Real Innovation Awards 2017: The George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person joint winner

Mitsuro Izumo established the world's first mass outdoor cultivation of Euglena - a microscopic algae with the potential to prevent malnutrition. But it took 'thousands of mistakes' to get the business off the ground.

Last Updated: 02 Nov 2017

An absolute determination to carry on in the face of adversity is the defining quality required for this award, and Japanese entrepreneur Mitsuro Izumo qualifies in spades.

His inspiration dates back to a visit to Bangladesh he made as a student in 1998, where he encountered the social consequences of chronic malnutrition. The problem that poor people faced there was not so much outright famine or even a lack of food, but rather poor nutrition. ‘They ate a lot of rice, but they weren’t getting enough nutrients,’ he has said. ‘I promised myself I would do something to help.’ 

Back in Japan and having switched to study agriculture, he came across Euglena, a microscopic algae packed with no fewer than 59 essential human nutrients including protein, Omega 3s and fatty acids. The microalgae is particularly suited to addressing malnutrition because it combines in one source a range of nutrients which would normally require the consumption of multiple foodstuffs including fish and vegetables to obtain. In the 1970s it was even investigated by NASA as a potential food source for astronauts on deep space missions.

The next challenge Izumo faced was how to grow Euglena economically and on an industrial scale. Unable to secure backing for his research he worked for a bank, before quitting to follow what he had come to see as his life’s mission.

After years of effort and ‘thousands of mistakes’, in 2005 he and his colleagues managed to establish the world’s first mass outdoor cultivation of Euglena, and to develop a powdered form of the algae for use in food supplements.

But once again adversity struck – despite approaching 500 companies, he could find no backers. Finally in 2008, he persuaded Japanese conglomerate Iotchu to come on board – it was his big break. In 2012 Euglena went public in an $80m IPO, since when it has been growing at over 30% pa. In 2015 Japanese PM Shinzo Abe named Euglena as the country’s first ‘outstanding’ start-up of the year and it now has a market capitalisation of over $1bn.

Success has not dimmed Izumo’s original zeal, and he is now exploring numerous other uses for Euglena, not only in healthy foods and beverages but also as animal feed, in cosmetics and even bio fuels. His next goal is to develop a microalgae biofuel for aircraft in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.