Angling for Irish start-ups changing Ireland's fishing sector

Hatch accelerator programme aims to find and develop disruptive aquaculture start-ups

We may like to imagine the fish we eat comes from free-flowing rivers or the open seas but in reality, this is often not so. Over half of all fish consumed globally is harvested from farms.

Aquaculture, or fish farming as it is more commonly known, is one of the fastest-growing areas of food production internationally and Ireland could be the epicentre of the boom. Or so says Wayne Murphy, who is running Hatch, the world's first dedicated aquaculture accelerator programme.

“Ireland as an island nation has huge potential to be a centre for innovation in aquaculture. Between our technological and marine talent, there is a real chance for the country to be a major player in this space,” says Murphy.

Hatch is a three-month-long programme for start-ups run by venture capital firm Alimentos Ventures, which gets under way at the Republic of Work co-working space in the coming weeks. The initiative has run only once before, with the first instalment having taken place in Bergen, Norway, in June.



The programme, which is being funded under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, aims to find, develop and scale up talented and disruptive aquaculture start-ups. It provides participants with €25,000 in investment, as well as mentoring, office space for a year and a chance to pitch to a follow-on fund which invests between €100,000 to €1 million into high-potential companies.

"There has been big demand to run our programmes from across the world and they helped ensure it came here, which as a Cork man I'm extremely happy about," adds Murphy.

He's not alone in thinking this. Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the Irish seafood development agency, has played a significant role in bringing Hatch to Cork, in what is seen as a coup for Ireland. Other supporters of the initiative include the Irish Marine Institute and Cargill, one of the largest privately-held corporations in the United States.

Murphy is the first to admit he's no expert in aquaculture, but he does know a thing or two about accelerators. He has run them on behalf of the likes of Bank of Ireland and previously played a part in the establishment of RebelBio, the world's first life-sciences accelerator, which until recently also took place in Cork.

That programme, founded by CoderDojo co-founder and SOSV partner Bill Liao, through SOSV, a $300 million (€257 million) venture capital fund set up by former Dragons' Den star and entrepreneur Seán O'Sullivan, led to a number of promising start-ups setting up temporary base in Cork city as they worked to unlock the potential of biology as a technology.

Among the companies to take part in RebelBio was Perfect Day, which raised nearly $25 million (€21 million) earlier this year to bring its synthetic, animal-free milk to market. Another was BioCellection, a start-up that has developed advanced technologies to transform non-recyclable plastics into virgin-quality chemicals for use in sustainable supply chains.

Scaling start-ups

There are few Irish scaling start-ups in the aquaculture space, but with opportunities abounding it is hoped that the Hatch accelerator may whet the appetite of would-be entrepreneurs and kick-start a thriving subsector.

“Start-ups are crucial to the continued development of Ireland’s aquaculture sector because of the role they play in driving new ideas and innovation,” is how BIM’s chief executive Jim O’Toole put it.

The agency stresses we're not starting from scratch in developing a thriving aquaculture scene locally. It suggests we have all the ingredients in place, noting the presence here of companies such as Marine Harvest Ireland, a leading organic salmon producer, as well as initiatives such as the Uisce project in Killary, where mapping has been used to determine the best sites for growing mussels.

Murphy is also optimistic about the emergence of an aquaculture scene that includes the UCC's School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Science Foundation Ireland-funded MaREI, a marine and renewable energy research development and innovation centre in Ringaskiddy. Páirc na Mara, a multimillion-euro marine innovation park in the Connemara Gaeltacht, is also due to open in the coming years.

But how big is the opportunity for would-be entrepreneurs? Well, global fish production is currently at record levels, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and has risen at twice the rate of the world’s population since the early 1960s.

Fish is an essential source of nutrition for billions of people around the world and as the global population grows, so does demand. More than 10 per cent of the world’s people rely on fishing for their livelihood.

However, between overfishing of our seas and rivers and widespread pollution, wild fish stocks have been depleted. Finding more sustainable methods to secure fish supplies has become critical, hence the sharp rise in aquaculture.

More than half the fish consumed globally are now raised in artificial environments with commonly farmed species including salmon, tuna, cod and trout. According to the FAO, almost 20 per cent more fish will be eaten worldwide by 2030, with most supplies likely to derive from fish farms. The global aquaculture market was valued at $176.45 billion in 2017, according to Research and Markets figures. It is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.46 per cent to reach a market size of $219.42 billion by 2022.

However, aquaculture isn’t a complete panacea as farms can spread parasites and diseases and cause pollution. Given this, any sustainable solutions to improve fish farming are in particular demand.

The first instalment of Hatch attracted high-potential start-ups from across the globe. Among the participants were Finless Foods, a US company making fish meat out of stem cells that recently closed a $3.5 million seed round.

Other participants include Verifik8, which has developed software that manages and displays social and environmental data on seafood operations, Aquaconnect, a start-up that is using technology to provide market access to those working in the fast-growing Indian shrimp industry, and Manolin, a company that uses machine learning and big data to provide insights that can help treat, manage and prevent health issues.

“There are some exciting innovative companies in this space that could have a significant impact on the world. This is admittedly a niche area, but the opportunities are endless and it would be great to think that Hatch could help kick-start a revolution here in Ireland,” says Murphy.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist