As soon as you talk to Bjørn Aspheim you realize he is an entrepreneur. One of those who, as he confesses near the end of our talk, can’t just sit in an office doing the same thing every day. You also see right away that he is a man of faith, at least with his projects. When he embarks on one, he goes all in. Against all odds, against the disbelievers who think he will fail, Noray’s CEO persists and, in the end, proves he was right.
That happened with his idea of shrimp farming in the middle of Spain, almost 300 km from the nearest coast. When nobody believed it was possible, Bjørn Aspheim did, and time has proven him right. All those who 15 years ago thought he was crazy have had to surrender to the facts. Not only they can be bred, but it can also be done with a sustainable and profitable model, and Noray is now at an optimum point for expansion. The company’s story is, almost, the story of its CEO and founder. “That’s why we’re going to do it, because it’s impossible”, he said once. And he did.
The arrival in shrimp and Spain
Bjørn Aspheim’s early history is, like that of so many people in Norway, linked to salmon farming. “I was in the salmon business many, many years ago”, he tells us. He lived in the US and was involved in importing salmon from Norwegian farmers. Then, a friend from Texas called him regarding an aquaculture indoor system. It was a shrimp project. “They were doing shrimp and I saw this unbelievable potential in doing indoor farming with shrimp”, so they decided to start a joint venture in Europe. He moved from salmon to shrimp and from the U.S. to Europe and more specifically, to Spain. “I was looking around in, to see where the market for shrimp in Europe was at that point in time and it was not in Norway, of course, it was Spain. It was the biggest shrimp consumer in Europe”. He went to Madrid and the adventure began.
Bjørn had never been to Madrid before, but he showed up in the city, in the middle of the country, almost 400 kilometers from the nearest coast. “I decided I’m not going to do this on the coast somewhere”, he says. Why? There are many reasons for this. The first one is that, although Bjørn was very convinced of his idea when you start something so new, you can fail. Such land-based projects always create “noise”, and even more so in coastal areas. If he had gone to Barcelona or Valencia, for example, he is sure he would have had problems with the local fishermen, who would have thought he was going there to steal their jobs, and they were still not producing anything. “We were just trying to do something. So, there was nothing certain about it. We could fail every single day”, he remembers, and adds: “The worst thing is that you make a lot of noise and then you fail”.
The other reason Noray’s CEO chose Madrid was Mercamadrid. The central fish market in the Spanish capital is the leader in the marketing of fishery and aquaculture products in Europe. Worldwide, only Tokyo’s market surpasses it in volume, although not in variety of species. “We were looking in Madrid, outside Madrid, close to Madrid…”, he explains, and that was the final option, close to Madrid. His lawyer, Carmen Sanz, told him about Medina del Campo, a town in the province of Valladolid almost 300 km from the sea, but less than 160 km from Madrid.
They had the place, but it wasn’t easy. “They think you’re crazy”, recalls Bjørn Aspheim, “we met a lot of scepticism in Valladolid, in Medina, with the people, with everybody that thinks that this is the dumbest thing that’s ever happened”. There were even those who thought that they came there to take advantage of the city, to keep their money, although, on the contrary, all the money in the project is foreign investment. Today, he claims, they look at them as a very different company, but at that time, “they didn’t understand what we were doing”.
Doing it efficient, sustainable, and tasty
“When you’re from Medina del Campo, you’re not very familiar with aquaculture”, he continues. For someone like him, born in Northern Europe, to do salmon farming or other fish farming is the most natural thing, but not for someone from inland Spain. “Why don’t you have shrimp from the ocean? Yeah, but there’s not enough shrimp in the ocean. They don’t understand this”. They had no clue about what they were talking about. “So, they left us alone for a long time without any problems, just a load of a bunch of good laughs, I guess, in the bars in Medina”, Bjørn comments with amusement.
But, as he also remarks, the situation is very different today than it was 15 years ago. “We hire a lot of people all the time and we are raising a lot of money and we are producing an unbelievable product”, he proudly claims. The 3 stars in the renowned Superior Taste Awards 2022 certify it. And they got it with its own indoor production system, efficient and sustainable, water recycling with low energy consumption, and zero waste. A system and a product that have led them to become the first indoor ship farm in the world recognized with the ASC certification. “We are the only one, the only indoor shrimp farm in the world”, Aspheim points out.
“I knew years ago that we needed to have something like this because of the supermarkets”, he continues, “that’s the direction to go”. But, as he explains, achieving this is not easy, it is a long and complicated process. “I started working with ASC many years ago, this has taken me at least three years to get it done”, he says. “When we started with ASC, nobody has ever seen this before, because people don’t think it works, but it works unbelievably”. And, he remarks once again, the way they do it is “extremely sustainable”.
Sustainability is the starting point, and everything turned from there. They don’t ship all over the world, they are in the center of Spain and drive little more than 100 km to most of their customers. They recycle water, and use it over and over again,… Many environmental questions have arisen during the process and Noray has been able to answer them with their production method, so when an external company like ASC comes to audit their processes, it is easy for them to answer their questions. The difficult part, the hard work, has been to get to where they are today. To achieve it, they have needed three things: genetics, people, and money.
Doing the impossible with genetics
As mentioned above, when Bjørn Aspheim decided to go into shrimp farming, he did so because of its tremendous potential. “I don’t see the same potential with salmon, but shrimp is different”, he explains, “timing is much shorter, the growth is much shorter, it’s 60-70 days, is not two years, which is a huge difference in biology control”. A control that starts with genetics, that was clear to him from the beginning. “When I started this, I told my production manager at that time that we need to produce PLS [post-larval shrimp] in Europe, in Spain, and he said that’s impossible. I said that’s why we’re going to do it because it’s impossible”.
“We started in a very small little testing, and we had all kinds of issues. We didn’t produce anything for a couple of years”. But they finally figured out how they could do it indoors and with artificial saltwater. “Nobody’s ever done that in artificial saltwater”, Noray’s CEO explains. “It is a very delicate business to produce larvae, temperature-wise, all kinds of biology, all kinds of issues, very difficult. So, what I did was that we finally solved the issue”. They built a small hatchery, and they are still producing PLS now.
However, he clarifies, this is not enough for their expansion plans. For that, it is also necessary to import, and due to European Union regulations, PLS can be imported only from the United States. So, after testing different genetics, they finally found the best one for their system, the one from Homegrown Shrimp USA, the first shrimp farming facility of C.P. Foods in the U.S. “I knew they had these extreme genetic lines. So, we got them in, and we tested it out and it was just a humble. We were the first clients with the line in Europe all, actually in the world. It was unbelievable in our system. It works so fantastic. It’s just… it’s incredible how it works”, he says.
It took him a couple of years to negotiate with Robins McIntosh – CEO of Homegrown Shrimp USA – to get an exclusive agreement for Europe, but last fall he got it. “Robins was here three days and he looked at our farm. He just thinks that we are doing the best thing on the planet and he’s trying to do the same thing in the U.S. So, we will probably in the future have a lot of cooperation between us. They will do the genetic part, we will help them on the production side”. For them, he confesses, to have a company like that supporting them is unbelievable, but he points out: “In our system, these genetics have a tremendous advantage over everything else on the planet but in our system”.
Partnering with those who help them grow
“We’ll see how it goes forward, but it’s extremely promising”, he tells WeAreAquaculture. They have just finished the construction of a big new hatchery in Medina del Campo that is going to produce 5 to 6 million baby shrimp a month every month. At the end of 2022, they did some testing, and now they are nearly ready to fully load the Hatchery. For this purpose, Noray has relied on the €16 million in funding raised last year, which was added to the €15 million it had already raised earlier and which has been fully invested in the development of the system. Now, the next step is to expand the facility in Medina del Campo to, from there, reach the whole of Europe. In addition to Spain, they have customers in France, Austria, Germany, and Norway, “but it’s smaller amounts”, he clarifies. “We need to do a lot of testing in the market before we do big investments in these markets”, he adds.
Nevertheless, Aspheim has full confidence in Noray’s production system. “We have a system, a package, that nobody else in the business has. And that gives us the huge advantage over anybody in the business to be able to succeed big time, in huge production”, he claims. “We are talking about 600 metric tons in Medina and 25,000 metric tons in Europe, that’s what we’re going to do, and the only way to do that is if you have a cheap enough sustainable production method, and reliable”. For these large productions to be economically viable, thousands of tons are needed, he explains. “You need your own hatchery, you need to do your own genetics, you cannot import. And then you need the management and the people to do it. And then you need all the money for that. And we have all of those”.
It has taken him 15 years to achieve this – “and some of these 15 years have been unbelievable difficult. I’m the only one who has really believed in what we’re doing all these years”– but Bjørn Aspheim has succeeded and, he says, it pays off in the end when he sees the list of investors who have put their trust in Noray. His Norwegian investors were joined last year by SWEN Blue Ocean, Stellar Impact, and Creadev Food & Ag., “an extremely serious investor”, a spinoff 100% owned by the Mulliez family in France (the owners of such well-known brands as Decathlon, Leroy Merlin and Auchamp).
Through Creadev, Aspheim tells us, the family is investing in the future. “They have four different lines, but one of the lines is aquaculture and shrimp is one of them. And they only do one company, they don’t do five of them. They do only one. So, they are 100% concentrated on what we do. We are already talking about the next phase, money is not an issue but you need to deliver“, he says. “But they’re excellent partners, and they’re extremely helpful. They want to grow, they want us to grow, and they want to help you, not the other way around. They don’t want to take control of it. They just want to help you”.
Finding the right people to succeed
They have the genetics, they have the money, according to what Bjørn Aspheim, only one more element is missing to succeed: people. “You can build the most beautiful system in the world, the most beautiful hatchery in the world makes no difference unless you have the right people. It doesn’t happen by itself. So, I spent a lot of time finding the right people”.
Noray’s CEO mentions his right-hand man, Manuel Poulain. He was his first employee and, although he then left for five years, a year ago he came back and that makes him happy, “because he’s one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to what we’re doing”. Aspheim also mentions the facility manager, “a young guy, very talented, he’s been working with the genetics, hatchery production in Madagascar for many years”. And then, in Honduras, he found the hatchery manager, “he worked with one of my old partners in the U.S.”, now he’s operating the hatchery in Medina. “This is a group of people that has 100 years experience, including me”, he claims.
They are joined by the “fantastic people” who work at his facility, “they’re basics”. All of them on the production team are from Medina del Campo. Instead of bringing people from outside, they have trained local workers. “We have people that’s been with me for 10-12 years, local people in Medina. They’re very hard workers, we had no problems with any of these. We’ve been very lucky with them”. Finally, the Noray team is completed by the people working in the Sales, and Marketing & Branding departments in their Madrid office.
All of them will contribute to the challenge the company has ahead. “I think in the next 20 years, we’re going to have shrimp farms everywhere in Europe, but it’s going to be Noray shrimp farms”, says its CEO, adding, “I’m not kidding when I’m saying this”. He is clear that the pandemic, the war, and everything lately have taught us that we have to produce shrimp sustainably indoors in Europe. He also knows that his company has “maybe 5-6, 7-8 years advantage over everybody else”, and that this advantage is even greater after its agreement with C.P. Foods.
What about him? What are his own challenges? “I’m getting too old”, he jokes. “I’ve been doing this for a while, and it has been extremely stressful. So, I think that in a couple of years, I will give the steering wheel to somebody else”. But, immediately, Bjørn Aspheim returns to his essence. “I will do other things, setting up maybe the business in Germany or France or something like that”, he tells us. “I will not be in the Medina Campo having control over 100 people, no. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m not somebody who can sit in the office every day doing the same thing. I can’t. For me, it’s different”. As he says, “we’ll see how it goes”, but for sure he will continue trying to achieve the impossible.
Founded by Bjørn Aspheim in 2008, after years of investment in R&D, Noray is a benchmark for sustainable aquaculture in Europe thanks to the 100% vertical integration of all its production processes. This has helped them to achieve ASC certification, becoming the first inland shrimp farming company in the world to obtain it. The shrimp brand from Medina del Campo, Valladolid, Spain, offers a 100% natural shrimp, respectful of its environment, which has been awarded the highest possible score (3 stars) in the prestigious Superior Taste Award 2022. In addition to a group of Norwegian investors, since 2022 its partners also include SWEN Blue Ocean, Stellar Impact, and Creadev Food & Ag.