Mara Seaweed has received a range of grants from £5,000 to almost £400,000 in less than 5 years to become the UK’s leading culinary seaweed provider.
The team at Mara have received considerable support from the Interface team and other organisations within Scotland, including Scottish Enterprise, to help develop their concept and take it to market. Mara’s long term goal was to produce the products on a commercially viable scale for the gourmet restaurant and retail markets and essentially start the next UK foodie wave - seaweed.
They received support from the Food Health and Innovation Service (FHIS) who helped them develop an understanding of how they could capitalise on the market opportunities for their products.
The Interface team with established relationships with all of Scotland’s universities and research institutes helped address the technical issues involved in new product development.
Siobhan Jordan, Director of Interface, explains,
“With established connections in each of Scotland’s Universities and Research Institutions Interface are able to identify the most applicable expertise, the most relevant facilities and, in doing so, find the most suitable solutions for any number of business challenges.”
“Our service is free and impartial and can save businesses a huge amount of time and money when searching for academic support. We work with hundreds of businesses each year supporting them through their project and helping them to achieve their project aims and objectives.”
Mara received a number of responses from the initial search and chose to work with Food Innovation @ Abertay (FIA) at Abertay University who had the appropriate expertise to achieve the company’s aims.
Fiona Houston, Sea-EO and Co-founder of Mara said, “As new entrants into the food industry, working with Abertay, gave us the expertise to put our products on the shelf for the first time. It was a steep learning curve.”
As this was Mara’s first experience of working with academia Interface were able to administer a Scottish Funding Council (SFC) Innovation Voucher providing them with £5,000 to offset the cost of the project.
Thanks to this funding FIA were able to conduct microbiological and nutritional analysis and consumer acceptability of the five samples to support Mara in their aim to communicate seaweed as ‘The Superfood of the Sea’.
The project with Abertay University helped the company drive further product developments and provided information needed for labelling, packaging, marketing and consumer education which enabled them to start selling their products to the foodservice and retail markets including premium end restaurants.
According to Fiona, “It was great to have access to the range of resources available through the academic community at Abertay, especially at that crucial early stage of our business.”
Anticipating increased demand in both home and overseas markets, and buoyed by the success of their initial project, Mara initiated another project with both the FIA and the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) in 2012. To ensure that this collaboration could continue Mara, and FIA, approached Interface for an SFC Follow-On Innovation Voucher.
The SFC Follow-On Innovation Voucher Scheme was created to encourage repeat collaborations and allows companies to apply for up to £20,000 which the company must match with a cash contribution.
Mara was awarded a further £12,750 which allowed them to work with FIA and SRUC to:
- Receive technical support on dried seaweed production
- Develop four new market-ready products
- Conduct consumer acceptability trials of the new products
- Develop recipe cards
- Develop a sustainable Scottish supply chain
- Develop appropriate packaging and labelling
Thanks to the academic introductions made by Interface, Mara have been able to prove that seaweed is highly nutritious leading them into the development of more and more products and have subsequently entered high-end retail outlets including Harrods, Valvola & Crolla and Harvey Nichols as well as receiving praise from chefs such as Paul Hollywood and Michael Smith.
However, Mara’s growth was constrained by the need to secure a sustainable source of high quality seaweed and in 2013 they applied to the inaugural Interface Food & Drink Innovation Competition.
Helen Pratt, Project Manager for Interface Food & Drink, commented:
“Innovation is the lifeblood of the industry. We believe that by getting industry and academia to collaborate, we can achieve exciting advances that will keep Scotland at the forefront of the sector.”
The competition, now an annual event, is open to all Scottish food and drink businesses and provides a maximum £40,000 grant to stimulate innovation in the sector. Companies are judged by experts from Scotland’s food and drink industry who look at supply chain efficiencies; cost and manufacturing effectiveness; energy and sustainability, new technologies and establishing and developing new global market opportunities.
Thanks to their collaborative project with FIA and SRUC Mara went on to win £25,000 which would allow them to work with the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, to explore the development of commercially viable tank-based seaweed cultivation ensuring that they had a consistent and sustainable source of edible seaweed.
To further their work with SAMS Mara have been awarded almost £400,000 of Innovate UK Agri-Tech catalyst funding which will allow them to develop reliable year round seaweed production on a scale to match commercial demand.
Fiona now sits on the management committee for the recently formed Scottish Seaweed Industry Association (SSIA). The SSIA is one of seven Common Interest Groups which bring together companies and other stakeholders, such as Scotland Food & Drink and the Scottish Food and Drink Federation, with a common purpose or issue, to work together to develop industry wide solutions.
For instance, Interface Food & Drink are currently funding a project with the SSIA and SAMS to obtain sufficient and appropriate evidence relating to seaweed for human consumption with the intention of informing future policy decisions around cultivation that are affecting the industry. The existing work that Mara has already undertaken will be pivotal for this group and for the industry as a whole.
To acknowledge the impact that they have had on their industry, and the breadth of collaborative projects that they have undertaken, Mara won the Sustained Partnership of the Year Award at the annual Interface Excellence Awards in 2014. The judges commended them on their relationship with their partners, and on their combined efforts to secure increasing amounts of funding, underlining their mutual commitment to the partnership.
Further to this, and in recognition to Mara’s ambition and innovative business model, they won the Scottish Edge Award in December 2014, receiving a further £50,000 of funding.
Fiona was delighted with the award and said:
“Mara is the only company in the UK producing Scottish seaweed as a seasoning and I am delighted that we have received recognition for this. We are incredibly ambitious and this funding comes at the right time as we look east to the seaweed-eating countries and the award will enable us to enter Asian markets.”
Please note that Interface administers the Innovation Voucher Scheme on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council. All funding applications are reviewed on a case by case basis by the Scottish Funding Council, guidelines can be found here.