February 5, 2018
Focus: Greater Portland

Ocean bounty: Tollef Olson has a knack for turning seaweed into products that are in demand

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Tollef Olson, a co-founder of Ocean's Balance, a Portland company that produces a seaweed puree sold in retail stores and through wholesale accounts.

Tollef Olson always had a thing for the sea. As a young man, he hunted for treasure on centuries-old shipwrecks, worked as a commercial fisherman in Florida and an urchin diver in Maine.

He has started and sold a variety of businesses, including Aqua Farms LLC (producer of Bangs Island Mussels) and Ocean Approved.

In 2016, he co-founded Ocean's Balance, which a year ago started producing a Kelp Puree made from wild seaweed harvested by Olson. Buyers include grocery stores, institutions and restaurants.

"We did a slow build-up, because it was product the market had never seen before," Olson says. "Now we're working on expansion."

He plans to expand and is looking for a new commercial facility where he can develop other products.

Olson started Ocean's Balance with Mitchell Lench, who owns Treetops Capital LP in Cape Elizabeth. Lench, Olson and Lisa Scali, director of marketing and sales, are the firm's principals.

Ocean's Balance is part of a wave of companies coming up with seaweed products aimed at health-conscious consumers.

A growing niche market

Seaweed-based products are making inroads on health-food aisles not only at co-ops and Whole Foods, but with a wider network of supermarkets and big-box stores. Products like Annie Chun's Roasted Seaweed Snacks and SeaSnax & Seaweed Chips and related products are sold in Whole Foods but also Walmart. Hancock-based Maine Coast Sea Vegetables sells a variety of products by seaweed type: Dulse, Nori, Alaria, as well as snack-bar like products like Kelp Krunch — again, sold through a wide range of retailers — with products ranging from $7.50 for a two-ounce bag of Dulse to $1.95 for a Kelp Krunch bar.

Seaweed is used in food products, pharmaceuticals, animal feed and soil additives. The U.S. market is estimated at $10.31 billion in 2015, according to San Francisco-based Grand View Research.

Companies like Cargill and DuPont are major buyers of seaweed — in particular, for the ingredient carrageenan, which is used for a thickening agent in ice cream, yogurt, protein drinks and other products. DuPont recently acquired FMC Corp. and its Rockland seaweed processing plant, which produces carrageenan.

Last year, Island Institute Economic Development Director Briana Warner, working with James Griffin, produced an overview of market potential for seaweed as a culinary product in Maine.

"The problem is, you can grow seaweed but then have nowhere to sell it," she says. "So we need to work on the demand side. And developing more products desirable to average consumers and helping companies to scale production and get product into stores and restaurants, so that there will be more buyers, is key to the seaweed supply chain."

While seaweed has been widely used in Japanese cooking and by other Asian cultures, in U.S. kitchens and restaurant tables, consumers are still acquiring the taste.

"One of the difficulties of seaweed in the U.S is that people weren't used to it," Olson says. "People don't want to change the way they cook to get the benefits of something. The frozen product is easy to use. But there was still some disconnect for consumers. So I came up the shelf-stable product. It's simple to add: You don't have to change the way you cook to get the umami flavor pop and the nutrient benefit."

Developing a love for the sea

Olson's journey to seaweed has gone through other briny ventures. As much as Olson may have seawater in his veins, he also has an entrepreneurial vein.

He started three businesses in succession that were on the cutting edge of movements to source products from Maine's waters. In 1998, he started Aqua Farms LLC, producing "rope grown" mussels under the brand name Bangs Island Mussels, using technology adapted from European aqua farms.

The technology involves attaching seed to long ropes, suspended from rafts, and growing mussels to harvest size.

At the time, most Maine farmed mussels were grown by seeding the bottom. That product was inconsistent, due to inconsistent bottom conditions. "With rope-grown, you get a consistent product with a nice, thin shell," he says.

Using a combination of his own capital and grants from Coastal Enterprises Inc., he acquired the needed equipment — a boat, a truck, a raft. He figured out a process to "de-clump" the mussels, which had thinner shell than wild-grown mussels. Setting up operations at an old farmhouse on Presumpscot Street in Portland, he purchased equipment to help process the mussels.

He eventually sold the Bangs Island Mussels to current owners Matthew and Gary Moretti.

"It's a very tough, physical business," he says.

'Make sure your family and friends like it'

After selling Bangs Island Mussels, he started Ocean Approved in 2006 to produce a frozen seaweed product.

Over the years, the Maine native had developed a strong interest in aquaculture.

"In my traveling years, I'd been all over the place and got to see a lot of farming operations," he says. "I'd seen it done right and I'd seen it done wrong. The U.S. is far behind the rest of the world in aquaculture. It was time to be more aggressive."

He returned to the idea of farming seaweed for culinary use. Maine has a wild seaweed fishery going back 50 years, for non-food uses like nutritional supplements and fertilizers. But as a culinary product whose appeal was growing with consumers, "it was starting to look exciting," he says.

With Ocean Approved, he test-marketed wild seaweeds packaged as frozen product. He partnered with University of Connecticut professor Charles Yarish, who was developing technology for raising kelp.

Ocean Approved became the first company in the United States to grow farmed kelp. Olson won R&D grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Maine Technology Institute. That included the crucial step of developing seed stock in the lab and technology to deploy seed onto a rope-grown system.

Established off Little Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, the farm soon produced 100,000 pounds of sugar kelp and aleria per year, cut and bagged in four-ounce and one-pound sizes, then frozen for use in a variety of recipes, for smoothies and soups.

He held numerous product demonstrations. The list of buyers grew, including natural foods stores and institutions like restaurants, schools and hospitals.

"The first place I got into of note was the local Whole Foods," he says.

Ocean's Balance, his latest venture, produces the shelf-stable Kelp Puree, which is sold in nine-ounce jars (and in quantities for wholesalers).

In each case, the development of the product was a long process, with finding a distributor being just one challenge. With any new product, demonstrations have been key to connecting directly with consumers and with retailers. He's also been able to build on existing relationships with Portland's markets, and expand from there. Getting people to partake of his product is key to the process, he says.

"You put them in dishes that people are comfortable with," he says.

"Take time to develop your idea. Don't spread out too far as you're going along," he adds. "And make sure there's a market for your product. You're not the one you're selling the product to. Do some demonstrations: If you're working up a new food product, start at home, make sure your family and friends like it. Then expand it."

Olson's efforts are good for the industry, says Shep Erhart, president of the Maine Seaweed Council and founder and president of Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in Hancock.

"Tollef has taken an underutilized species and created a simple process — the seaweed doesn't even have to be dried — and come up with an end product that is very consumer-friendly," says Erhart. "Just pop it in a soup or salad, which is probably a great direction. We need more of that kind of development."


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