New innovations Irish Times.
Connemara seaweed ingredients firm eyes global markets
New Innovator: Connemara Food Ventures products aimed at large food manufacturers
Connemara Food Ventures founders James and Deirdre Cunningham: To create the blends we needed to be taste neutral while adhering to our central goal of adding nutritional value.”
James and Deirdre Cunningham are the driving force behind Dulse restaurant in Barna, Co Galway. They are also the cofounders of ConnemaraFood Ventures, a B2B seaweed ingredients company specialising in high-value nutritional products for the baking and food processing industries.
“Like most people I’ve always known about the huge health benefits of seaweed but was frustrated that there was no real way of introducing in into people’s daily diets,” James Cunningham says.
“This led myself and my wife Deirdre, a qualified nutritionist, to set ourselves the goal of making seaweed available in every convenience store and supermarket across the EU and beyond. To do this we needed to develop ingredients that would work with foods that have household penetration of 95 per cent or more and that basically means breads and pasta.”
Connemara Food Ventures was established in 2013 and the couple have spent the last four years developing their Noribake and Norichef products.
“We have worked out how to blend and mill a mix of seaweeds into flour or flakes which is added to dry mixes to produce healthier consumer products.
“We were also very conscious of the increasing demand for reduced salt in our diets and that there was very little in the way of alternatives to salt that could achieve this. Our ingredients allow our customers to reduce salt content by up to 50 per cent and sugar by 20 per cent while adding key nutrients such as iodine to breads and processed foods,” Cunningham says.
Large-scale food manufacturers
Noribake is aimed at large-scale food manufacturers and as the couple became fully aware of the size of their potential market they teamed up with seasoned entrepreneurs Declan Clarke and Ronnie Robins of the Hatchery of Ideas and seaweed expert Dr Stefan Kraan.
Dulse customers were the first to sample breads made with Noribake and the positive response convinced the Cunninghams they were on the right track. They then worked with leading master baker, Jimmy Griffin, to get the product fit for commercial use.
Noribake was soft launched to the retail trade in 2015 to test the market. It was subsequently launched to the food service sector here in 2016. Earlier this year Dutch food group Van der Moolen launched a noodle product containing the company’s ingredients and it is also being used in a bread product by the large Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn.
The focus now is on rolling out distribution in Ireland, the United Kingdom and beyond, and negotiations are at an advanced stage with a distributor for the Benelux countries.
“To create the blends we needed to be taste neutral while adhering to our central goal of adding nutritional value,” Cunningham says. “With a lot of trial and error we fine tuned the mix to eight organic Irish marine plants which we select at differing stages of their life cycle.
“The properties, functionality and taste of seaweeds changes quite dramatically over the course of their life cycle. We also needed to create an ingredient mix that was suitable for large producers and this meant working closely with the industry to ensure Noribake fitted their existing processes and critically, that it was cost effective to use. For each 1g of Noribake and additional 4g of water can be added thereby increasing yield and offsetting cost.”
The company employs five people and is about to increase its head count with recruitment for positions in quality management and international sales.
To date it has cost about €300,000 to develop the products and position the business for global exports. The funding has come from personal resources with support from Údarás na Gaeltachta, Enterprise Ireland (EI) and Bord Bia under its Foodworks programme. The company has ben approved for EI high potential start-up funding of €200,000 and is now looking to match that with money raised from private investors.