Sea & Believe is developing a range of plant-based seafood using Irish native seaweed and microalgae innovation that doesn’t compromise on taste, nutrition or the health of the ocean. All over Europe, people know the best tasting seaweed comes from Ireland. Founder, Jennifer O’Brien, walked every beach in Ireland tasting the seaweed for her alternative seafood. She found one beach where the seaweed was remarkably tastier than all others.
Their aim is to build a brand of sustainability with innovation by cutting out the middle – i.e., the fish – while still creating an awesome seafood experience that benefits the oceans, terrestrial ecosystems and future generations. Sea & Believe already has two products on the market in Ireland, the Irish Seaweed burger and Seaweed Goujons. Just a few weeks ago, they accomplished their desired milestone – we tasted what might well be the world’s first plant-based whole-cut filet of ‘cod’ that flakes like real fish. We wanted seconds! The seaweed is sourced from the west coast of Ireland with plans to scale up seaweed production by creating one of Ireland’s first seaweed farms later this year. Beyond saving our oceans from overfishing, their seaweed farms can absorb nutrients and carbon dioxide to grow, thereby improving water quality and buffering the effects of ocean acidification in surrounding areas. A true contribution to planetary health, as they scale.
Jennifer, and her co-founder Piyali Chakraborty, had been cooking up impressively tasty flaky “fish” for investors at our Expo Day when we asked them to sit down a bit before washing all the dishes:
Jennifer, you are already known as a mover and shaker in the alternative protein space in Ireland with a product already on grocery store shelves there. But where did you get the inspiration to devote your life to this?
Well, through most of my childhood growing up in Ireland, I had severe chronic asthma and spent a lot of my waking life managing my symptoms. I still remember when I took my first seaweed bath, started eating seaweed and getting much needed relief. I knew then that there was something special about Irish seaweed. I wanted to learn about its properties and figure out how to scale that into a business some day. My parents were entrepreneurs too and I knew how hard it was. I spent several years working in financial services, investment banking learning what it takes to run a business successfully. But that inspiration of Irish seaweed never left me. So when it was finally time to strike out on my own, I knew exactly what kind of business I wanted to start.
What’s really cool about seaweed, and is there really something extra special about Irish seaweed?
Growing up in Ireland, I had the visceral experience of the goodness of seaweed, but had no clue about how exactly it exerted its health effects. But now, it’s been well studied and more of its many beneficial properties are being elucidated each day. It’s filled with essential nutrients, amino acids and proteins. Its antiviral and other health benefits are now widely known and we no longer have to educate people about that.
Irish seaweed is all that and more. First off, you should know that seaweed isn’t the same even within Ireland. The seaweed harvested in the north is very different from that from the south. The texture and taste is quite different. After evaluating seaweed across Ireland, we chose County Sligo in the northwest as our source. The waters are pristine there and it is infused with the limestone mountains around it. To me, the unique seaweed there just has that distinctive spray of the ocean that I don’t find anywhere else. We are still scratching the surface of what makes this seaweed different and funding research around this. This will be a key part of our know-how as we scale. We are already building the first ever seaweed farm in Ireland there.
Unlike many of your peers, you were already commercial in Ireland when you decided to join the IndieBio program. Share a bit about what you’ve learned and accomplished during the program?
I thought we had done a decent amount of pilot testing already prior to launching in Ireland. But the mindset here about incessant iteration and market testing takes us to another level. It taught us to move faster and not to wait for perfection. We are also in great company with the amazing alternative protein companies in the IndieBio network. The mentoring and networking here has been key to accelerating our business and planning our market entry into the US. I’m also super proud of the accomplishment of actually achieving flaky “fish.” No one has been able to achieve this yet and it was truly an important program milestone for us. Of course, hiring Piyali and other key team members has been another key enabler to setting a strong foundation for growth.
Piyali, let’s talk a bit about what made you believe in Sea & Believe?
I am a chemical engineer and food scientist and have been working on how to make food taste better in my program at Wageningen University, which is where I was first introduced to Jennifer. I also love eating fish, but I understand the destruction caused by overfishing. I’ve also dreamed of being an entrepreneur. So, when we met, I was totally inspired by Jennifer’s zeal around her mission. Not only am I now making better tasting food, I can also feel the impact we will have on the health of the planet, as we scale. I can’t think of a better job!
What’s next ?
As the round comes together quickly, we are building the right team with the right skills to scale our version of plant-based fish. We will be scaling and commercializing into Europe shortly and hope to share the magic of Irish seaweed with the world, while making the huge positive impact we want on the planet. \