The world is changing and it’s important that we evolve with it. The ECO Coin Award is our way of recognizing innovations and initiatives which help us adapt to our next nature. The nominees are all aiming to create a more humane and sustainable future for us all. Now, in the lead-up to the announcement of this year’s winner, we’re interviewing each of the three finalists to learn about their values, insights and visions for the future. This week, we spoke to Sandra Rey, founder of Glowee, nominated in recognition of her work to harness bioluminescence as a new light source.

Glowee works with common bacteria, encoding into them the same genes that allow certain marine creatures to glow in the dark. These bacteria are placed into transparent shells, which make up the lights themselves. Bioluminescence creates a strange sort of light, but this technique allows for self-sufficient and energy-sparing light sources. Rey hopes to revolutionize the way we look at lighting.

In the Q&A below, we asked Rey about her inspiration, the science behind Glowee and the impact she expects to have.

Bioluminescence obviously inspired you. Was the process of harnessing it difficult? How does it work? 

Bioluminescence has been a very well-known phenomenon since the 1980s, and it is used today in a lot of laboratories as a biomarker. It is a chemical reaction occurring in nature which produces light. Several genes are responsible for this reaction. A lot of flora and fauna - like fireflies, glow worms and mushrooms - are able to glow. Besides these, also 80% of the known species in the ocean can emit light. We use certain marine genes coding for bioluminescence, allowing our micro-organism to produce biological light.

 Nature has all the solutions to our issues

Technology that works with the natural world, rather than against it, is fascinating. Do you think this approach is the way forward to sustainable technologies?

Nature itself has done more than 3.8 billion years of research and development to find the most sustainable and efficient solutions. We are the ones disturbing these perfect circles of life. We deeply believe that nature has all the solutions to our issues. That is why taking inspiration from nature makes perfect sense, and why we aim to reproduce its light generation capacities with the new technologies of synthetic biology.

In addition to practical applications, you also talk about the aesthetic and artistic qualities of bioluminescence. What do you think makes this kind of light so unique to look at?

We have no idea about the scientific phenomenon that makes bioluminescence so beautiful to watch. Supposedly, the fact that it is a cold light (less than 2% heat) and the particular wavelength could be part of the answer.

Is it important to you to retain this ethereal quality, or is the goal to make bioluminescence resemble other kinds of lighting more closely?

Our ambition is to redesign the urban landscape of tomorrow with the help of this new light source. We hope it will solve economic, ecological and sanitary issues. We want bioluminescence to revolutionize the way we produce, consume and illuminate. So, we want a total disruption in the way lighting sources are used.

What does the future hold for Glowee? Are you working on improvements to the intensity and colour of the lighting technology itself? Will we see bioluminescent streetlights in the years to come?

We are working to increase the intensity and efficiency of the system, to design an amazing added-value lighting solution. Hopefully, Glowee lights will start to appear on the streets within the next five years.

Our ambition is to redesign the urban landscape with this new light source

You are nominated for the ECO Coin award, which celebrates innovations in sustainability. How do you feel your work fits in with broader sustainability efforts?

Developing a bioluminescent source of light does not mean replacing a light bulb with a Glowee. It means much more than that. It’s about reducing the waste of natural resources through growing raw material, cutting electricity consumption and therefore CO2 emissions. But it is also about creating new biological resources; until now, we have been wasting the biomass which could be helping us with light creation. It’s about changing the paradigm of light to really enter the bioeconomy era.

We would like to congratulate and thank all our ECO Coin Award nominees. Stay tuned, we will announce the winner soon!

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