Jennifer O’Brien, CEO of seaweed startup Sea & Believe.

Jennifer O’Brien, CEO of seaweed startup Sea & Believe.

Photo: Sea & Believe.

Female Founder: Jennifer O’Brien, Sea & Believe

We catch up with the dynamic CEO of seaweed startup Sea & Believe, Jennifer O’Brien, to learn about her experiences as a female founder, her thoughts on seaweed aquaculture and the wider seaweed industry, and her vision for the future.

In January 2024, Sea & Believe announced the launch of its inaugural seaweed farm in Connemara, Ireland. But how did Sea & Believe get started, and what inspires founder and CEO Jennifer O’Brien as the project continues growing and developing?

WeAreAquaculture caught up recently with this dynamic female founder to discover her story.

The inspiration behind Sea & Believe 

How did Jennifer become interested in seaweed in the first place? It’s a deeply personal story, Jennifer explains. 

"I grew up in the east of Ireland close to Dublin, but we spent our summers at in the west of Ireland in Sligo. I suffered from really bad health growing up. I had chronic asthma, and I was always sick - I missed a tonne of school. But when we went to the west of Ireland, I wasn’t sick,” Jennifer recalls. 

Near the family’s holiday home was a company running seaweed baths. “I started taking the seaweed baths to help with my symptoms, and I experienced extraordinary relief.”  

“I realised there was something in seaweed - I didn’t know at the time that seaweed is anti-inflammatory, but it did take my symptoms down. So I’ve always been interested in seaweed from that time on.” 

As an adult, Jennifer looked back on her own experience, and began to consider the bigger picture. 

“I wondered, why is nobody in Ireland using it?” 

A change in direction - including pitching to Dragon's Den

Jennifer was working in the finance sector when she made the decision to change direction into the seaweed aquaculture space. 

“I decided to do an MBA in Trinity College Dublin to transition my career into that space, after gaining leverage in financial services and banking for many years."

"Through my MBA, I used the opportunity to do an entrepreneurial project. We got an opportunity to pitch to Irish Dragons Den competition, and we got some amazing feedback. Everybody was super interested in seaweed aquaculture and plant-based foods, and how we can incorporate seaweed into our daily lives.” 

Seeing the potential, Jennifer decided to take a risk: “I realised I had to quit my job and see if Sea & Believe could take off.” 

I wondered, why is nobody in Ireland using seaweed?
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Jennifer O’Brien in the Sea &amp; Believe lab.</p></div>

Jennifer O’Brien in the Sea & Believe lab.

Photo: Sea & Believe.

A journey of discovery in seaweed

“Before I started on this journey, I didn’t know much about seaweed. So, I had to learn the whole industry – and then I discovered that Ireland was pre-commerical in terms of seaweed aquaculture, it was all wild harvesting. And most of this – essentially 90% - is exported. The industry just hadn’t kicked off from an aquaculture perspective.” 

“But we have a huge opportunity as an island. We’re on the edge of the Atlantic, with all the nutrients and clean water – why are we not utilizing this more? As I started to learn more about aquaculture, I realised that’s the real problem to solve. Sure, we can take seaweed from the wild, but it’s not sustainable long term. If seaweed is going to become the new super food we need to start cultivating it.” 

“So I started to figure it out. I walked up and down the beaches of Ireland, and met all the seaweed harvesters, which was such an interesting experience.” 

Exploring seaweed aquaculture

Jennifer was most interested in the red seaweed Palmaria, also known as red dulse – a species which had once been more common along the Irish coast, but which the Irish seaweed harvesters told her had disappeared from the shoreline in recent years. 

“That was the one species I was really interested in, from both a cosmetics and a food perspective. It tastes great, it’s great for cosmetics – it has anti-ageing properties, it has UV filters. But we realised that if we wanted to get our hands on some Palmaria, it was going to be really difficult." 

That’s when Jennifer realised the cultivating the seaweed was the solution – and she connected with aquaculture specialist funder Hatch Blue. “We went on their innovation studio. Without them, I don’t know where we would be today – they've been instrumental in Ireland in terms of bringing the aquaculture and seafood community together to solve some of these problems.” 

The company also received initial grant funding from Enterprise Ireland, which helped them reach the proof-of-concept stage, and later secured support from the venture capital accelerator SOSV’s IndieBio program. 

“That gave us the initial footprint to develop some products, start the cultivation work and get us to where we are now. It’s been a really exciting journey to say the least, and I’m loving every minute of it,” Jennifer smiles. 

<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>Palmaria</em>, or red dulse.</p></div>

Palmaria, or red dulse.

Photo: Juan Poza / Adobe Stock.

Palmaria: a seaweed species with untapped potential 

Jennifer explains that, while Palmaria grows wild all over the world, cultivation of the species is rare. That meant she needed to bring together a team with a variety of skill sets in order to make Palmaria aquaculture feasible in Ireland. 

“Because we were plugged into the ecosystem in Ireland, I was able to talk to people all along the coast and find the experts - engineers and biologists – to do that.” 

Because Sea & Believe wanted to focus particularly on cosmetics, this also required an innovative approach. Palmaria is little used in cosmetics, Jennifer explains – fermented kelp is much more widely used. 

Indeed, until now seaweed aquaculture research has largely been focused on kelp and brown seaweed species, such as Laminaria, which can produce high biomass. However, Jennifer says Palmaria has a remarkably high protein content, together with other characteristics which set it apart from other seaweed species. 

Palmaria has amazing attributes in terms of anti-aging properties, but they haven’t been properly developed and tested yet. We're working on that right now in the lab.” 

A wide range of potential uses

The Sea & Believe team are also working on the seaweed’s possibilities for use in sunscreens and investigating its use for food protein. “We've also developed a range of plant-based foods, and we have some key innovations and some formulas that we're looking to patent as well,” she adds. 

Until now, the lack of wild stock of Palmaria has presented a significant barrier to using it in products at scale – and sporadic attempts to cultivate it have proved too challenging, Jennifer explains. 

“Aside from us, there is one other company in Ireland that is cultivating it now. But around the world there are a few more companies starting to grow it. The reproductive cycle is challenging, but at the same time, it's not impossible. We’re working with a team of experts from other companies such as the Irish Seaweed Consultancy and Impact 9 to help us scale.

The biggest challenge over the next couple of years is to scale up.
<div class="paragraphs"><p>"I think we're on the cusp of a new industry in seaweed cultivation, but it’s going to take some time.”</p></div>

"I think we're on the cusp of a new industry in seaweed cultivation, but it’s going to take some time.”

Photo: Sea & Believe.

On the cusp of a new industry

“I think the biggest challenge over the next couple of years is to scale up. It’s a new industry essentially, and we don’t have the infrastructure in place yet, although that is changing. We need large-scale drying facilities, cultivation hatchery facilities... licencing is also an issue and of course finding a market."

"But the government has recognised the opportunity, and they’re working with the industry to help solve some of these problems. There’s also the possibility of doing tank culture and biomass, and we will probably need to look at some wild harvested seaweed for our products while we continue our cultivation work, because that is going to take time."

“Other species are pretty advanced – when you look at what they’re doing with kelp in Norway, they’ve had 20 years of experience. We’ve got really skilled people in Ireland that have done amazing work on seaweed. Now the government has recognised this, and made it easier to get licences, and they are putting together a strategy to help drive the industry forward.” 

“It’s exciting. I think we're on the cusp of a new industry in seaweed cultivation, but it’s going to take some time.” 

Lessons learned as a founder 

“I’ve learned so much – and I’m still learning every single day. I’ve learned that for a business like ours, you need to raise money, to invest in infrastructure and research, and so many other things – and that in the biotech space, that is a long-term process. That’s why I’m over in San Francisco, trying to lobby some of the bigger fish to raise awareness and interest in seaweed,” Jennifer says. 

“Thankfully we did get some really great investors that are interested in Ireland, and seaweed and aquaculture as well. Learning how to deal with manage investors, board meetings and all of that is really challenging and daunting sometimes, but I think my previous background in commercial banking helped me."

"The finance part certainly didn’t scare me, but I did need to learn the whole science space, which was really exciting. It’s not just on the cultivation side, but also the design and development of products.” 

Motivation to unlock Palmaria's potential

Jennifer describes herself as an extrovert, which she says has helped build networks and develop collaborations. But what keeps her motivated? 

"It’s very motivating for me to use cleaner, healthy ingredients for products like food and cosmetics, and also unlocking Palmaria’s amazing antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, properties – an ingredient that’s high in amino acids, and high in protein, that we're not using to its full capacity.” 

I've learned so much from all the people I’ve met... I've just loved every minute of building the business.

“Something else that really motivates me as is that by farming seaweed, we’re drawing down carbon, we're restoring ecosystems. That really helps me to get out of bed in the morning,” Jennifer smiles. 

“Another great thing about my work is meeting people from different backgrounds and environments. I've learned so much from all the people I’ve met - the scientists and engineers, the farmers, the industry experts and investors – and I’ve made so many different connections, so many friends. Overall, I've just loved every minute of building the business."

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