Aquaculture for all

Sea6 Energy: thinking big about tropical seaweeds

Biotechnology Technology & equipment Processing +4 more

Sea6 Energy has the ambition to transform seaweed markets through radical improvements in cultivation techniques. The vision is big, and bringing that vision to life takes time, according to chief business officer Sowmya Balendiran.

by Seaweed industry analyst
Steven Hermans thumbnail
Aerial view of seaweed lines
Sea6 Energy are in the process of finalising the design of a one-square-kilometre farm in Ekas, southeast Lombok

© Sea6 Energy

Can you tell us what is new at the company?

We started in October 2023 installing our one-square-kilometre farm in Ekas, southeast Lombok. Divided into multiple one hectare plots, we have about 50 percent of the plots fully installed, out of which 15 percent are completely operational. So we are still just in the development phase.

As we get our operations right, step by step we will expand. The goal is to have all plots operational one year from now.

A year to plant a square kilometre? Why does it take so long?

If we aimed to just be selling carrageenan, we wouldn't have to optimise too much. We could seed the farm, start harvesting in 45 days and quickly turn a profit. But that’s not the goal. Our target is to improve productivity to a point where costs come down enough to open up new applications – to make bioplastics and chemicals from tropical seaweeds a reality.

As we plant this farm, we are gaining a lot of new insights. Based on these learnings we are tweaking the mechanical equipment and production processes. It is an iterative process and thus it takes time.

This one square kilometre farm is just the start for us. It should become a model which we can replicate everywhere. In our own calculation, if you really want to start scratching at the biomaterials, we're talking about 60 square kilometres. So for that we have to optimise a lot of operations.

Hopefully, by March 2025, we'll have a replicable one square kilometre model.

So, what does that mean in practice?

We have identified how we want to seed, harvest, anchor. We developed our own equipment to do that in-house. But we haven’t yet figured out what the most efficient way to do the logistics is: a lot of your productivity, your cost, are in the logistics.

So now a lot of experimentation is going into finding out the fastest way to improve farming logistics. How do you bring the seaweeds back to land? Then what happens? Some steps are going to require more technology intervention, for some we already have the technology, we just need to optimise operationally. Each step is going to take time.

Good things take time, certainly. But you have been at this for more than a decade now. Really, what’s taking so long?

It is difficult! All the new technology we are creating requires a lot of ideation, developing different concepts, prototyping, building, testing, redefining. That takes time, as none of this has ever been done before. It's never going to be a 100 percent success rate on the first attempt, is it?

And we don't have a community of people to talk to. In tropical seaweeds, there has really been very little research. Almost all of the research so far has been done on temperate seaweeds in Europe, US, China, Korea, Japan.

We have been at this long before seaweeds were cool, long before India was seen as a place that is investable. Support was minimal for a long time. If we didn’t develop our own revenue stream early on, we wouldn't have survived this far.

A vessel designed for harvesting seaweed
Sea6 Energy has designed a special seaweed harvesting vessel

However, they have had to adapt the design to allow for harvesting in shallower seaweed cultivation sites © Sea6 Energy

Are there enough suitable growing sites in Indonesia to achieve the scale you envision?

Indonesia has millions of square kilometres of ocean space, but of course, not everywhere is suitable. We tried for a few years at a site in Bali, but the seaweeds just didn’t grow. We're getting faster at finding out which sites are good and which ones aren’t, though. We found this place in less than a year.

Of course, the final test is to put some lines out in the sea. That is the absolute truth. But we're getting better at understanding beforehand where it might be worthwhile trying.

There is a lot of conjecture surrounding your automatic seaweed harvester, the SeaCombine. As with any new technology, there are critics who have doubts. Can you shed some light?

The technology is certainly going strong, as you can see on our farms here. From when we first developed the SeaCombine, we’ve made several improvements on our methodologies, and how the SeaCombine vessel integrates with the whole farming system has evolved over the years.

The systems on the SeaCombine were created for the deep and rough ocean conditions off the coast of South India. However, when we started working in Indonesia, we realised that there are plenty of ocean sites available with medium-to-shallow waters. And for these waters, the SeaCombine is too big. It’s overkill.

At our Lombok farm, our land base is close to where our farms are laid out. We continue to use the SeaCombine as a development platform at sea to develop truly offshore operations where one does not need to come back to land except to deposit the harvest. But at the scale we are today, to make movements faster and more efficient you need something smaller. As part of this evolution, we have developed custom-designed smaller mechanised vessels to tend to the lines, all driving towards increasing farmer productivity.

A group of four people
The Sea6 Energy team

© Sea6 Energy

Is this the final system?

This works today so we need to get it out there and test it and keep optimising. That will continue to happen. Once you've solved this bottleneck, you hit the next bottleneck, right? It's always like that.

Biostimulants are a hot topic these days in seaweeds, with many startups aiming to make a play in that market. You have been selling your biostimulant for some time now. Can you say something about your trajectory?

We are very blessed to be where we are in Bangalore at C-CAMP, one of Asia's largest bioscience clusters, with state-of-the-art lab spaces available to us. Still, we spent about eight years proving the science of how our biostimulant works. We did genomic studies to show which genes get activated, to discover our active ingredient. We published on that, we have a patent there. We tested in 30 countries, more than 150 trials so far. We had to spend millions of dollars, but it was all needed to convince the buyers around the world – in Europe and the US.

We’re currently achieving an annual revenue of a few million [dollars] for our biostimulant. That's still very small, but we only started selling internationally about four years ago. We had an expansion recently, we opened sales offices in different countries. Around 300 people work at Sea6 Energy today. Hopefully, in the next three years, we'll be a lot better.

What comes after biostimulants? You spoke about biomaterials as the next big target?

You need market pull and, at the moment, nobody needs massive amounts of our seaweed. Carrageenan has been growing at 1.5 or 2 percent a year for the past 20 years. Why would anyone innovate? The market is not going to expand 10 times. That is why downstream is very important, and we're building that piece together with the upstream.

Right now we see a lot of opportunity in food and biomaterials. We have some interesting products in the pipeline there. We are looking for partners to develop those products into the market.

In the end, for us, the vision has always been: how can we make the pie bigger? We're such a small industry. We are all small compared to other industries. So we need to grow that pie together.

Aerial view of a seaweed farm
Sea6 has largely focused on producing biostimulants with their seaweed to date but are looking to diversify their product offerings

© Sea6 Energy

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