Joel Bowater – Cawthron Institute

We had the opportunity to interview Joel Bowater, a Scientist at Cawthron Institute in New Zealand. Joel operates two of Industrial Plankton’s photobioreactors. Here’s what we found out:

Personal/Advice for others

● What’s your background?

I studied Chemistry and Pharmacology at The University of Otago to bachelors level and began my career working in environmental toxicology at Cawthron before moving to the Natural Compounds group.

● What first interested you in algae research?

I didn’t really have any interest in algae during my university education to be honest, it wasn’t until I started at Cawthron that I became interested in algae after seeing all of the world renowned algal research that happens here.

 Joel Bowater Cawthron

● What brought you to Cawthron and what path did you take to get there?

Nelson is my hometown and when I came back to NZ after a year of living in the US, I applied for an entry level job and haven’t looked back.

● How relevant to your work is your education?

My education is very relevant to my current position. Everything I know about algae has largely been learned on the job but my chemistry degree is really useful in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.

● What are important skills/attributes/traits to have to be good at culturing algae?

In my particular area, which is focused mainly on scaling up algal biomass production, general problem solving and creative thinking skills are key. A lot of the work we are doing hasn’t been done before or hasn’t been published. Some of the gains we have made challenge current published data so you really need to be able to think out of the box.

● What would you say is the most important factor in continued professional development in your field? Conferences? Research? Further education?

Inspirational colleagues? etc.

I personally love to learn new things and acquire new skills so practical on-the-job learning is the most important part of my ongoing professional development.

● What advice would you give to someone considering working in algae biotechnology

Keep detailed batch records so you can trace everything back when a culture inevitably crashes! Also don’t assume those media recipes from the 1970’s are optimised for what you are trying to do.


cawthron institute

● How does your position fit within Cawthron & how does your project fit in?

My job aligns well with the ongoing and planned activities at Cawthron. One of our five science themes is focused on “Realizing the potential of our bioactive resources” and this project is addressing just that.  I’m involved optimizing microalgal growth conditions and I’m also evaluating different methods to tune the production of bioactive secondary metabolites.

● You probably can’t tell us much about your algae beyond it is a naked dinoflagellate, but if you can:

○ Is it a strain responsible for harmful algae blooms?

○ What is the end value from the algae you hope to achieve?

By using our microalgae as “factories” we are looking into several different value chains related to highly potent bioactive compounds. The end value will depend
on the final application. We also produce toxin standards for Merck.

● What are your main responsibilities and what is a typical day (or week) like for you?

I am responsible for the day to day operations of our scale-up/pilot plant and am also involved with the ongoing research and development plan to further optimise our cultures.

● Are there any projects you’re particularly excited about this year?

Apart from investigating means to scale-up production efficiently we are also looking into different strategies, based on natural chemical ecology, to try to steer and boost our production of both biomass and specific compounds of value. That is really exciting research.

● Is there anything that you particularly like about working with the PBRs?

The reactors are sophisticated but not overly complicated, so they are quite simple to use and just work well. I particularly like how easy they are to modify or repair and the fact that I can reach out to you guys over whatsapp at any time of the day or night with any questions. We have another set of smaller, more sophisticated reactors and the procedure we have developed for using them is about 12 pages so using the Industrial Plankton ones are a breath of fresh air.

● Anything you’d like to see improved?

Tracking and batching. We really need good, secure batch records to ensure the quality of our product. All of the other improvement we have asked for in the 2 years we’ve been using them you have delivered on so thanks!

● Anything else you’d like to add or share with our readers?

Yes, our Algae and Bioactives group is starting to investigate the idea of offering an algal optimisation service to other researchers out there. Cawthron is home to the Cawthron Institute Culture Collection of Microalgae which contains 13 classes of marine and freshwater microalgae made up of more than 255 cryopreserved strains of toxic microalgae and cyanobacteria with a living collection of 199 isolates.

We have the capacity to grow cultures from the mL to the 1000 L scale under various wavelengths of light and nutrient conditions and produce methods for the optimization of growth parameters and bioactive production for virtually any strain of micro algae. As such, we can readily investigate growth parameters and develop optimized growth conditions for production of bioactive components from virtually any strain of microalgae. Essentially, we are looking at taking the development process we have applied to our strain from flasks to pilot scale production and apply it to other species. In addition, we have the skills and facilities for preparative separation and isolation of a range of algal metabolites and can assist in the development of isolation and purification protocols. If any of your readers would be interested in discussing this, they can email me at

Industrial Plankton

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