they ask a lot of questions. So yeah, it’s growing the business is really where we’re at right now.” 

43:26 – “I always say that for me as an individual, I’m like a skeptical dreamer, right? I have this dreaming side of me and then there’s this scientific, skeptical, negative side of ‘things won’t change.’ But I’ve got to say that in the last two and a half years, really, since COVID started, I’ve seen a lot of conversations turn into real actions, both individually and at some of these companies. So I think COVID, and just that time that people had, that space to get perspective on the world, I think really changed. And we’ve been told in the past that a big brand will never pay more, they’ll never work with a small company because there’s risk and liabilities, just all these issues. And that’s not what we’re seeing right now. And I think that really did change in 2020.” 

On The Changing Conversation Around Environmental Impact

*45:22 – “I can sit there with my Dad and I can recycle things, and that’s needed, and everyone has a role in doing their part. But when you think about massive brands, massive factories, the amount of energy, the materials that they’re using, I mean, that’s where I think there starts to become impact. So I am encouraged with this whole kind of climate conversation, ESG conversation, where you’ve got consumers demanding it from a lot of these groups and now you’re starting to get some of the big investment firms that actually fund some of these companies to say, ‘You do need to change your carbon emissions. You do need to have actions.’ And so that’s where I start to see some positive traction going on. I think there’s a long road and it’s a very big scale that we work at in this world, kind of, global supply chain. But I see more action than I’ve ever seen than just conversation. So I’m encouraged, although faster is always better.” 

Do We Really Need So Much Plastic?

*46:17 – (Ross) “Petroleum, of course, will always have its uses as long as it’s available to us. But we have to ask ourselves, are we using it in the wisest way? Does it make sense to be using it for all these other things when we know we need it for fuel and things that we can’t use anything else for? Does it make sense that my zucchini is packaged in petroleum? Do I need that? Do I need to have my deodorant come in a plastic…? Why is it always plastic? Plastic, petroleum based. Does every card need to have ink from petroleum? Can we not take at least some of these things off of that plate? And you might notice this, being interested in sustainability, but July some people do plastic-free July and I have been trying but my god, it is so hard. There are certain things that you can do to reduce your plastic for sure, but getting rid of plastic or not even buying plastic for one month is damn near impossible in the way our society is set up. Certainly in America at least.” 

48:16 – “I was at a conference one time and someone asked me, ‘Do you think that algae is the future of materials? And do you think that bio products are the future of materials?’ And I thought about it and it’s like the answer is 100% yes, because it has to be. Petroleum is finite. We know that there’s only so much. And for us, humans are going, ‘Oh, there’s plenty there.’ But when you think about 100 years, which is a very short part of how old this earth is, we will use that all up, guaranteed relatively quickly. And then we’re sitting there going like, ‘How do we make a toothbrush? How do we make ink? How do we make fuel? How do we make tires?” So it’s just interesting how short-sighted we can be as a community of humans. And it’s difficult, right? We’re all in the weeds. Everyone’s busy, everyone’s got things going on. So I think these podcasts are really important to think about some of the basics there and ask those questions like, ‘Do you need tomatoes or apples packaged in plastic when we know we need it for really important things?’” 

52:57 – “Even during the bad days or the tough days, it’s like all you can do is try. And if you believe in what you’re trying to do, it gets you through a lot of difficult times. And so that’s something that I feel grateful for, that I’ve chosen this and doing the best we can and trying to recruit people into these different industries and getting talented, experienced people to help build these products and companies so they have a chance and they can succeed in the world is a big part of my passion.” 

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