Alex Pressman knows a business opportunity when he sees it – and when he looks at a mussel line he’s eyeing a piece of a $9 billion market that New Zealand is yet to tap.
The former computer programmer, who built a $10 million per year software company from the ground up, has been working with Undaria harvested from local mussel lines for the past three years and believes the seaweed is a big opportunity for local farmers and processors.
“This is definitely a revenue stream just waiting for the industry,” he said.
After selling his software business in 2001, Mr Pressman moved to New Zealand and retired until he came across Undaria in 2012.
“I came out of retirement solely for a challenge,” he said.
“I’d been looking for a problem, a waste stream that could be converted into a new industry and I settled on Undaria because it seemed like a major pest to the aquaculture sector.
“So I thought why don’t we go and attack this seaweed and see if there’s something we can make from it that’s good. “And it turns out there’s a few good things – like food, fertilizers and nutraceuticals.”
And importantly, there is strong demand for these products too.
“Japan is the main market for it where, currently, there’s about 200,000 tonnes of it being used – of that, only 30 per cent is grown in Japanese waters because they can’t produce enough to meet the demand. The rest is imported from Korea and China but our market research shows that they would much prefer a New Zealand product,” Mr Pressman said.
“Because our Undaria comes from very, very clean waters, we can make a wakame that differentiates us from all competitors.
“Collectively we have ignored this opportunity for a very long time and that is because it’s difficult and logistically complex, but the time is right to start looking at it from joint opportunities perspectives and attacking it from various angles.
“I think the food angle is the lowest hanging fruit. The flavour of it is excellent and we’ve had interest from Japan, we’re developing good in-roads, and are working to meet the required price point.”
But in order to crack the market, Mr Pressman believes it will take a coordinated effort.
“Over the last three years, we’ve developed a knowledge of the commercial aspects: how to harvest it, how to process it and how to sell it,” he said.
“But food is very complicated and needs to be done right so we’re looking to work with companies that already have excellent processing capabilities and knowledge of how to preserve and present food.
“It will require some start-up costs – but in return you get a bite at a $9 billion market.” But it’s not just the processors who stand to gain from a New Zealand Undaria industry.
“We approach farmers and pay them to let us take it off their lines prior to harvest,” he said.
“It’s like someone coming along and paying you to weed out your dandelions.
“We can get as much as three tonnes off a line, but that’s variable and currently we harvest by hand and can only do about three-to-four tonnes per day right now. But there is technology out there that could get us to three-to-four tonnes per hour.
“And because the product grows so rapidly in New Zealand waters, you could do two harvests of the weed for every one harvest of the mussels and you could potentially double the revenue the farmer is getting without adding any extra costs to the farmer.”
Recent advancements in harvesting technology have also made the industry more viable.
“To create a food grade product, the Undaria needs to be processed very quickly so we perfected a technique for on-board processing,” Mr Pressman said.
“But we’ve now learned some new techniques that will enable us to take it on-shore for processing which will dramatically reduce costs.”
Through his company Waikaitu, Mr Pressman currently employs four people and produces a range that includes an agricultural bio-stimulant, a health extract and a wakame product that sells for $50/kg and is rated among Amazon’s top food products.
But he is still just getting started.
“It’s still early days, but we’ve shown that the opportunity is there.”