Innovation and entrepreneurship are part of Olavur Gregersen’s DNA. “My main driver is to make a difference, by putting creativity and business skills into an innovation process. I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life really, since I was around 13 years old,” he says.
As CEO of Ocean Rainforest, Gregersen is an advocate for the emerging seaweed industry, and is one of the industry’s pioneers, investing in the company when it was still a tiny, albeit ambitious, R&D project to cultivate seaweed off the shores of the Faroe Islands.
After studying business economics at university, he worked in a variety of industries, including textiles, energy, ICT, and innovation management within aquaculture and fisheries. In 2004, he established his own innovation consultancy, which led him into the world of seaweed aquaculture.
“The idea of growing seaweed in the ocean to produce a sustainable resource to be used in food and feed, replacing fossil-based products – I thought, that’s a good idea that the world needs.”
“In 2007, I helped a young guy who had the idea of growing seaweed in the ocean around the Faroes. Instead of taking payment for the consultancy, I got shares in the company and ended up as the chairman of the Board.”
However, by 2012, Gregersen recalls, the project faced an uncertain future. Ocean Rainforest had encountered delays in obtaining funding for seaweed cultivation in the Faroes, and it was unclear if the project could take off as a full-fledged enterprise. But Gregersen saw its potential.
“The idea of growing seaweed in the ocean to produce a sustainable resource to be used in food and feed, replacing fossil-based products – I thought, that’s a good idea that the world needs.”
Gregersen invested in the company, becoming the main shareholder in 2012. “Since then, we have gradually built up the activities from having 3,000 metres of seed lines in the water to around 230,000 metres today.”
“We didn’t have any staff back then, and I continued to work in my other company until 2020, with Ocean Rainforest as a side-project. My bread-and-butter was made in my consultancy company.”
Those first years were spent securing funding and recruiting key staff members for the business, he explains.
“Our first full-time hire was an industrial PhD student back in 2015 – she’s our Chief Research Officer today. Gradually, we also got co-founders into the company and secured seed capital investors from a local investment fund until the first major foreign financial investment in 2019. Since then, the company has developed into a full-scale enterprise rather than just a project. Today, we have a total of 25 employees in the Faroes and the US, and we expect to harvest around 500 tonnes this year in the Faroe Islands.”
The company is also establishing a pilot processing plant in California, and Gregersen expects they will be ready to cultivate seaweed there in the next few years.
“Currently, we have a research and development permit in California, where we have lines in the water to test ways of growing giant kelp. We have worked on that for the last four or five years through different projects and grants heavily supported by the ARPA-E Mariner Program within the Department of Energy in the US. It has enabled us to build up activities in the California in parallel with what we have done here in Europe.”
Open ocean cultivation enables greater scale for biomass
“Our focus has always been to cultivate at sea in open ocean conditions, because we want to make an impact in terms of growing biomass. That impact has many benefits. I mean, the ocean is enormous on this planet, and we are only using a tiny fraction of it. When we cultivate seaweed within the ocean, we also create what we call ecosystem services. We reduce ocean acidification as we take up CO2, and increase biodiversity where we cultivate.”
“We would like to do it at a larger scale, but in order to scale up, we have to look at cultivation sites that are more offshore than close to the coastline. The coastal line is typically very busy with different activities and lots of stakeholders, which can lead to conflicts. It’s a bit easier when you get into the more open ocean environment. We have developed a cultivation system that’s able to deal with that, and that makes us fairly unique in the space of cultivation. I don’t know anybody that does it the same way we do. We have been pioneering both in terms of the cultivation technique and also how we are seeding the lines.”
Gregersen explains that Ocean Rainforest harvests from kelp plants from the same grow lines between three and six times over three years, before reseeding the lines.
“That’s another part of trying to make this an economically viable operation. Then comes the processing, for which we also have a processing plant in the Faroes, and we can partly replicate that in California.”
“Seaweed biomass is something that deteriorates very fast. You have a shelf life of 24 to 30 hours after harvest, and then you have to start making the biomass storage stable. So for us, it has always been a condition that we have to come up with a preprocessing method to stabilize the biomass storage as fast as possible.”
“We’ve developed methods for fermentation, in addition to drying, which is the classical way of making seaweed storage stable. That has been an advantage, because through fermentation, we can also add functionalities to the seaweed and thereby increase market opportunities.”
Raising awareness of seaweed’s potential
Gregersen explains that dried fresh or fermented seaweed is ground into different particle sizes which can be used as an ingredient in feed or food, or for extraction of different bioactive components. Those extracts can then be sold to food, cosmetics, or pharmaceutical industries.
“Seaweed itself is not a standalone solution, but rather an ingredient that can help and improve overall practices. This is the business-to-business market fit we are seeking,, and it requires creating awareness about seaweed’s potential and convincing existing food, feed and industry producers of its value in their products.”
“So far, we have mainly used or sold it as a feed product that has pre- and probiotic functionality due to the fermentation technique we’re using with lactic acid bacteria. We’re now looking into selling fermented seaweed as a food ingredient. We ferment the seaweed, then dry it, and grind it into a suitable particle size.”
Fermented seaweed has enormous potential for both human consumption and animal feed, Gregersen says.
“The food we consume in the western hemisphere is typically overprocessed and lacks the fibre our gut bacteria need. By integrating seaweed and fermented seaweed into existing food products, we can help balance that out a bit because seaweed contains fibre, along with a lot of very good and healthy minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids.”
“Based on the studies and research we’ve participated in, we have seen a very positive impact on the health system, especially with fermented seaweed. When it comes to animals, it shows increased digestibility, so they actually need less feed and fewer antibiotics. We have also observed that the offspring from the animals have lower mortality rates. All in all, using seaweed and fermented seaweed leads to better health and increased milk production, both within pig farming and dairy cattle. So, there are good reasons to include seaweed up to 5, 6, or 7% in feed compositions.”
“When it comes to food, we can use seaweed instead of various synthetic products. For instance, plant-based products often need binders, many of which are synthetic. Instead, we can use alginate from seaweed as a natural binder for that purpose. Seaweed also contains natural glutamate, which is taste-enhancing and known as umami, providing a more savoury and richer flavour to plant-based products. Seaweed can be used as a salt or seasoning replacement as well.”
“There are also several functionalities in seaweed that can make products healthier and reduce dependence on synthetic ingredients and the energy used in their production. This is especially relevant in the area of biostimulants, where seaweed can be a more natural and sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers, reducing CO2 emissions.”
Scaling up in the Faroe Islands
So, what’s next for Ocean Rainforest? “Our focus is very much on scaling up here in the Faroe Islands and in Europe as much and as fast as possible. However, in the US, we are still at the stage where we need to obtain the commercial permit before we can scale up in California. Additionally, we need to make further progress with processing and other aspects. Realistically, it may take 2 to 3 years before we can fully ramp up operations in the US.”
“We aim to extract different products from the seaweed biomass, making our facility one of the first integrated seaweed processing plants in the Western Hemisphere.”
“In the Faroe Islands, we are already scaling up significantly, and our next major project is to build a processing plant capable of producing 10,000 tonnes of fresh seaweed per year. This plant will have four processing lines for drying seaweed, fermenting it, producing biostimulants, and hopefully implementing a certain degree of bio-refining. We aim to extract different products from the seaweed biomass, making our facility one of the first integrated seaweed processing plants in the western hemisphere.”
“We hope to have all the permits and necessary funding ready by the end of this year, so we can start processing in April 2025. This is an exciting milestone in our efforts to expand and make a positive impact with seaweed cultivation and processing.”
Ocean Rainforest’s philosophy: passion, teamwork, and a pioneering spirit
“I think the fundamental value for those who are involved in this pioneering work is that this is a way to produce a completely sustainable resource and thereby help the world in becoming a bit more sensible in its overall production of food, feed, and other products. At least for me, that is the fundamental drive – that you can really make a difference, you can change industrial behaviour, simply by using the ocean, which is 70% of our planet, and using it in a completely sustainable way to create a product.”
“In order to make this happen, we have three fundamental values in Ocean Rainforest that we always tell new employees: passion, teamwork, and pioneering spirit.”
“Passion, because you really have to see the great potential in seaweed and what it can do, also because we need to constantly research and dive deeper into the potential. Teamwork is essential because this is an enormous undertaking. It requires a lot of collaboration, both within the private and public sectors, and also in the research area.”
“A hackathon is only two days, but when you do it for every day for ten years, then you have a chance to succeed.”
“The pioneering spirit is very much related to the fact that when you do pioneering work, you will always experience setbacks. There’s never a day without something coming up, where you say, hmm, how can we solve this? We can’t Google it, or go to Amazon and buy it. We very often have to figure it out ourselves. Or we can buy part of something and then figure out how we can combine that with something else. If we have a problem, we look into potential solutions and figure out how they could work in this context. Then we come up with a solution and then we try it out. Sometimes it works, but often it only works 50% or 80%. And then we have to go back and say, OK, how can we improve this and make it better?”
“You need to have this kind of mindset, the willingness to do that, not for a week or two, but for 10 years and longer, on a daily basis. That’s pioneering. Many people don’t fully appreciate what is required to do that in the long term. I mean, a hackathon is only two days, but when you do it for every day for ten years, then you have a chance to succeed.”
Seaweed hype is settling down, and investors are becoming more cautious
“Seaweed is generally perceived as something positive and good. That’s fantastic, and it helps a lot from a stakeholder interaction perspective, it helps the emerging industry to grow.”
Gregersen notes that seaweed’s positive image and potential have attracted many new entrants to the industry. However, he says, it’s a tough industry to work in, despite its potential for growth.
“It’s not the easiest industry to enter. It requires a lot of stamina. And at the same time, we need good people because there are a lot of challenges that have to be solved.”
“We also face the challenge of reducing the cost of production. We know that the current cost of production in Europe and US is too high, and we must find ways to reduce costs. Scaling up our production is essential for achieving this, and having buyers who are willing to use seaweed in their products will allow us to produce at a higher scale and lower costs. This is a process we are actively working on and have already begun.”
“I hope that there will be a number of companies that are able to develop in this industry and become players at a fairly decent size because otherwise, it can be a bit difficult to bring people into the industry.”
“If there’s only one or two players, then I guess the logical reasoning would be saying, ‘OK, well, that’s a very tiny niche of an industry and if you’re not happy about working in one place, where to go then?’ So, at least from an industry perspective, it’s important that there are several different players.”
“We have seen just this year three seaweed companies in Northern Europe go under. That’s a worrying indication. For the last few years, there has been a lot of interest, and some would say even hype, about seaweed cultivation. And there have been lots of initiatives and many have tried to start up. So there might be a bit of a shakeout in the industry at the moment, but that is also coupled with the fact that you need funding to make this possible.”
“You will burn money, in the first years for both Capex and also for your Opex until you have a scale where you can be profitable. And that burn of money has to be funded by either grants or investors. And grants are always tricky to get, and investors are not always there when you need them. There has been a certain change in willingness to invest in general, I think, in the last two years following the pandemic and the Ukraine war and so on.”
“There is money out there that is keen to invest in this area, but investors are also very careful about finding the right projects to invest in, the companies that have the highest chances to succeed. And I think that cautiousness is perhaps even higher today than two or three years ago.”
Regulations need to “catch up” with seaweed industry
Gregersen notes that there are also some market barriers in Europe that prevent seaweed being used as an ingredient in certain feed and food products, including the lack of differentiation in EU regulations between inorganic and organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is dangerous, while organic arsenic is harmless, he explains, but according to current standards, the lack of differentiation between organic and inorganic arsenic content in seaweed pushes it over the threshold level for inclusion in certain products, for example, cattle feed.
“This is a problem that can prevent the seaweed industry from entering the market. It becomes a bit ridiculous because on one hand, you have grant programmes across Europe that are putting a lot of effort into research and development and policies that make it more sustainable and investing millions into that, and then at the same time, the same regulators are responsible for standards that prevent products that are developed to enter the market.”
“Very often, these standards have been in place for decades. Looking back 10, 20, or 30 years ago, seaweed was not considered, at least to my knowledge, as an alternative resource in Europe, nor in the US, for that matter. Today, we live in a different world. We are now desperately looking for resources that can replace harmful greenhouse gas emissions, that can reduce our carbon footprint, and seaweed is a candidate for that.”
“Innovation also has to happen within regulation… regulators have to take into consideration what we know today and what we need to do today.”
“That’s one thing on the carbon side, and the other is on the health side, because we are also looking in the western hemisphere at a health crisis. We are, as a population, getting older, but not necessarily healthier, and the way we consume food puts a lot of stresses on our health system. So, if we could have healthier food, we could also ease our problems on that side. That’s where I believe that seaweed has a role to play as well.”
“We talk often about innovation in industry. But innovation also has to happen within regulation. Obviously, there’s not the same drive for innovation there as in the industry. But it’s needed. We need to revise these aspects of the market pathway. We need to have regulation, otherwise, we will not end in a good place, but regulators have to take into consideration what we know today and what we need to do today.”
Longer term outlook: industry growth, dominated by large players
“I think the industry will grow significantly in Europe and the US over the next 10-15 years, where we are talking about millions of tonnes of cultivated seaweed. I say that mostly because many larger food and industrial producers today have committed to reducing their carbon footprint for the next 10-20 years. They will have to explore different ways of achieving this, and seaweed is one of the resources that can contribute to reducing the current carbon footprint.”
Gregersen foresees a demand for cultivated seaweed rather than wild-harvested, and says that a few large players are likely to dominate the market, rather than many smaller artisanal operations.
“Cultivated seaweed needs to be produced in a reliable and competitively priced manner… I’m convinced we will get there, but it requires stamina, a pioneering spirit, and the willingness to overcome obstacles and challenges.”
“Some people believe there will be a lot of small-scale operations, and that might be possible in some areas if you can sell your seaweed to high-end markets at low volumes and high prices. But then you have to be close to urban societies, close to cities. If you want to sell to the larger industries like food and feed, then the scale becomes extremely important, both because of reliability of supply and because of cost.”
“Cultivated seaweed needs to be produced in a reliable and competitively priced manner, and that’s the challenge we face as producers. I’m convinced we will get there, but it requires stamina, a pioneering spirit, and the willingness to overcome obstacles and challenges.”
“Of course, this achievement also depends on a combination of factors such as finding customers, investors, and suitable areas or permits to produce seaweed biomass. I can only speak for ourselves and our own strategy in obtaining these goals. However, I hope and believe that there will be several companies that can succeed in this.”