Mid-January, Seaweed Solutions (SES) announced that it had raised millions to transform the seaweed industry. In the same release, the company also communicated that Ole Christian Norvik, an experienced professional in the aquaculture industry, had been appointed as CEO to lead this expansion. WeAreAquaculture spoke with him to learn more about the goals and challenges he and the company will face after the appointment. “Seaweed Solutions is focusing on the food market”, he tells us. But, as he also says, beyond that, there is great potential in the seaweed industry for many applications. All that is needed is more production.
Helping the company to scale up
Ole Christian Norvik has been in the salmon industry for more than 20 years. He started in aquaculture in 1990 with halibut in a pilot-scale operation, “a kind of adventure a long time ago”, he says. He has worked for large companies such as Mowi or Norway Royal Salmon, but also for land-based farming pioneers such as Atlantic Sapphire or Aquacon, as well as for research organizations such as SINTEF. After years in projects far away, his arrival at Seaweed Solutions last December has also meant his return to a job in Trondheim, the Norwegian city where SES is based and also the region where he grew up.
Thus, he confesses that he initially received the offer to become CEO as “a nice and interesting challenge” and also, “a nice opportunity to work in home area”. However, he tells us, his interest grew even more after learning more about the industry and its potential. “Seaweed is already a huge industry in Asia, and produces more than 30 million tonnes a year, so seaweed is not a new thing, it is already a huge global industry”, he says. “And since the European market is demanding local, high-quality, products with full traceability, I could not resist this opportunity and be part of this”, he adds.
The new CEO comes to the company at a key moment not only for Seaweed Solutions but for the industry which is at a turning point where it has to grow. It is time to scale up and that is where he has things to contribute from his previous experience. “I know the established systems that are used in the salmon industry that they can probably use also in the seaweed industry, especially when it comes to the scaling and the other things you need to get in place because a lot of the principles are similar when you’re doing seafood product”, he explains.
“I’ll also hope I can bring some experience from previous projects because it’s about finding solutions and solve bottlenecks”, he continues, “and to grow with the industry in Europe and also North America you need to apply more technology compared to what they’re doing in Asia. In Asia it is more traditional, is more labor-intensive. But in Europe, we need to focus on technology and improve the technology that is employed”.
Seaweed, a solution for sustainability
As mentioned, with the appointment of its new CEO and the raising of €4.4 million (NOK 46 million) in new capital, Seaweed Solutions has positioned itself for growth. Along with several private investors, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) was also involved in this financing. The environmental organization has an impact investment fund they use to support and involve in future sustainable industries. WWF’s support for SES is not only financial but also in terms of reputation. “For us, it’s a signal of that they feel confident or are trusting in what we are doing and that they’re looking at seaweed or kelp cultivation as a positive contributor to the environment”, Norvik tells WeAreAquaculture.
But WWF’s support offers something more. “We also will get access to the huge network that WWF has”, he continues. And, the same as Pål Bakken, founder of Seaweed Solutions, he also thinks that WWF’s participation in SES is very well aligned with the company’s mission. “Thinking about the future and how our contribution will be part of the solution, I guess seaweed is another of the solutions for sustainability”, he concludes.
That solution now involves food and Norway. “Seaweed Solutions is focusing on the food market”, Ole Christian says. They are providing to companies that are making customer-ready products such as Orkla, a big food corporation in the Nordics; BettaFish in the Netherlands, that are producing artificial tuna; or Aloba, in Sweden, which produces burgers, sticks, or balls with seaweed ingredients. Despite the capital increase, he assures that they will continue to work in this market. “At the moment we have no ambition to do production abroad”, he states. “We are focusing on the region we are established, and we have a huge potential for expansion in all parts of our production where we already are situated”.
They have two licenses outside Frøya that they are already using, both are seaweed, so one of the goals is to use the existing sites that they already have in the company. “We will also keep on applying for new sites to have space and capacity to keep growing”, he says, but, right now, they do not need to go anywhere else. Although, he acknowledges, “if you look really far into the glass bowl, you can also look at feed market both for land animals and also for salmon“. As he says, “I see a great potential in the seaweed industry and for many, many applications”.
Collaboration is the key
The new CEO tells us they are working hard on the technology side. “One of the keys that has to be worked on is improved efficiency and capacity on deployment, and also increased capacity on harvesting because seaweed production is very seasonal“, he says. They have about 3-4 months for deployment, and 1 1/2 months for harvesting. That’s a short window, he explains, so to increase the scale up of the industry they need to work on both, the deployment and the equipment. “We are well into it and we’re working on even improved methods”, he states.
And the same is with the processing. “We are in collaboration with Orkla, and Orkla is a huge food corporation, and they are very interested in using seaweed in their production, they have already products out in the stores in Norway that contain our seaweed, so we will keep on working with Orkla to grow”.
According to him, the whole industry is also looking for more energy-efficient stabilization, like fermentation acid preservation as an alternative to freezing. “This is something we and others in the industry are working on and it’s very promising because that will lower the cost and energy consumption of producing seaweed”, he claims. When he talks about the industry in general, Ole Christian means it. At the point where the seaweed industry is, he says, there is not too much competition, on the contrary, collaboration between the companies and startups is good and necessary for such an incipient industry.
This is, among other things, because all producers face a common problem: how to increase the production volume. “The market is really demanding seaweed, but at the moment the volumes are small. So, you have to handpick your customers. You cannot provide to everyone’s asking for it today and some are really asking for huge volumes”, he explains. So, a common front to develop the industry is almost inevitable.
Finding out how to utilize opportunities
If collaboration is natural for all companies, it is even more so for Seaweed Solutions. The company is specialized also in the seeding part, which is based on all the R&D since the company was established back in 2009. “We are already providing seeds to other companies, and that’s also to help expanding the industry because, again, we need more biomass”.
For the time being, total biomass production is limited and that is why Norvik does not see competition as a problem. “It’s more about sharing information, helping each other to survive or perform. So, again, I think you are always working on plans for where to go next”, he says. SES is currently working on the plan for the next two to three years. “That involves utilizing existing capacity, getting more capacity for future growth, improving deployment, harvest, and processing methods”, he explains.
“We’re still involved in quite a few R&D projects and, in those projects, there are several industrial partners”, he tells WeAreAquaculture. One of them, for example, is a major player in this industry, such as Lerøy, with its Ocean Forest. But, he insists, “focus now is getting your volumes, and lowering the production cost, and that will open new doors”.
Therefore, when asked about the challenges facing the seaweed industry in the coming years, Ole Christian Norvik simply says, “I think it’s not a challenge, this is more like opportunities, and we need to kind of find out how to do to utilize these opportunities”. Now that the seaweed industry’s potential has become clear, his new CEO position at Seaweed Solutions seems like the perfect place to take advantage of those opportunities.