Marine Biotechnology in Hawaii

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UPDATED August 2016

Context for Marine Biotechnology in Hawaii

It is expected that the global marine biotechnology[1] market reached approximately US$ 4.8 by 2020, driven by the rising focus on environmental sustainability that led to increasing investments in the sector of marine biotechnology research.[2] The United States dominates the global market for marine biotechnology worldwide as it is home to highly developed, specialized marine research centers.[3] The sector in Asia and the Pacific is also growing fast, emerging as a major regional market for marine biotechnologies. Hawaii, located at the crossroad between the United States and the Asia-Pacific region, is an ideal location for marine biotechnology research and development thanks to its abundant warm sunlight, pure deep ocean water and high biodiversity resources.[4]

Public Programs in the United States involving Hawaii

In the U.S. Government, several levels of action within the executive power are involved on marine biotechnology research and application opportunities.

  • Within the presidential cabinet, the Department of Energy[5] (DOE) is supporting marine biotechnology and especially the production of bioenergy from algae, through the ARPA-E[6] agency (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy). Through its Oceans Margin Program[7] (OMP)[8] in the Office of Health and Environmental Research, DOE also supports marine biotechnology research at National laboratories and academic institutions[9] but with a focus on the North Atlantic Ocean. In January 2008, DOE and the governor of the state of Hawaii signed a memorandum of understanding launching the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative[10] (HCEI) to transform the energy sector in Hawaii by achieving 70% clean energy by 2030. This includes ocean energy technology and biofuels, but the latter are currently still mainly based on land biomass, such as bio-diesel or ethanol.[10] For that purpose in 2012 the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority[11] received a $3 million federal grant funding from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help expand its alternative energy and biotechnology incubator[12] complex.
  • Other departments support research on marine biotechnology for different goals, such as the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Agency for International Development (USAID) which supports marine biotech projects such as reproductive studies of milkfish in Hawaii.
  • In addition, within the Executive Office of the President[13] and under the Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment[14], the offices that deal with affairs related to marine biotechnology are the Office of Science and Technology Policy[15] and the Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs[16].

Two federal agencies of the U.S. are particularly interested in marine biotechnology: the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration[17] (NOAA). It is also an area of interest to the Environmental Protection Agency[18] (EPA), the Food and Drugs Administration[19] (FDA) or the Economic Development Agency[20] (EDA).

  • The National Science Foundation[21] (NSF) is an independent agency created by Congress in 1950, with an annual budget of about $7.5 billion (FY 2016). It funds c. 24% of all publicly-funded academic basic research in all scientific fields except for medical science and is known to provide funding for highly innovative research.[22] The NSF is a contributor to EC-US Task Force meetings on marine biotechnology topics. It funds several projects and infrastructures:
  • The Directorate for Biological Sciences[23] (BIO) which provides about 64 percent of federal funding for non-medical basic research at academic institutions in the life sciences to advance understanding of the principles and mechanisms governing life. It managed the significant Microbiology Observatories (MO) and Microbial Interactions and Processes (MIP) programs[24], which included significant elements of marine biotechnology. The IOS program[25] (about Integrated Organismal Systems) and NEON[26] (National Ecological Observatory Network[27]) are examples of the current biotechnology-related programs of BIO.
  • The Directorate for Engineering[28] (ENG) which manages the Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering program, aiming at enabling technology for advanced manufacturing and/or applications in support of the biopharmaceutical, biotechnology, and bioenergy industries, or with applications in health or the environment.
  • MarBEC[29] is a partnership between the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of California at Berkeley. Its collaborators include leading laboratories, research centers, and universities in the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region. MarBEC integrates research advances in the chemistry of marine natural products, cultivation of microalgae, and processing of bioproducts to successfully create systems capable of successful commercial production of marine bioproducts.[29]
  • The national oceanic and atmospheric administration (NOAA), which coordinates most of the applied marine biotechnology research in USA[30] also has programs relevant to marine biotechnologies such as the National Sea Grant[31] that supports research focused on coastal ecosystems and sustainable practices for aquaculture and fisheries, currently as part of the 2014-2017 Strategic Plan.[32] It mentions the objective of developing innovative technologies for all sectors of the seafood industry, including fishing, aquaculture, seafood processing to ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood products, but does not mention marine or any other biotechnology specifically. NOAA also manages the National Undersea Research Program[33] (NURP). NOAA NURP and its partner the National Institute of Undersea Science and Technology[34] (NIUST) is committed to assessing the marine biotechnological potential of US coral reef organisms.[35][36] The Ocean Biotechnology Center and Repository (OBCR) has surveyed and sampled the marine resources of many states, including Hawaii.[35] The Aquaculture Interchange Program (AIP)[37], funded through a grant from NOAA, is a conduit for information exchange on aquaculture between the U.S. and Asia, Australia, and Europe. AIP conducts workshops in Honolulu where international experts gather to summarize and exchange current information critical to the growth of U.S. aquaculture.[37]

Marine Biotechnology in the State of Hawaii

The Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority[38] (NELHA) is an agency attached to the state of Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism founded in 1974. With the development of biofuels as one of its priorities[39], NELHA administers the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park[38] (HOST Park) devoted mainly to growing a green economy and clean energy resources. A central focus of the park is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), although aquaculture and biofuel from algae are other important fields of work. HOST Park describes itself as one of the best places in the world to grow microalgae and consequently home to leaders in the field of microalgae production and biofuels R&D. It has various marine biotechnology developers as clients, such as Cyanotech, Mera Pharmaceuticals, Shrimp Improvement Systems, Moana, Cellana. Cellana has invested at least $10M in infrastructure destined for biofuel production and processing technology at their 6 acre state of the art demonstration plant. In 2012, NELHA received a $3 million federal grant[40] from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to help expand its alternative energy and biotechnology incubator complex.

the Hawaii Strategic Development Corporation[41] is an economic development agency of the State created to assist in developping new high tech business ventures. It has launched the HI Growth Initiative, a State equity investment program designed to catalyze the development of an innovation ecosystem in Hawaii funded by the State Legislature and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.[42] Through the HI Growth Initiative, HSDC’s objective is to build upon successful efforts that have helped to launch a new type of paradise in Hawaii: a Startup Paradise. The Governor proposed $30 million in new funding for the HI Growth Initiative which currently provides $20 million of investment capital that will focus on the critical building blocks of an innovation ecosystem: entrepreneur development[43], research commercialization[44] and the mobilization of startup investment capital.[45] In the Hawaii Business Roundtable’s “Innovation Assets Report[46]” of 2014-15, biotechnology is recognized as one of the “core” sector of innovative technology companies with an important potential for economic growth and an average of 4.6% annual jobs growth (2002-2012)[46] The 2015 Kauffman Index for Startup Activity ranked Hawaii 12th in the nation for startup growth.[47]

The Hawaii Pacific University Oceanic Institute[48] (OI) is a not-for-profit research and development organization dedicated to marine aquaculture, biotechnology, and coastal resource management. Its mission is to develop and transfer economically responsible technologies that increase aquatic food production while promoting the sustainable use of ocean resources.[48] Its expertise include shrimp aquaculture with e.g. breeding of Specific Pathogen Free, genetically improved shrimp in the Nucleus Breeding Center (NBC), production of 'Kona' postlarvae and development of putative transgenic shrimps, improving shrimps’ resistance against diseases. Most of this research is funded by programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Aquatic Feeds and Nutrition Department develops and applies innovative feed and nutrition technologies for the aquaculture and associated industries. It investigate for example micronutrients and bioactive compounds in regionally based co-products on growth, survival and body composition of aquatic animals. The OI Finfish Research Group[49] is working to develop core technologies in broodstock, live feeds, and hatchery-based production methods for marine species mainly associated with the warm tropical and subtropical waters of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The Oceanic Institute serves as the U.S. Marine Shrimp Farming Program[50] (USMSFP) coordination and administrative center. It is an integrated multi-state research consortium that develops and transfers technologies, products, and services necessary for domestic shrimp farming industry to become competitive in the world market. OI also conducts selective breeding research at its Makapuu and Kona sites.[50]

The Center for Tropical and Subtropical Aquaculture[51] (CTSA), one of five regional aquaculture centers, was created to spark the development of commercial aquaculture of tropical and subtropical species. It is co-administered by the University of Hawaii (UH) and Oceanic Institute (OI). the CTSA "region" currently encompasses tropical and subtropical species wherever they are cultured within the United States and the U.S. Affiliated Pacific Islands (American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, Hawaii, Republic of Belau and the Republic of the Marshall Islands). Research projects span the American Insular Pacific, focusing on developing an aquaculture industry using commercially viable tropical and subtropical species. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (USDA/CSREES) provides CTSA's operating grant.[52]

The Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology[53] is a world-renowned marine research institute of the School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.[54] Situated on Moku o Lo'e (Coconut Island) in Kane‘ohe Bay, HIMB offers facilities for research covering many disciplines of tropical marine science such as coral ecology, biogeochemistry, and evolutionary genetics as well as marine diseases, neuroendocrinology, microbial organisms, and sensory systems of marine mammals and elasmobranchs.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa[54] offers a “Molecular Biosciences and Biotechnology[55]” Program, maintaining relations with private companies. It cooperates for instance with Cellana[56] for algae-related research projects. It is also oriented on terrestrial biotechnologies through its “Biotechnology and Agricultural Education Program”.

The Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education[57] (C.MORE) is a NSF-sponsored Science and Technology Center designed to “linking genomes to biomes”: to facilitate a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse assemblages of microorganisms in the sea, ranging from the genetic basis of marine microbial biogeochemistry including the metabolic regulation and environmental controls of gene expression, to the processes that underpin the fluxes of carbon, related bioelements and energy in the marine environment. It brings together experts on these subjects and facilitates the creation and dissemination of new knowledge on the role of marine microbes in global habitability.[58]

Overall, more than thirty aquatic plant and animal species are being raised in Hawaii for research or commercial production. Some of these include freshwater prawns, marine shrimp, seaweeds, tilapia, catfish, carp, oysters, clams, rainbow trout, salmon, abalone, mahimahi, koi, moi (Pacific threadfin), snails, frogs and microalgae.[59]

Private funding

Cyanotech Corporation[60] is considered one of the world’s leaders in large scale microalgae production and commercialization. Located on the Kona coast, its mission is to sustainably utilize the benefits of microalgae to improve health and extend lives. The company produces BioAstin® Natural Astaxanthin and Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica.[60] It is part of the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park. Cyanotech is the parent company of the wholly owned subsidiary Nutrex Hawaii, which is specialized in the development of Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica and BioAstin Hawaiian Astaxanthin.[61]

Mera Pharmaceuticals, Inc.[62] is a marine biotechnology company located on the big island of Hawaii. It is specialized in photobioreactor technology and owns extensive intellectual property dedicated to the culture of microalgae for biofuel or nutriceutical production.[63] Mera has also manufactured natural astaxanthin from Haematococcus pluvialis microalgae for over 12 years. It is famous for its sea salt production. A program supported in part by a grant awarded by the United States Department of Energy (DOE) to a consortium formed by Physical Sciences Inc., the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and Mera Pharmaceuticals was aimed at studying the suitability of utilizing microalgae for carbon sequestration to find technologies that will lower the cost of CO2 capture and sequestration.[64] It is unclear if the program is currently ongoing.

Cellana Inc.[56] is a developer of algae-based bioproducts from marine microalgae, also located in the HOST park. Cellana photosynthetically produces the ReNew™ line of Omega-3 EPA and DHA oils, animal feed, and biofuel feedstocks. Cellana’s patented ALDUO™ system, a series of photobioreactors coupled with open ponds, is aimed at enabling low-cost, continuous production of diverse strains of microalgae.[56]

Shrimp Improvement Systems[65] (SIS) is since 1998 an important provider of shrimp broodstock. SIS produces genetically improved and Specific Pathogen Free P vannamei shrimp broodstock and has initiated the breeding of P monodon and P stylirostris. From the HOST Park, SIS supplies broodstock to external shrimp farming operations throughout Asia and the Americas. It is dedicated to improving the performance of aquaculture stocks worldwide and notably intensive shrimp aquaculture projects in North America, thanks to its ability to provide shrimp postlarvae year-round.[65]

Forever Oceans Corporation[66] was launched as a spin-off of the Lockheed Martin Aquaculture Line of Business in 2014 on the HOST Park in Hawaii. It combines technology with advanced biology and a training program (The Virginia Tech - Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center, VSAREC)[66][67], In 2012 Forever Oceans developed with Kampachi Farms a drifting sea farm that was granted a TIME Magazine Top 25 Inventions of the Year Award.[68] Its approach aims at providing sophisticated and environmentally responsible aquafarm.

Kampachi Farms[69] is a mariculture company focused on expanding the sustainable production of fish through innovative research and science application. It focuses on the culture of Kampachi fish with innovative methods even if it has interest in other fish such as Nenue of Giant Grouper.[70] Kampachi also supports the development of off-shore technologies such as deep open-ocean mariculture as shown by the drifting sea farm project.

Blue Ocean Mariculture[71] is another important mariculture company based in Hawaii, dedicated to the sustainable, responsible production of marine finfish in Hawaii, particularly Seriola spp. It is working closely with InnovaSea Systems,Inc.[72] to develop technology and techniques for sustainable open ocean mariculture. InnovaSea is dedicated to supporting open-ocean aquaculture businesses by producing innovative, environmentally-focused sustainable technologies and service solutions for the industry. The company is developing a fully integrated open-ocean farming platform.


The Obama administration was committed to investing in innovative technologies such as biotechnology and alternative energy sources[73][74], as shown by the $3 million EDA investment[75] in the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority. Although 2016 is the last year of Barack Obama’s term, it is likely that the efforts will be maintained in view of the global challenges for biodiversity, food security, energy supply and medicine in Hawaii and in the U.S, added to the United States’ desire for competitiveness in innovation and science technology.

Marine biotechnology is significant in Hawaii, where the potential for bioprospection is favorable and much work is done on micro-algae and aquaculture. Nevertheless there are some strains and not all aspects of marine biotechnologies are equally favored; by nature, biotechnology research and development requires the importation of microorganisms for laboratory studies and in Hawaii, regulations on microorganisms are strict, importation requires state Department of Agriculture approval, which can sometimes take up to a year.[76]

Moreover, civil society also has an active opinion on the development of some aspects of biotechnology in the region. There have been attempts in recent years to ban GMO and terrestrial biotech companies from the big island of Hawaii in 2013[77][78], and the county of Maui in 2014. Both were blocked[79] or overturned[80] by federal judges, but there is a tendency from civil society to be suspicious about genetically modified organisms, which could spread to the sector of marine biotechnologies (as for example in 2005, the suit against Mera Pharmaceuticals’ genetically modified algae[81]) and possibly threaten the sector’s activity.


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This country profile is based on available online information sources and contributions from various country experts and stakeholders. It does not claim to be complete or final, but should be considered as a dynamic and living information resource that will be elaborated, updated and improved as more information becomes available, including further inputs from experts and stakeholders. The information on this page is based on information initially compiled by the CSA MarineBiotech Project (2011-2013) and updated by the Marine Biotechnology ERA-NET (2013-2017).