Industry fund could help young businesses get off the ground
AQUA Nor was a timely reminder of the many new products, developments and services that are launched to help the aquaculture industry and, especially, salmon farming. There is always the prospect of something new on the horizon. I mention this because I am sometimes contacted by people with new ideas. They eventually come to me because they are struggling to find the necessary help to bring their idea to the industry, particularly help with funding, and they hope that I might be able to point them in the right direction.
This may have been true once, but the innovation climate has changed considerably since I was last involved.
I too had an ‘idea’ that I hoped would benefit the industry and, many years on, I still think that it has merit.
The idea was sub-surface feeding. By introducing buoyant feed into the bottom of a net pen, the feed would still pass through the water column, but upwards rather than down.
Uneaten feed would not pass out into the open water but would appear at the surface, ensuring feeding would immediately stop.
The real benefit is that by feeding the salmon lower in the pen, they would be encouraged to avoid the surface layers, where larval sea lice tend to congregate.
Unfortunately, development of this product stumbled along the way. My view now is that this approach was probably too far ahead of its time.
Funding eventually ran out, despite help from the enterprise network. The concept was more recently put to the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC) for them to pursue, but they weren’t interested.
Against this background, I can fully understand the frustration of young companies that have a great idea but are unable to find ways to take it forward because they don’t have enough resources.
The reality is that the support no longer exists as it used to. This is in part due to the national austerity programme. It means less money to advise companies and less money to fund projects.
Although there are programmes specifically aimed at helping the Scottish salmon industry, they are of little help to the entrepreneurial small business.
Instead, they are more geared towards promoting collaborative academic research and are intended to attract companies with money.
Recently, the UK government announced the launch of a new Seafood Innovation Fund (SIF) and Stephen Kerr, MP for Stirling, suggested that some of this new money should be invested in the University of Stirling as it already has aquaculture expertise.
However, we also know of another small company hoping to apply to SIF for help. This company seemingly must compete against universities, innovation centres and research organisations for this funding, and thus its chances of taking the project forward are minimal.
The odds are always stacked against the small innovators, simply because while their ideas are good, they don’t have the necessary experience to effectively enter the application process.
It might be helpful if some of the existing expertise of big organisations could be redirected to help small companies succeed in the competition process.
Help with aquaculture research used to be available through the Scottish Aquaculture Research Forum (SARF).
This now defunct initiative was partly funded by member organisations, but the problem was that independent companies were unable to apply directly for help.
It seems to me that while new developments for aquaculture are coming on stream all the time, there are some ideas that simply cannot get off the drawing board because the proper guidance and funding is extremely difficult to access, even if it were available.
Perhaps it is time for a new alternative initiative to help promote and safeguard the future of the industry.
I would like to see a new innovation fund established by the industry itself- after all, any innovations will benefit all.
I have heard of small businesses approaching
individual farming companies to ask for help, only to be told that they would expect exclusivity. This is understandable but, at the same time, it is rather restrictive for what is a small industry.
Farming companies should contribute to a fund which could be administered by a small team from within the industry, who would assess the viability of any proposals.
However, it is not all about money; the fund could also link up young companies with mentors who have had experience of the innovation and development process, to ensure that the new idea is realised. The industry has an interest in safeguarding access to the best innovations and technology but often there are too many obstacles to overcome to allow the new development to come to market. An industry fund and mentoring service might help this actually happen.
“The odds are always stacked against innovators” the small
THERE are more trout products for pets than there are for humans, said Dr Martin Jaffa, who had been asked to give a positive analysis of market trends for trout, and other seafood.
He said there had been a huge decline in fish consumption at home in the past 10 years – down 35 grams per person per week, which was equivalent to thirteen 140 gram portions per person every year in the UK, according to Defra statistics.
‘Whole generations no longer eat fish and if you don’t eat fish your children won’t eat fish because you’re not bringing it into the house. ‘I struggle to be positive about it, I’ve been saying this for 10 years.’ Jaffa, Fish Farmer columnist and fisheries consultant, who writes a weekly blog on the website Callander McDowell, said the trend in the big supermarkets was to close down fish counters altogether, or to only keep them open part time. ‘The opportunities to sell fish are reducing.’ Although some 94 per cent of shoppers said they have an interest in health, and 88 per cent are actively trying to improve their diet (according to research by IGD), Jaffa was wary of health being a consumer driver.
He pointed to KFC, which announced recently that its healthy fast food option had been dropped from menus because no one bought it.
‘People will eat fish for health reasons but it won’t be the main priority; they buy fish because they like it.’
The problem was that fewer and fewer people do like it. The report by IGD found that they think fish is ‘scary’, they don’t like the way it looks or smells. And they ‘fear’ it, because they don’t know how to cook it.
Supermarkets have a role to play in increasing consumption of seafood, but they are going about it the wrong way, argued Jaffa.
‘I don’t have a dog so I’m never going to go down the pet food aisle…If I don’t buy fish I’ll never go to a fish counter and I’ll never see fish.’
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“I don’t have a dog so I’m never going to go down the pet food aisle”
Seafish data on chilled species has shown that trout sales value and volume have both decreased. This is because the products are not on people’s radar.
There were good products on the market – Jaffa cited Asda’s microwave trout fillets in Thai green sauce, which cost £3.50.
‘It is very easy to prepare and doesn’t taste bad…one of the best inventions on the fish market. But it is sadly no more.’
The reality is that people who do go for chilled fish aren’t interested in fish with sauce, so this product – stocked with other fish - is in the wrong place, it should be with other sauce [products] or proteins.
‘With these products, you are trying to attract consumers who don’t want to touch fish. Nobody who sees it wants to buy it.’
The Asda range had cod, haddock, trout and salmon when it was launched and now just salmon is left.
Jaffa said seafood had to be brought to the customer. Asda had one promotion where fish was at the entrance to the store – ‘where you least expect it’ - alongside other special offers on fruit and vegetables.
And Marks and Spencer has a promotion where it takes fish out of the fish counter and puts it with other protein, such as chicken or beef.
But supermarkets are not necessarily that interested in creating new images about fish; most of them would be happy to get rid of their fish counters, because they are very wasteful, said Jaffa.
Trout seems to sell better in stores like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose and this is the type of store on which the trout industry should focus expanding sales.
Jaffa also said the trend towards smaller, convenience Tesco Metros or Co-ops reduced further the range of fish on offer.
‘We have lost a whole group of consumers who are not eating fish at home and are not likely to, and we as a sector need to start again from scratch,’ he concluded.
Above: The industry has an interest in safeguarding access to the best innovations
Above Dying breedBooths fish counter in Manchester
Left: Supermarkets have a role to play in fish promotion
Top: French fish counter
Middle: Fewer opportunities to sell fish
Left: Retailers should put fish with other proteins