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“We know more about space than we know about the ocean"

Practice Director

Getting into the (sea)weeds (Sorry, we couldn't kelp ourselves).

This was a statement made by Larsen Mettler, Managing Director at S2G that left a huge impression after the Blue Food Innovation Summit in London earlier this month, and in many ways, perfectly encapsulates one of the most exciting ‘race to the bottom’ (of the ocean) that we are seeing in sustainable early-stage companies.

With global unrest due to surging food prices, war and global warming, pioneers are once again looking to the seven seas seeking alpha, albeit through the lens of blue, long-term value. Despite covering 71% of the world’s surface, only 2% of the global food supply originates from the deep blue, offering an ocean of opportunity for those willing to challenge the status quo.

The blue economy is often associated with t. he production of fish, shrimps and molluscs, but Rapid Innovation has for years been backing the dark horse in the race, one with the most diverse and unique properties and applications – seaweed.

Seaweed consists of over 72,500 species. If you brushed your teeth this morning, you probably encountered Carrageenan, used as a binder in most toothpaste, extracted from red algae (Rhodophyta).

Among climate advocates and scientists, seaweed is acknowledged to be a key part of the solution to address the most acute global environmental challenges, contributing 50% of global photosynthesis and 70% of the world’s oxygen, as well as carbon capture and storage properties. Seaweed also plays a pivotal part in the ocean ecosystem, providing marine ecosystem support by increasing fish habitat, marine biodiversity and ocean restoration 

In addition, seaweed’s diverse biochemical composition and properties present opportunities for considerable financial gains across numerous industries.

The race is on, and startups are emerging – from traditional seaweed harvest and offshore cultivation targeting human food and animal feed industries to highly advanced biotechnology companies working with specific strains grown out in bioreactors for a variety of applications, including: food additives (gelatine, meat and dairy alternatives), biostimulants for fertiliser, health-promoting bioactives, cosmetics (thickening, stabilising and emulsifying agents), non-chemical textile and laundry detergents and biodegradable packaging.

Having used seaweed in its cuisine for thousands of years, Asia has become the dominant player in the seaweed industry, supplying a staggering 99% of the global market. However, this is rapidly changing, with European biotechnologists and investors entering the space due to its remarkable applications and economic opportunities. For example, Seaweed for Europe, a coalition seeking to accelerate and scale the European seaweed industry by driving innovation and investment, predicts the European market to become a €9.3 billion industry by 2030. However, this value realisation does not come without its challenges.

One of the major barriers seaweed entrepreneurs encounter lies in a poorly developed regulatory framework. We have experienced first-hand the complications of securing commercial wild harvesting and cultivation licenses, with regulatory concerns ranging from biodiversity risk due to monoculture, to concerns of alien species that were introduced in European waters 100 years ago by the shipping industry potentially posing a risk to the original ecosystem. Another critical aspect is the scale and the overall techno-economics of the industry. If European seaweed farmers were to capture 30% of the significant market potential in Europe by 2030, it would require 26,300 hectares of ocean surface area (imagine 26,300 rugby fields) to produce annual biomass volumes of 8.3 million tonnes of wet seaweed (up from today’s 300,000 tonnes). These volume targets can only be achieved through collaboration and technology-sharing and different seaweed production methods, including large-scale offshore, nearshore and onshore pond cultivation, as well as wild harvesting, algae bloom management and integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA). Another important factor is the lack of consolidated data on the nutritional composition of different species and the overall safety of seaweed for human food and animal feed purposes. Safety and sustainability claims of seaweed products are difficult to validate due to the lack of collaboration on generally accepted monitoring protocols between industry bodies and regulators.

Despite the barriers, the blue opportunities are simply too great to be ignored. The success of the industry is subject to international collaboration between research institutions, governmental bodies and the private sector which needs to solve the regulatory and techno-economic hurdles.

There are some examples of where collaborations are having significant positive effects. SINTEF Ocean has recently established the Norwegian Seaweed Biorefinery Platform, to aid in the regulation of macroalgae cultivation and harvesting industries, and in the characterisation of macroalgae‐derived products. The platform is spearheading the characterisation of biomass, the development of technology enabling future  biorefinery processes that are both economically and environmentally sustainable, and the establishment of high‐value and bulk product pipelines. The Seaweed for Europe coalition is driving change through systematic innovation and best practice sharing, mobilising investments and elevating the seaweed profile through its stakeholders across 10+ countries. The tides are turning.