Pia Winberg, Venus Shell Systems – Breaking food paradigms with seaweed
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PIA WINBERG: Today
I’ll be focusing on the food side
of what we do, food for humans in this instance,
and breaking old food paradigms to try and get
people to eat a little bit more seaweed. You’re probably aware, there
was seaweed in two of the dishes at the lunch today,
one in the salad. There was the nori, a
Southeast-Asian produced seaweed, as well as in
some of the desserts. There were some carrageenans
that made the nice jellies that we had. But leading on
from that, seaweed is a global crop already. It’s already a
large global crop. It’s only a young one, though. The first seaweed farms were
only established in Japan in the 1940s when the
lifecycle of the nori that you eat around your sushi
rolls was broken by an English phycologist, phyco
meaning algae, the people who study algae. When she broke that
life cycle, the Japanese took that technology on and
developed seaweed farms. And those nori seaweed farms
are some of the highest value seaweed farms now
around the world, fetching prices of about
$70 a kilo for some of them. But we also have a
number of lower commodity valued seaweeds,
producing food ingredients such as carrageenan. Game And you can see
here on the graph that the brown seaweeds were
most probably well known as the kelps and wakames of the
world that took off and were the biggest until recently, when
the red-producing seaweeds that make carrageenan took over. You can see here,
there green seaweeds– there are three distinct
categories of seaweeds– really haven’t been
exploited, and that’s the one that we are trying
to exploit here. I didn’t see a reason
to try and compete with nori or wakame
and those seaweeds. Australia needs to come
up with its own story. And green seaweed has a number
of competitive attributes that we’re trying to exploit. If you look at the global
seaweed production in terms of biomass, it far and away
supersedes mollusk, brackish fish, and marine fish in
terms of biomass produced. It’s quite large. It’s over a $6
billion global crop, and Australian was growing
none of it until now. A bit of retrospective
work that I did, I’ve been looking at
seaweeds from a remediation perspective linked
to aquaculture since the 1990s in Sri Lanka. But remediation wasn’t
something that I’d say anyone was going to
be paying for or buying or adopting. You can preach till the cows
come home as an academic. You should be cleaning up
the world with seaweed, but that wasn’t going to work. So then I started to
look at how does seaweed have a value in itself? While it’s doing the cleaning
up, we’ll put that aside. What are the values we
can sell seaweed for? So I did some work with
the Rural Industries R&D Corporation, looking at what
are the market potentials for seaweeds in Australia? And these are the predictions
we did about eight years ago, looking at pharmaceuticals,
very high, but a longer term trajectory to market. And the fertilisers, they’re
actually already happening. You know that you have to
put sea salt on your garden. But those are very short
term, but a lot of value. So we were focusing a
little bit in the middle here, around the
food nutrition area. And, indeed, that’s what we
are commercialising today. I continued that research. These reports are available
through the RIRDC website on which seaweeds
to grow, screening seaweeds in Australia,
doing the genetic bar coding on seaweeds to resolve
the taxonomy of them. Indeed, we’ve got as many
unique species in our ocean in Australia as we do on land
and some really nice hot spots in different states as
well as the different species’ diversity. So this is a real new marketing
opportunity for Australia. FRDC also helped
support, in collaboration with RIRDC, the development
of the “Seaweeds Australia Newsletter.” I was probably a little
bit before my time, to have an industry newsletter
without a real industry. But it ran for three years,
and it was still popular. But it was relying on blood,
sweat, and tears a lot. So I might revisit that as
the industry burgeons and we can get levees maybe one day. But those reports
are available, too, because there are a number of
groups around Australia doing research and
development on seaweed production in a number
of different scenarios, a number of different
species, and a number of different products. And just last year in December,
the FRDC and ABARES actually highlighted for the
first time that seaweed would be an aquaculture
product for Australia of about 5,000 tonnes in 2021 to ’22. So I would like to,
you know, explain here to Patrick that we’re well
on the way to achieving that. That’s what I’ll
present here quickly. Why seaweed, though? Basically where I’m coming from
is the sustainability values of seaweed. And seaweeds capture
carbon dioxide, so we can actually
inject and absorb carbon dioxide into the
biosphere much faster than many other land crops. And we are currently,
Venus Shell Systems, bottling that CO2 for food,
cosmetic products, and even supplements we’ve done
clinical studies on. This is our current business
model and the markets that we’re focusing on. So our message is
no longer so much focusing on the sustainability. That’s a background tick. But it’s about superior
quality from Australia for better health
applications, is what we’re really doing a lot
of our marketing and research efforts on. But just back to the
sustainability a little bit. We’re actually currently
in our pilot system closing the loop on
a wheat refinery. I used to remediate
nutrients from aquaculture. Now I remediate nutrients
from a wheat refinery. This is one of the largest
wheat refineries in Australia. It’s on the south coast
of New South Wales, and it’s a major ethanol
producer from the waste that it produces. Natural waste is
fermented to ethanol, and we capture
the carbon dioxide from that industry
at the moment. We currently are not big enough
to keep 350 tonnes of it a day. So we’re not at a scale that
we can capture all of that yet, but as we scale up we will be. You can see here that
the company Shoalhaven Starches Manildra group And we catch their CO2 stream. Not only that, they actually
have eight megaliters of wastewater a day, and
they recover six megaliters of that to potable water. The remainder is a
concentrated nutrient that’s actually a bit salty
because it’s weight is naturally salty. And we capture that as well. So we’re closing the loop
on those waste products from wheat. And our waste products are
clean water and oxygen. We’re adding sun, CO2,
and nutrients to seawater. And Venus Shell Systems is our
company that grows the seaweed. We then process it to
dried white product. We do a mealed
green powder, and we have built a pilot
processing factory as well in a decommission paper mill
on the Shoalhaven River. And we’ve done an
enriched protein powder. Our enriched seaweed has
got an original protein content of 40%. And we also do medical-grade
extracts as well. We brand those under a
range of ingredients. And we partner with a number of
people in the Shoalhaven area. We’ve created an industry
hub with local counsel and a number of companies. And we call that hub
Blue BioTech Shoalhaven. We want the region to
recognise itself as a clean, green biotech region that
collaboratively can deliver products in this
innovative area today. Through that network,
we are able to put the sun into a
skin product bottle within a 10-kilometre radius. We’ll have our first 1,000
units produced next week to test on the market. We’re already marketing
test amounts of the food, and we’ve done clinical
trials on supplements that we’re now going through
TGA approval processes for. This is the website for our
local Blue BioTech Shoalhaven Hub. You can see the companies
that are in the Shoalhaven that we collaborate with. We rely very much on Shoalhaven
Water as our utility company for the great
wastewater management that they do have in
our catchment zone that allows Shoalhaven
to promote itself as the clean marine source
of products, oysters as well growing in that area. Essence Group are actually 10
kilometres from our facility. They manufacture a lot of the
supplements for big companies in Australia, and we’re now
able to locally manufacture supplements. The New South Wales Department
of Primary Industries as well is a regulatory body. But I say that in
Australia we should be embracing our regulatory
bodies because we are selling quality because we
have those regulatory bodies. So creating a good relationship
with those authorities is vital and really
beneficial to us. This for me is an
important network with an industrial capacity. They have knowledge
that I don’t want to have to reinvent
the wheel on how to formulate and
manufacture a skin product as well as grow the seaweed. So we partner, and we make
the products together. Regulatory alignment,
and someone gave me this word the other day,
in potential competition with some of these companies
and other seaweed-producing industries in Australia. But really we’re
not in competition. We call it coopetition. I think Australia
should really embrace that concept a bit more. And this is about regional
development, these partnership, as well because it’s
so one of the highest regional unemployment areas with
a large Aboriginal population as well But what’s exciting is
the market’s ready today. 20 years ago, this
might not have worked. But today it really is. People are looking for health
and nutritional solutions as well as exciting
new food solutions. We’ve been picked up by the BBC
for events with Michael Mosley. We presented at the Rabobank
Farm to Fork event last year, and I’m even publishing in
some really good literature now these days. We’ll be launching a
new ecommerce website in the next couple of
months with the three categories of our products. You can actually market food,
skin, and diet supplement products alongside
each other today because these are not like
the pharma drug company kind of things anymore. You can eat your skin
products these days as well. So putting these kinds
of things alongside each other with the
seaweed story behind them in sort of Whole
Foods type stores is what we’re trying to
aim to do as well as launch direct to customers through
ecommerce platforms which, if you get them right,
are incredibly powerful. So our core message is that
PhycoFood creates fun food that makes seaweed easy to eat. We’re putting it into
things like the pasta because we don’t want you
to have to be a connoisseur to get your seaweed. I found that when I had a
bag of green, smelly powder on the shelf, people
were fascinated. But what do they do with it? That wasn’t a
marketing solution. So we’ve actually
put it into things that you would normally
use in your kitchen. And even things like dukkah
you’d be aware of dukkah We won a gold medal for
our Phukka Everything starts with pH in our company. So we’re already on the radar
of Australian National Fine Food Awards. This is just an example
of the fettuccine that we’ve launched and is
even popular with the children. This was sea spirals we
did for the BBC event. But why is it so important to
put seaweed into the mainstream food that we already have? Because it’s potent
nutritionally. A lot of our mainstream
processed foods are deficient in a range
of things, including minerals and trace elements. Seaweed Is the
source of omega-3. Salmon don’t make it themselves. They get it from the food chain. Dietary fibre, we’re chronically
deficient in dietary fibre in the West. We’re only getting
50%, if that, of what we require for good gut flora. And we’ve been doing
clinical trials on that, and protein, 40% protein. There is important
because 35% of Australians will be obese in 2025,
and not overweight, obese. And this is challenging
hunger as the greatest form of malnutrition in the world. And with the current
manufactured food system, how are we going to change that? How are we going to get trace
elements back in the soils? How are we going to change the
whole food production paradigm? It’s very hard to. So how do we inject something
in that to address these issues? And seaweed, you don’t
have to eat a lot of it to get the benefits of it,
just 5% to 10% in your pasta will deliver some of those
nutritional solutions. One thing we focus
on, therefore, is making sure we measure
and monitor and know what our trace elements
are in our seaweed. This is important as well
for nutritional reasons as well as safety. So one company, for
example, in Asia put too much kelp of
a high iodine content into a soy milk product. There was a class action in
Australia against that company. Because seaweed hasn’t
been well regulated, this is Australia’s
opportunity to be leaders in the regulation
and the quality and the knowledge
around seaweed. We might not be the biggest,
but we can be the best. This is omega-3
profiles of our seaweed. You can see down here
our omega-3 in the green to the omega-6 ratio. In our particular seaweed, we
can maintain that and guarantee a very high omega-3
content, and I’ll come back to that in a minute. This is the amino acid
profile of our seaweed. You can see we have all of
the essential amino acids in this, and at 40% protein. People probably didn’t
realise that seaweed could be a significant protein source,
also with vitamin B12. So it’s a vegetarian
solution as well. We actually overcome some iodine
and iron deficiencies in people already through some of the
snack foods that we make. Going back to the omega-3,
we’ve been doing work with the abalone industry, which
currently fed formulated feeds from land crops gives them
a high omega-6 profile in the abalone tissue. You eat seafood
because of the omega-3. That’s the story we hear. But if it’s farmed
from land crops, it reflects a land crop
profile of high omega-6. So we actually, through
putting seaweed into the diet, increase the omega-3
ratio to over 2 to 1. This is just an example
of some of the supplements that we’re doing. We reduced cholesterol,
inflammation, insulin requirements,
and the gut flora in 65 people in Nowra
on a six-week trial of seaweed extract supplements. And in summary of all of
this, from our production to our fork, or
product at the end, seaweed can be one of the
most efficient production systems for food. We can do 100 tonnes dry
weight per hectare and annum. That’s 1,000 tonnes wet
weight per hectare and annum. It’s about 20 times
that of any other land crop with complete nutrition
and very concentrated nutrition. And we can ensure genetic
traceability to the genes, even the sun rays. We’re actually
monitoring the sun rays. And it can be, through
this vertical system, the most traceable product
on the shelf in the world. This is just an example
of the skin care products that we’re launching this year. We do research at the
University of Wollongong with students showing
increased wound healing rates. This is how cells recover into
an artificial wound compared to not having our seaweed
extract in the cream. And we’re also working with
the university on some more blue sky ideas around
tissue printing, printing skin cells,
regenerative medicine, implants, coating
titanium implants to make them more biocompatible,
and that sort of thing. So there’s some blue sky
stuff for the future. We’ve been moseying along at
about 3 tonnes of dry weight, 30 tonnes wet weight per
hectare at the moment per annum. And we’re right in
the stage of trying to get them scaled to about
a two-hectare production facility next year,
which will give us 200 tonnes dry weight or 2,000
tonnes wet weight of seaweed in a year. And we’re working on
the investment side of all of that at the moment. But we’re just building
on an Australian legacy because the earliest history
in the world of using seaweed was from water carriers in
Tasmania 35,000 years ago. That’s a summary
of seaweed future. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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