Opinion: taking the temperature of Europe’s seaweed industry at Seagriculture 2023

Last week I was at Seagriculture in Norway to take the temperature of the seaweed industry in Europe. Here are my takeaways.

It was 30 degrees near the Arctic Circle in Trondheim. Against a backdrop of extremely bad climate and ocean news in the past month, when I asked people if there was a point to growing seaweeds as we entered The Great Unraveling, I was rarely met with a righteous “Of course there is!” but more frequently with a “Well, we’ll just have to see what happens next, right?”

In general, anyone who still contends that seaweeds are hyped, based on some misguided newspaper article or the occasional lunatic on social media: it is time for you to reassess. Not only was there no hype at all at Seagriculture, I’d say even ambition was largely absent. 

In cultivation, few companies could point to significant success in the past year, and with the possible exception of Ocean Rainforest, there were no hockey sticks in sight. The mood was summed up by Alwin Kool’s presentation “From cultivation to consumable products –  a long road that needs a short-cut”. A more apt title would have been “10 reasons no one wants to buy your seaweed.” Only the wild harvesting companies, like Nutrimar and Alginor, displayed real ambition in their presentations. 

Offshore was a more prominent theme this year. What does “offshore” even mean, asked Toby Dewhurst, revealing himself as the Wittgenstein of hydrodynamics. Does it mean it is far away from the coast, or simply an exposed location? In any case, there were less doubts than ever that, finally, in the end, offshore would be the place for seaweed cultivation in Europe, even if it comes with great challenges, as of yet unsolved.

The memorandum of understanding between Arctic Seaweed and wind park developer Simply Blue Group underlined that message. On the one hand, it signaled a clear intent from a major player that offshore is the way forward. On the other hand, no hard commitments were made yet: it’s a “memorandum” to “explore solutions”.

On a related note: I met a number of people from the oil and gas industry. Engineers, consultants. I thought that was positive, in the sense that their offshore experience can be leveraged by the seaweed industry (as Kelp Blue has demonstrated).

The European seaweed industry needs more technology and automation. In terms of software, I discovered plenty of new companies (Keeptrack, Rubisko, Agora). In processing, this spring saw installations of specialised equipment from Murre Technologies and Glenfarrow as well as Ocean’s Balance’s big new dryer from South Africa, but in terms of seeding and harvesting tech, we can use more competition for Sirputis and Arctic Seaweed. And seed stock. We need more seed stock.

Cultivated seaweeds in Europe remain too high in price and too low in quantity to break into larger markets. When is this going to change? I don’t think anyone can answer that question with certainty. That’s a worry, as investors, who never had much faith in seaweeds to begin with, retreat even further under cover of rising interest rates. Startups need to raise more money, but investors think their previous valuations were too high. Some victims have already appeared: Nordic Seaweed, ReShore, Tango, Satpos, Mara Seaweed

When it comes to investment, in the end, it’s all about a story, isn’t it? Uber has raised $25 billion so far. Company never made a profit, and quite possibly, never will. But enough people have believed the story so far. 

I don’t think the numbers for seaweed make less sense than they do for Uber. With $25 billion, I think we can make it work.