Seaweed & Co. has added a range of consumer products under the brand Weed & Wonderful to its ingredients business. Dean Best met with majority shareholder Dr Craig Rose to hear his plans for the UK firm.

just-food: What were the origins of the business?

Dr Craig Rose: My background is in marine biology and I always wanted to find a way to work with the sea but do it in a responsible, sustainable – and commercial – way as well. And using a natural, British sustainable resource in seaweed ticked all the boxes.

just-food: Did you already have an interest in food and nutrition?

Dr Craig Rose: It came through learning more about seaweed. I was involved in a project looking at biofuels, turning seaweed into fuel, and through that started to learn more about the nutritional benefits and then saw the opportunity for food and health. And so we invested in production equipment to do food-grade ingredients. We started trading in 2015. The ingredients business is ticking along well and we’ve done a lot of innovation in there. All the ingredients are branded as PureSea.

just-food: Where do you source from?

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Dr Craig Rose: It’s on all around the isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. There’s a lot of seaweed there, the factory’s there, the area is pristine and there is very little agriculture of any note. A big selling point is Scottish provenance, especially overseas.

just-food: You’re predominantly a B2B business but have recently launched a consumer-facing product.

Dr Craig Rose: The plan always was to get seaweed to everybody and in a way they can love and really engage with. The B2B side allows us the quality and the volume but we wanted our own brand. We launched at the end of April our brand – Dr. Seaweed’s Weed & Wonderful. Everyone knows what seaweed is because everyone’s been to the beach and, whether they think it’s slimy, horrible stuff or – increasingly – a really natural healthy, sustainable food, the intrigue’s there.

just-food: When it comes to ingredients, what are the parts of the food industry you sell to? And are your clients increasingly looking to include seaweed as part of their product development?

Dr Craig Rose: Absolutely. There are two markets merging – nutrition and food – and the overlap now is huge. Whilst a few years ago, it might’ve been they were using seaweed purely functionally to replace salt or a certain nutrient, now customers who don’t need or want the boost to flavour or the nutrition, want it front-of-pack because it’s on-trend. It does add those benefits but it’s the marketing message. 

just-food: They’re coming to you now for slightly different reasons.

Dr Craig Rose: Most are somewhere in the middle where they need some functionality, the nutrition and flavour – and they want it front-of-pack as it’s on-trend. That’s great to see. Now, all the major multiples do have seaweed products somewhere in-store – in bakery, fish, meat, snacks. We’ve done a big survey and it showed that 88% of people know seaweed is good for them. They don’t necessarily know why. Meanwhile, 78% don’t regularly include it in their diet. 

just-food: What are they saying if they do give a reason? 

Dr Craig Rose: The main three reasons are they don’t know how to use it, there aren’t products they see as accessible and the products aren’t available in stores they shop in. These are mainstream normal people. The foodies look for stuff and they’re not intimidated but most people don’t know what to do. There are some amazing seaweed brands out there – whether with an Asian focus or whatever – but you need to know what you’re doing and you might need other strange ingredients. 

The whole concept of Weed & Wonderful was we give people ways of getting it into the diet in very familiar, easy ways. We have our supplements, which are more for the nutrition side. They are vegan, organic shells, filled with seaweed powder, nothing else, no fillers. One to two a day and you get all the nutritional benefits.

just-food: What’s that offering the consumer?

Dr Craig Rose: We like to think of it as it’s basically a food that’s just dried and milled and in a capsule. It’s not something medical, synthetic or pharmaceutical. It’s a food in a great format.

Then, we have three culinary oils. They’re not nutrition products. They’re a way of introducing seaweed that isn’t scary and that’s easy to use. We’ve infused it with an organic rapeseed oil. We chose rapeseed because it’s got a very mild flavour, which takes on the seaweed very well. It’s high in the omegas and low in saturated fat. It’s a healthy oil and something consumers know about. It’s really the carrier for the seaweed.

just-food: What’s the annual turnover of the business?

Dr Craig Rose: We’re still very small and new. Do I have to reveal that? We’re not yet at GBP1m (US$1.3m). We’re growing at a rapid rate. We want to be a million pound turnover company fairly quickly and both from the UK and overseas. The oils have only been in retailers since July and we’re already in Planet Organic, Whole Foods, a range of independents. It’s been a great start and the feedback has been great on the branding, packaging and then importantly on the product. We’re on Amazon as well.

just-food: Are you in active discussions with other retailers?

Dr Craig Rose: Absolutely, yeah. There’s a lot of interest in the retailers you would imagine. These are premium products and you have to go to the right kind of retailers but, absolutely, we hope very soon we’ll be with some nationals. There’s definitely interest. It’s ticking the boxes. On the supplement side, it has the credibility of the science and my own background as a marine biologist. That’s very important in that sector. On the oil side, they’re unique. There’s nothing else out there doing seaweed-infused oil that tastes really good, that are Scottish.

just-food: Are shoppers ready? The CEO of olive-oil giant Deoleo has complained about how that segment has become commoditised.

Dr Craig Rose: Some of the research we did shows there’s been very little innovation in oil for quite a long time. You might get garlic-infused or lemon-infused but everyone’s doing the same thing. No-one’s doing seaweed, partly because we have the supply and we’re able to do it. It’s genuine innovation. It’s opening up a space that’s perhaps quite stagnant. 

just-food: What are your ambitions for the next year for the consumer-facing side of the business?

“Selling to China would be real coals to Newcastle”

Dr Craig Rose: I would like to be in the high-end retailers nationwide. We’re getting a lot of interest around Europe and we’re in fairly advanced discussions. Even in the US, we’re getting a lot of interest, Australia and elsewhere. Everything we’ve done over the last three-and-a-half-years or so has been that we can scale up very quickly, so really there’s nothing holding us back from a production side and now it’s just continuing these discussions.

just-food: Which could be the first overseas markets to see the consumer products?

Dr Craig Rose: I think northern Europe, Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, they know seaweed a bit better.

just-food: Are the products already like that in Scandinavia?

Dr Craig Rose: Not that we’ve seen. They do probably have more seaweed-based products and they’re very much about natural, whole foods. Southern Europe is a bit more traditional in terms of oils. We’ve had some discussions with some Chinese distributors, who love provenance and purity. In Asia, they know what seaweed is but there is, in some areas, negative connotations of their own seaweed because of issues of pollution. Japan had Fukushima and that caused big problems, both in reality and perception. On China, for Scotland, think imports of salmon and whisky, so why not seaweed? That would be real coals to Newcastle.

just-food: Who are your major B2B clients? 

Dr Craig Rose: Our ingredients are used in a number of products in Marks and Spencer, from cheese to mayonnaise, sauces, condiments. And then there’s a lot going into Waitrose. One of the newest [brands] is a brand called Off The Eaten Path, a PepsiCo brand. The beauty of that is their branding – they’ve really, overtly gone for the seaweed. So, it’s great to see, not just from a B2B sales point of view. We’re grateful to not only get in with PepsiCo, which is obviously a humongous food player, but also really that the selling point is the seaweed.

just-food: They must be convinced consumers are ready to at least have a go.

Dr Craig Rose: Absolutely. It is higher end but it’s not particularly expensive compared to other premium crisps and snacks.

just-food: As you look forward to grow the business over the next five years, where do you see the most significant growth levers?

Dr Craig Rose: There’s still huge scope on the B2B side. It’s still relatively early. But B2C is a brand, it allows us to access markets that we’re not in and to go much quicker. There are challenges on both sides but the B2C we see huge scope. But both relatively early days.

just-food: How did the investment from UK musician and Kaiser Chiefs front man Ricky Wilson come about? 

Dr Craig Rose: Ricky is a lifelong friend. I’ve known him for 32 years. We used to be in bands together. He was always intrigued in what I do. I guess we all, as we get older, get into fitness and health. He’s a big runner. It’s fun to work together and now I can justify to my wife that when we me and Ricky go out it’s investor relations. [But] he obviously wants a return on his investment, he hasn’t done it as a mate thing.

just-food: Does his involvement also help from a PR perspective?

Dr Craig Rose: We want to utilise his public image [but] if we were to go and really get a celebrity there’s probably more foodie, health people we could have got. He’s someone I’ve known my whole life. It’s nice to work with a friend.

just-food: You’ve got a significant stake in the business, obviously?

Dr Craig Rose: Yes, still the majority.

just-food: Given you’re harvesting seaweed, have you had any scrutiny from environmental campaigners?

Dr Craig Rose: No, what was very important was the species we chose and how it’s harvested. We were involved in a study that the Scottish Association for Marine Science did, which looked at the upper sustainable limit of this species for harvesting. We are well, well below that. Sustainability is important to me because of the background in marine biology.

Also, the way we harvest is pretty unique, with basically big floating lawnmowers, which have essentially got these cross-cutting blades that just trim the top of the seaweed. They might take the top foot or two but there have been studies done that show when you stress the seaweed in that way, it’s akin to it being damaged in a storm and that encourages more growth. You’re never removing the whole plant and, because you’re effectively taking a small amount over a larger distance, the guys can take 20 tonnes in a day’s harvest and you won’t even really notice it’s gone. And then they won’t revisit that for two to four years.