Unique seaweed chemistry from Limerick-based firm to create a splash in skincare market
Western firm banks on the healing properties of seaweed for dermacosmetic range
Seaweed is one of those natural resources that keeps on giving. It has been used in recipes and diets all over the world for thousands of years, whilst also being used for generations as part of various skincare regimes like seaweed baths and moisturising masks thanks to its oils being so rich in nutrients.
All the same, despite the widespread awareness of the health benefits of seaweed, extracting the right stuff from seaweed to blend with other ingredients and create quality skincare products requires the application of science and rigorous laboratory testing.
In the case of the co-founders of NEUU, Susan Keating and Prof JJ Leahy, the science of lipid chemistry was the starting point for a business making a range of skincare products with their seaweed oil as the active ingredient.
The Limerick-based firm currently makes a range of skincare products for men that harness the anti-inflammatory and hydrating properties of wild Irish seaweed, and which includes a shaving gel, a bodywash and a moisturiser. The range was launched successfully on a small scale last year and the company is now planning in 2019 to target the more-crowded (but more lucrative) female skincare market.
It undoubtedly helps that the firm is part of a small but growing 'dermacosmetics' industry, where the products contain an active ingredient whose effectiveness in treating a specific problem has been established through proper laboratory testing.
"In the extraction of our unique seaweed oil, we recognise the components that keep seaweed hydrated from the inside, which are hyaluronic and alginic acids, are different to those components that keep seaweed protected from the outside, which we call lipids, and that these molecules need to be extracted separately and recombined, which is essentially what we do," said Keating.
The raw material is sourced from Wild Irish Seaweed, a Co Clare-based firm run by a family that has been hand-harvesting seaweed for four generations. The seaweed oil is extracted by NEUU in small batches and is then given to a Mayo-based manufacturer to produce the finished products.
The result is a range of skincare products that Keating says are scientifically proven to greatly improve hydration and reduce inflammation of the skin. "Seaweed is very calming so it's a great solution for anyone with redness, rosacea and dryness."
Keating had spent 20 years in the aviation industry, most recently heading up the global sales and marketing department at Shannon Engine Services, before deciding to set up in business. So why and how did she end up swapping a high-flying career for a new adventure exploiting the sea's natural bounty?
"That was a really difficult decision because I absolutely love aviation, loved my career but I think it was probably just a point in life where I had done as much as I could in the company I was in." Having completed a part-time MBA programme at the University of Limerick a couple of years previously, the pull of entrepreneurship was proving too hard to resist and the clock was ticking.
Now or never
"So once I hit my 40s I just felt 'yeah you know what, I'll try it now' because if I leave it too much longer that window will close - the window of opportunity to try something different. I didn't want to get to an end of a career not having tried at least one different path."
Keating hails from Loop Head in Co Clare, overlooking the Atlantic ocean. "The Co Clare coastline is an inspiring, pristine and restorative environment and one that was always going to inform this business venture in some context, even before I knew exactly what the business was going to be."
The idea of doing something with seaweed had been brewing in her mind for some time. But it was a former classmate in her MBA course who set up the fortuitous meeting with Prof Leahy. "I said to her this was one idea I wanted to look at, so she said 'Well look if you ever do that, I have the perfect person for you'."
Keating recalls being "blown away" by the breadth and depth of Leahy's knowledge on the chemistry of Ireland's natural resources, seaweed and peat in particular. "JJ has a Phd in peat chemistry, so our initial conversation was around skincare using peat. But I convinced him to look at seaweed even though he wasn't actively looking at it, but he had so much knowledge."
Starting in 2014, the duo spent the first couple of years in the trenches at the University of Limerick researching and developing their own seaweed-based active ingredients, winning funding for independent studies on the lipid chemistry of seaweed, which was followed by product development for the men's skincare range that was launched in 2018.
But why start with men? "I just felt the male market was less saturated," said Keating.
"So I just very deliberately said 'Okay, I'll start with the men's products get to know the products a bit better myself and technically what they are capable of, and try to cut into a market there and get noticed and then from there kind of branch out to a few things."
This approach looks like a smart idea for this start- up given how competitive and difficult to break into the female premium skincare market is.
The men's range is stocked in a number of independent retailers in the mid-west and sold online, but the positioning for the new range, with retail prices of between €20 to €40, is firmly in the derma skincare sector, so that means pharmacies and health stores.
That said, Keating is looking at a few different business model options for this next phase, including possibly partnering with another firm already in the space.
For now, the solid seaweed science has clearly stood to them in terms of attracting funding. Keating and Leahy have managed to secure funding from Enterprise Ireland at different stages of the business over the last four years, from an early stage feasibility grant that allowed it to explore and test the initial concept, through to more recent HPSU match-funding of €250,000.
In 2017 it won private sector investment of €425,000 through EIIS (Employment Incentive and Investment Scheme), to which the founders have added private funding of €100,000.
The firm, which employs two full-time staff, is still extracting its seaweed oil at a lab in the University of Limerick, but plans to relocate to a small production facility in Co Clare to enable the automation and scaling of this process.
While it's still relatively early days, Keating's biggest learning to date has been the importance of making the "product market fit absolutely water-tight", ideally before you officially launch the product "because that will guide a lot of your spend and your investment in marketing, and channels to markets".
Sunday Indo Business