Tim Van Berkel

Enterprise success stories

Tim Van Berkel

What did you study at the University of Exeter?

MSc Conservation & Biodiversity

What is your business all about?

Sustainably harvesting Cornish Seaweeds for human consumption and cosmetics

What is your business’s unique selling point (USP)? What is your main form of advertising? Who are your main competitors?

USP: Only source of English seaweed, only company with Crown Estate licence to harvest seaweed in England. Sustainably harvested.

Advertising: Web, cold calling, twitter

Competitors: International seaweed companies, mainly Clearsprings

Where did your idea come from? What is the start-up story behind your business?

Business partner Caro (also Exeter alumni; Renewable Energy) heard a BBC Radio 4 podcast about the health and nutritional  benefits of seaweed. Both renewable energy companies she was about to work for went bust so she was left without work and reconsidering what to do. I was (and still am) Scientific Director of the Heart of Borneo Project, but unpaid, and working menial jobs in the meantime.

Caro was wondering if it was possible to set up a seaweed company in Cornwall. It is a business in Ireland and in Scotland, so why not England? I thought it was a great idea and we went for it. We both had no clue of how to work with seaweed so contacted an Irish seaweed harvesting company, who agreed to let us work for them for a few weeks so we could learn how to pick and process the seaweeds. We both didn’t have any money, so needed startup funding to set up the business. We applied to a few grants and awards and won all of them, which gave us the support, both financially as well as on a business level. Even then it was, and still is, difficult. There was no legislation in place to allow commercial harvesting of seaweeds and no one apparently knew who was responsible. It was a careful navigation of a serious mine field!

What things helped you learn how to run a new business? Has there been anything or anyone in particular that has helped you along the way?

Working for the Heart of Borneo Project helped in planning and getting an idea of what is involved in running a business. Apart from that, unless you have actually done it before, nothing can completely prepare you for running a business, as every business is unique and faces different challenges. Financial aid and business support from various grants and awards, including UCP, ShellLivewire, Unltd and Lloyds SSE allowed us to actually do it. This made a big big difference as we did not have the start capital to put up the processing facilities needed. Of course, learning about seaweed harvesting and the species from Algaran, the Irish organic seaweed harvesting company, was the first and most useful help we received.

What support have you received from the University? Were there any particular curricular or extra-curricular activities that were instrumental in your and your business development?

We currently work with the Uni through a collaboration with the ECEHH. We are working through their In Residence scheme, which allows Exeter to carry out research on various aspects of seaweed such as nutritional benefits, microbial activity and heavy metal content. We also hope to establish a seaweed farm and Exeter is helping us with that as well.

What do you think has been your key to success so far?

Perseverance, as we really had to fight to find out how to legally harvest seaweed, and get the licence. Our unique, nutritional, sustainable and healthy products help a lot as well. It is such a different product or service any other startup business provides, we were able to secure some necessary funding. I like to believe our personalities and what we stand for helped as well. We truly believe in seaweed as a superfood, but also the lifestyle associated with it. It’s hard work, but we love to be near and in the sea and this gives donors and customers the confidence and trust in us and our products.

Have you made any mistakes along the way? Is so, what have you learnt from these? And further, if you could go back in time, are there any things that you would change or would do differently?

Many! Don’t rely too much on others. If you can become independent, do it as soon as possible. Start-up businesses have little funds, but investing money can be a very wise thing to do; saving time and effort in the near future and taking a business much further much quicker.

One thing I would have done differently is to not trying to do everything as low budget as possible. It seriously hampered getting Food Standard approval, and a decent drying and storage area,  thus allowing us to sell seaweed on the market.

What can we look forward to in terms of your business? Have you got any future plans for it?

Hopefully we will become the largest producer of seaweed in England, moving into Europe. We are supplying more and more deli’s health food stores and restaurants, including London, and we hope to make our seaweeds a regular ingredient in people’s food. We would also like to use seaweed to educate people about the health benefits, healthy eating and a closer relationship with nature by doing seaweed foraging and cooking courses and doing presentations and demo’s at schools etc. We are also developing a new product range, as an addition to simply dried seaweeds. This may include a seaweed salt and seaweed flour.

How about yourself? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

5- Taking on a more managing role of the growing business.

10- On another adventure, but still on the board of the company (if it still exists). Unless someone offers decent money to buy me out!

What advice do you have for University of Exeter students who are looking to start their own business?

Do it. It’s the best thing you’ll ever do. Don’t be afraid of failure, because even if the business doesn’t take off, you’d have learnt so much you will do well in your next venture.

It can be hard, sacrifices will have to be made, but it will build confidence and knowledge and will get you in touch with amazing inspiring people.