If you don’t know, or skipped a few AP Psychology classes, there’s a theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It lists five different motivations for human behavior, usually presented in a rainbow striped pyramid with “physiological needs” at the bottom and “self-actualization” at the top. The pyramid implies you need to achieve more basic needs before getting all tangled up in your sense of self issues.
Maslow was on Elliot Roth’s mind nearly two years ago. The VCU graduate was spending most nights in a homemade science lab–featuring a family of spiders and bullet marks across one wall– and subsisting primarily on Soylent, a meal replacement drink. Elliot watched as rent costs forced people around him to barely stay within the lowest stripe of Maslow’s pyramid, while watching a wealthier friend regularly toss day old leftovers in the garbage. An issue which had always existed was suddenly, and assertively, at the center of his own life. (This is partly why Elliot balks a bit at the term “entrepreneur;” he prefers to think of himself as someone with a problem who tries to find a solution in the best way he knows.)
For Elliot, that meant looking for answers in the then-burgeoning field of biotech. Although he had an early start in the area– he designed an experiment to make glowing tadpoles at age 14– he entered VCU with the full intention of becoming a pediatric trauma neurosurgeon. After seeing how jaded doctors became after finishing medical school, and with his own scholastic issues, he shifted his focus. Elliot, who is clearly driven by a desire to change things for the better, came to the conclusion that companies were the most effective agents of action. Merely months after graduation, he had six startups on his resume (plus a stint with Stanford University’s Innovation Fellows Program), most of which had failed; one of which, IndieLab, provided the lovely temporary home as well as some tinkering experience that would prove helpful later on. If you’ve somehow escaped this pretty key concept when talking about startups, here’s the moral of the story:
People fail all the time. That’s how they learn.
That’s also, however, how they end up basically homeless, ruminating on Maslow and sipping Soylent while reading study after study, not quite sure what they’re looking for, but confident they’ll know it if they find it.
It was 2014 when Elliot discovered a rather random and decade-old NASA study. The study concluded that an algae called Spirulina could serve as a significant food source during longer missions. For the unenlightened: Spirulina contains about twice as much protein as meat, possesses all essential amino acids, has 25 times the iron in spinach, 15 times the beta carotene in carrots, and 13 other vitamins and minerals. The really cool and really relevant part (looking at you, California), is that it takes a thousand times less water to produce than any other crop.
Food: cheap and nutritious. Biotech was going to solve at least part of the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid.
This discovery is what led Elliot’s last paycheck to be spent on Spirulina cultures.
Everything started to come together earlier this year, when Spira was accepted into an accelerator program called IndieBio EU. The three-month program involved sessions from 8am to 8pm daily; basically, as Elliot calls it, condensed grad school. Now, Elliot is based in Cork, Ireland, and is working with a team of about six engineers and scientists.
Elliot gets visibly excited when talking about Spira’s potential for world nutrition issues; the part of him that wanted to be a trauma surgeon years earlier is very visible here. Spira is universally accessible. It needs no refrigeration, only illumination, and is, after initial growth, self-sustaining, doubling in volume every day. It is bottled directly from a photobioreactor (a structure usually composed of thin tubes, using light to cultivate the algae) which is very portable and doesn’t require specialized equipment. That means there is only one “access point” for Spira; it is a tool, not a gift. The means of production lie in the hands of anyone with a photobioreactor, and rapid cultivation is taken care of by the algae itself. The goal, Elliot says, is not to give things to others, but to give them opportunity to do things on their own.
The next step for Elliot and his team is marketing. Essentially, Spirulina is pond scum that grows best around the Tropic of Cancer– which happens to be the driest, and often the hungriest, latitude of the world. It’s nothing new; the Aztecs and some parts of West Africa have been using it to sustain civilizations for centuries. Elliot’s task is to convince everybody, besides the people of Chad, of Spira’s potential. He’s done the science and now his team needs to focus on two other aspects of their relationship with consumers: taste and behavior (which is why Cork, a world-class food hub, makes a great location). They’ll likely use the marketing magic that someone, somewhere, used to make the lowly vegetable kale trendy. Plus, now that we’re running out of water, space, and even food in some places, the world is definitely ready to make the cognitive leap from algae to a life-sustaining beverage.
Ever since he tagged alongside a surgeon in the trauma unit, or worked on a startup that created breast pumps, or built a lab which could give lots of different people access to experimental science, Elliot has wanted to create something real. He was captured early on by the idea that physical and biological innovations can help people achieve their physical and biological needs. Elliot’s a doer; and so he did. Of course, people pretty much constantly questioned him throughout the process (which I do not really fault them for; “look, mom, I made a drink out of pond scum that I can live off of!”). The “nitty-gritty” business side of things, as he calls it, was not particularly enjoyable or easy. A day was good if he made one small achievement or realization after hours of effort.
The fact that he had to overcome hardships isn’t really the admirable part of his story. To him, it didn’t matter how many roadblocks there were. That wasn’t really the point. Elliot puts it best: “It’s impossible to stop doing what you love.” Every day, Elliot tried to fix something, little by little, the way he knew how. Fresh, nutritious food was an issue in his life, and he knew that was true for many others. Spira wasn’t the product of that giant eureka moment common in people’s stories of entrepreneurs. Spira, Elliot says, was born out of a situation. Elliot’s scientific view of the matter– “if there’s a problem, you’d better come up with solution”– sometimes gets buried under the thinking that ideas are automatically brilliant if they’re new. Elliot’s creation is brilliant because it does a very, very good job of helping people.
Spira has begun taste trials of their beverage in stores around Cork, Ireland and has been accepted into the prestigious accelerator program, Lighthouse Labs, based in Richmond. This means Elliot and the Spira team will receive $20,000 with no strings attached; a very big deal for somebody who already has very big plans.
Follow their story at drinkspira.com.