Entrepreneur sowing the seeds for sustainable aquaculture
A strong fishing background provided an ex-legal executive with a gem of an idea
Kate Dempsey's idea for a start-up aimed at sustainably harvesting mussel seed from the Irish Sea looks set to provide a huge boost to the area where she grew up, as well as fishing communities all around the coasts of Ireland.
The Irish Mussel Seed Company (IMSC) is developing a system to harvest mussel seed - the mussel industry's raw material - off the coast of Wicklow on suspended structures, which it grows for five to six months and then sells to businesses which grow the seeds to full size, ready for export.
The method is designed to be very low-impact amid regulations from the EU that restrict the more traditional method of seed collection, which involves dredging wild seed from the sea floor. This, together with the reducing volume of wild seed that can found in wild fishery, means that the IMSC proposition can provide both a reliable and a highly sustainable new seed source, says Dempsey.
The company is based in the harbour town of Arklow, Co Wicklow. "It's where I am from and this harbour is important to me because it's the fishing community I grew up in. The Wicklow coast happens to be prolific for larval production and mussel growth and so it was a chance to boost my local community. When we sell our mussel seed, it will also boost other fishing communities that are experiencing decline."
The work she has put into developing the method has already attracted the IMSC plenty of attention, including as a national finalist in Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur of the Year Competition 2018, as finalists in the Student Entrepreneur Awards and most recently as a national finalist in the National Startup Awards 2018 in the food category.
However, the IMSC is still at the pre-trading stage as approval needs to come through from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for an aquaculture licence, which Dempsey applied for back in 2012.
Part of this process has involved working with the Department to show that the flexible structures that will sit on the water collecting seed can withstand the offshore conditions it would be expected to face.
But those in the Irish aquaculture industry will be all too aware that such long wait times are not unusual - some applicants can be left waiting more than 10 years for a licence.
"EU regulations have dictated that we must make sure that we monitor and actively seek to reduce human impact on habitats," says Dempsey.
"The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have a huge job to make sure that any new businesses emerging in Ireland in aquaculture all around the coast don't impede upon that. It's a very particular kind of work, and it takes a lot of time and lots of steps to get through it."
That said, the Government has acknowledged that the delays in issuing licences are too long. Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Michael Creed commissioned a recently published review that made a number of recommendations aimed at speeding up the process as part of efforts to grow the aquaculture industry in a more sustainable way.
"Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food industry in the world," says Dempsey. "Europe is supporting the aquaculture industry by investing hugely in new technologies, new developments and better ways of doing things."
It's also clear that Dempsey and the IMSC are very keen to be a part of the new direction in realising the full potential of the farming of finfish, shellfish and aquatic plants (which already provides the planet with about half the fish we eat), but in a way that doesn't destroy natural habitats at sea.
"The most important job I have is being a mother, but that's why I do what I do. I believe strongly that the resources we are licenced to occupy or utilise should be maintained for future generations.
"I believe in industry's responsibility to have a positive impact on the environment and natural resources."
With the help of Enterprise Ireland's New Frontiers entrepreneur development programme, Dempsey is also embarking on another project aimed at developing a tech platform "that allows people to easily and effectively gain information that they will need to set up on their own in aquaculture".
According to the most recent report of the seafood development agency Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), Irish aquaculture output rose in volume by 7pc, continuing a strong recovery in the sector over the past couple of years.
More specifically, the number of businesses in the 'bottom mussel' sector has stabilised following a rough few years caused by a long period of 'poor seed settlement'.
Last year, production rose by 20pc in volume to nearly 8,000 tonnes and by 56pc in value to €9.2m. Interestingly, the report notes that "seed supply uncertainty remains a threat to this".
Dempsey admits she never envisaged a career in fisheries, never mind becoming an entrepreneur. The 33-year-old has a degree in law from IT Carlow and worked for years as a legal executive, but is currently completing a HDip in Business in Aquabusiness at the same institution while also working part-time at An Garda Siochana in Bray.
"They say that everything starts with a seed of thought, an idea, that is certainly true for me and the IMSC," she says. "At the beginning, I had little understanding of the scale of what I was trying to achieve. It was just an idea that I thought might work."
That confidence was clearly shared by venture capitalists who travelled to Ireland to provide vital early-stage funding. IMSC also benefited from investments from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund administered through BIM.
The support from her family has also been key. "The aquaculture industry is very male-dominated so I don't think they ever really expected me to go into this industry, but they're very proud of me." She notes that things are also changing, and there is a growing female involvement in the sector.
Being an entrepreneur also has its perks, too, she finds. "I just love being able to decide your own future."
And despite the long wait for a trading licence, being able to carry on a family tradition is all the motivation she needs.
"My family are all fishermen, on both sides. And when I look at the harbour where I grew up and the community I grew up with, it's being decimated by different things: over-fishing, lack of stock and basically that young people just aren't going into the industry. But I realise the huge potential that's in it, and I feel that Irish companies - new, emerging Irish companies - should be part of that."
Sunday Indo Business