Seaweeds are attracting more attention, be it for their myriad of uses, their potential to mitigate climate change and ocean eutrophication, or as harmful algal blooms that need to be captured and processed before they suffocate the world’s beaches.
Surveying the landscape
Broken down by founding year, it’s clear that the number of seaweed startups is growing – as evidenced by the autumn 2021 cohorts of various ocean startup accelerators. The inflection point was 2016.
The seaweed industry is a fledgling industry outside of its traditional stomping grounds of Asia. That is obvious when looking at the big amount of pre-revenue startups (research or pilot stage) compared to scaleups (validation and scaleup stage).
Looking at the seaweed value chain, more than half of all startups and scaleups are transforming seaweed biomass into higher-value products. Growing and harvesting the seaweeds is also well-represented (about one-third of high-growth companies are vertically integrated to some extent).
Processing the seaweeds is often done by the growers themselves for now. It is an area that needs a lot more innovation, as this is currently the most energy-intensive, most costly part of the value chain. However, dedicated processing facilities require high upfront costs and need scale to become profitable. That scale can only happen once the price to grow seaweed comes down, making this a chicken and egg problem that has proven hard to solve so far.
Distribution is another clear gap that needs more startups, especially knowing the many inefficiencies that make it difficult for seaweed producers to sell their crops at market value.
Food is the most common application measured by the number of startups working on it – as you would expect. Surprisingly, bioplastics comes in second place, before more traditional seaweed applications like animal feed, cosmetics and biostimulants.
Europe produces the most startups, followed by the US and Australia.
A string of startups has popped up in the Caribbean as a response to the Sargassum tides. In Southeast Asia, innovators are often trying to improve the existing seaweed farming systems of smallholders supplying the world’s big hydrocolloids producers.
We have a limited knowledge of what is happening in China, Japan and Korea. Feel free to get in touch to let us know what we are missing.