Paul O’Connor is a big fan of healthy eating. He’s also a marine biologist so it’s easy to see why the sea provided the inspiration for his food company, This Is Seaweed.
O’Connor’s products come in seaweed flake and leaf form and the aim is to make it simple for people to add this nutritional powerhouse to their diets. He is currently using five of the 500 species of seaweed growing off the Irish coastline in his products.
Carrageen, dulse and kelp are familiar names, but less well known is alaria, a mild variety with three times more magnesium than that much touted “superfood” kale. Also on the menu is “Sea Spaghetti”, which has a nutty flavour and can be added to pasta and soups or pickled in rice wine vinegar and used in salads. The products are available in some SuperValu stores, in artisan shops and online.
This September, O’Connor will expand his range with the launch a new risotto product based on smoked seaweeds. It will come in three flavours – sun-dried tomato, porcini mushroom and asparagus.
“We are providing a solution to consumers who are looking for a more natural and sustainable source of nutrients for their food,” O’Connor says. “The idea for the risotto product came from speaking to existing customers and those new to seaweeds. Some people are unwilling buy a whole package if they don’t know if they are going to like/finish it so the risotto product is a way around this.
“It is ideal for those who have read about how healthy seaweeds are but haven’t yet discovered how to cook with them. The risotto mix provides a luxury healthy meal for two in just 20 minutes and the cold smoking of the seaweeds mean they retain all their health benefits and give a wonderful taste sensation.”
O'Connor studied marine science at NUI Galway, followed by a postgraduate degree at Plymouth University. From there, he moved to the Netherlands to take up a research position at the Marine Institute of the Netherlands. He spent three years there before returning to Ireland to start work on his idea for This is Seaweed in 2015. His company is based at NovaUCD.
The seaweed for his products comes from the west of Ireland from organically certified sources and O’Connor buys it directly from the harvesters who dry and flake it for him. The packaging and selling is done from Dublin and about 75 per cent of the company’s output is exported. Germany and the Netherlands are its two biggest markets.
“When I started off, my focus was on Dutch consumers because they tend to be health conscious and seaweed is a relatively easy sell to them,” O’Connor says. “It’s similar in Germany where their exposure to seaweed is generally as a health food that comes from naturally clean waters. It’s a much harder sell to Irish consumers. Their reaction is usually ‘yuk’ because we’ve all stood on it in our bare feet as kids and didn’t like it.”
The new risotto product is aimed at global markets and should it take off in the big seaweed-eating markets of Asia, O’Connor says there could be a supply issue. To this end, he has begun looking into the possibility of farming his own seaweed.
O’Connor funded the start-up from his own resources and with products to sell within a few months this kept him afloat as the business developed. The venture has had support from Enterprise Ireland under its New Frontiers programme and it also provided the company with an Innovation Voucher which is being spent on nutritional analysis at UCD’s Lyons Research Farm.
To fund the launch of the risotto product O’Connor will be raising about €50,000 through the London-based fine foods funding platform, PrimeStox, which was set up in 2016 to introduce foodies to investment opportunities with new producers.