Saturday 17 November 2018

Marine biologist takes plunge and dives into seafood with a difference

This Is Seaweed has more than doubled year-on-year turnover since launching in 2015, writes Louise McBride

Paul O’Connor, founder of This Is Seaweed, said he knew there was a future in it as there are elements not found anywhere else. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Paul O’Connor, founder of This Is Seaweed, said he knew there was a future in it as there are elements not found anywhere else. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

A seaweed dish is not exactly what you’d expect a guest to bring along to a dinner party – but this is exactly what seafood enthusiast Paul O’Connor did as a young marine biology student.

“I would bring seaweed dishes to house parties and barbecues,” says O’Connor. “It’s an interesting dish to bring to dinner parties — it always starts a conversation. Most of the people I was friendly with were marine biologists and so they were interested in seaweed. Even back then, I was trying to educate people about seaweed.”

O’Connor studied marine science in NUI Galway between 2004 and 2009 — followed by a masters in Plymouth University, and a PhD in the Royal Institute for Sea Research in the Netherlands.

It was during his first few weeks of study in NUI Galway that the seeds for his business, This Is Seaweed, were sown.

O’Connor’s professor at the time was Michael Guiry — a world-renowned marine biologist.

“On the first week of my marine biologist course in Galway, Guiry took us out on a seaweed foraging tour,” says O’Connor. “I tried seaweed that I hadn’t tried before — including pepper dulse. Regular dulse seaweed is quite common while pepper dulse is less so. After that, I continued to try various seaweed in Galway and in Plymouth.”

O’Connor’s studies instilled in him a passion for seaweed — and a keen understanding of its benefits. “Seaweed is incredibly healthy,” he says. “Science is proving the health benefits of seaweed day by day. There are certain elements in seaweed which are not found anywhere else in plants or animals. Fucoidan — an element in seaweed — is a polysaccharide [a type of carbohydrate] which is proving to have anti-ageing properties.

“The potential for seaweed’s use goes beyond eating and cooking. It can be used in tablet form, put into smoothies and so on. Because I know all of these things, I knew there was a future in seaweed.”

And so, about three years ago, shortly after finishing his studies in The Netherlands, O’Connor set up This Is Seaweed, an organic food company which sells various types of seaweed, including dulse, carrageen, sea spaghetti and kelp.

O’Connor’s products are largely sold as seaweed flakes or whole-leaf seaweed. The company’s tins of dulse flakes are its biggest sellers.

This Is Seaweed’s products are on sale in about 20 stores around Ireland including Fallon & Byrne in Dublin and the Crinkle Stores in Dingle — as well as in the United Arab Emirates.

The products are also sold online at

thisisseaweed.com. And, since last August, O’Connor’s range of seaweed flakes have been on sale in Selfridges’ flagship store on Oxford Street in London.

Most of O’Connor’s seaweed products are sold to food ingredient companies — rather than directly to consumers. “I have two very different markets,” he says. “One is business-to-business. One is business-to-consumer. Most of my income is business-to-business — where I sell bulk seaweed to food ingredient companies.

“The business-to-consumer element is slower. It takes more time. I feel I’m making good headway into the German market and Dutch markets. I’m hoping to get a listing with a Dutch supermarket, Albert Heijn, in 2019.”

Should O’Connor get the listing, it would be a huge boost to his business. “Securing a listing with Albert Heijn would show that seaweed has a place in mainstream supermarkets in Europe,” says O’Connor. “I would expect other European supermarket chains to follow suit.”

O’Connor admits that it can be a challenge to sell seaweed to consumers. “Seaweed is new to many people and therefore takes a lot of convincing. Fortunately, I’m passionate about it and that keeps me driven. I enjoy introducing people to seaweed and observing their reaction. A common response from people after trying seaweed is that it is actually nicer than they thought it would be.”

Despite the challenge of selling seaweed, the company has more than doubled its turnover year-on-year in its first three years, according to O’Connor. The biggest fans of seaweed are health enthusiasts — including vegetarians or vegans who want to get nutrients into their diet, according to O’Connor. “Dulse has vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 — which vegans might lack,” says O’Connor. “So rather than taking supplements for those vitamins, people may want to eat seaweed instead.”

The seaweed for O’Connor’s products comes from Galway and Donegal. Before setting up his company, O’Connor toyed with the idea of setting up his own seaweed farm — and sourcing the seaweed for his business from there. “I quickly realised that would be too costly,” says O’Connor. “So I decided to buy seaweed from existing harvesters and bring it to market. I only deal with Irish and organic certified harvesters — including in Connemara and Donegal. The seaweed used is fully organic and certified — which means it’s traceable back to the tide it’s harvested in.”

Although O’Connor’s studies clearly shaped his career, he developed a love for the sea during his childhood summers in Kerry, which he believes has also led him to where he is today. O’Connor was born in Dublin and grew up in Glounthaune in Cork, before moving back to Dublin again.

“We holidayed, and still holiday, as a family in Derrynane in Kerry,” says O’Connor.

“My mum was a teacher and so we spent two months of every summer there hanging out by the beach, playing with rock pools and staying in the caravan in Derrynane. My only sport was swimming. Without doubt, that connection with the sea from an early age influenced my career.

“I did my first scuba dive in Derrynane and then I learned to dive properly in Killary Fjord in Connemara. I worked as a scuba dive guide in Indonesia, Malaysia, Honduras and Belize.”

He cites a dive in the US as one of the best he’s been on. “I did a night dive off Hawaii, tethered to a boat,” says O’Connor. “The strangest creatures you’ve ever seen swam to the surface to feed on the phytoplankton. Most were gelatinous, jellyfish-like that sparkled when lit up by torchlight. At the same time, the mating calls of humpback whales filled the waters, as their calls travel for many miles.”

Were O’Connor to get the chance to go on a major diving trip again, he would love it to be to Indonesia. “I’d love to join a liveaboard and dive northeast of Indonesia on the north side of West Papua,” says O’Connor. “The marine life there looks amazing and untouched.”

For the moment, O’Connor is based in his company’s headquarters in NovaUCD — UCD’s hub for entrepreneurs and new ventures.

The company is seeking to raise €1.5m to develop new products — and to help expand its market reach further within Britain and across Europe.

“We hope to create up to 10 new jobs within the next two years,” says O’Connor.

As he is busy running his business on his own, those extra staff may well allow him to embark on that Indonesian diving trip he’s dreaming about.

thisisseaweed.com

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