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Founders of Origin by Ocean standing by water filled with algae

Introducing Origin by Ocean — An interview with CEO Mikael Westerlund

Origin by Ocean turns algae into a variety of ingredients while fighting the eutrophication problem in our seas. The company was recently named as one of the ten most promising startups in Finland by the Finnish business magazine Talouselämä. 

Already to date, Origin by Ocean has partnered up with some of the most prominent companies in Finland. It is planning to open its first commercial biorefinery unit in 2025. 

Why does Origin by Ocean exist? 

We exist for the natural balance of ocean life. We want to alleviate the global eutrophication problem we have in our oceans — and we want to do it in a highly sustainable manner. 

What is the problem that you solve? 

All over the world, we see huge amounts of excess nutrients being transported to the oceans through floods and rains. For example, in the Baltic Sea, the excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus create blue-green algae blooms. We are trying to address this problem.  

What do you make of algae? 

As a startup, we had to make a difficult decision considering which products to start with. We concluded on a combination of eight different products that can be split into basically four different types of product categories: sugars, emulsifiers, pigments, and antioxidants. Our partners use these ingredients in production of food, beverages, cosmetics, and detergents. 

A good example of an emulsifier product that we can produce is a new, very trendy out-based yoghurt. Our customer wants the product to be experienced by the consumer as yoghurt, so it needs to have a certain texture and mouthfeel. Our emulsifier product then creates this experience for the oat-based product. 

We have already partnered up with well-known Finnish companies, such as Valio, Hartwall, and Kiilto. They all represent different kinds of use cases of our products: food, beverages, and detergents. 

CEO Mikael Westerlund
"We're hoping to enter the integrated pilot phase a year from now," Westerlund says.

How do you measure sustainability? 

In our case, it is fairly easy to do. We know how much biomass we will be using in our factory and we know how much nutrients this biomass will remove from the oceans. We can already say, that our first biorefinery unit, that we’re now planning to build here in Finland, will remove around 900 tons of nitrogen and 90 tons of pure phosphorus from the oceans on an annual basis. It is already one third of the commitment that the Finnish government made on the HELCOM agreement. It is quite substantial. 

Where does Origin by Ocean’s idea come from? 

Actually, the idea originates from my co-founder, Mari Granström. Mari has a background in organic chemistry and she is extremely engaged in all kinds of environmental topics and discussions. She has been studying and working with new biorefinery concepts and bio-based products for a long time. About ten years ago, she started looking for ways to create something totally new, innovative and sustainable to help the oceans. 

As Mari didn’t want to run such a complex project on her own, she started to look for a co-founder. We met at a startup event in Porvoo, in September 2018. We considered the fact that we get along very well and match each other’s skillsets nicely. So that’s when our mutual journey began. She is the scientist, and I’m the businessperson in this project.  

Have there been any rough patches? 

In February 2020, on week 9, we were supposed to be closing our seed investment round. That was the same week Covid-19 hit Finland and Western Europe. As a result, all the agreements we were just about to sign went down the drain. We had to renegotiate everything. 

But fortunately, we were able to close the seed investment round in May, last year. It was extremely important for us, so that we could employ people and properly start working on this topic. 

What motivates you? 

I was born in Nauvo, in the archipelago of Turku. I was brought up on this island with clear blue waters, having the opportunity to go swimming every day in the summer. One day, when my daughter was about three years old, she stood crying on the beach. That was because it was extremely hot, and she couldn’t go swimming because the sea was full of blue-green algae. Personally, it was a pivoting point to me, and it is a memory that drives my motivation. 

What is it like to be part of the Espoo innovation ecosystem? 

We enjoy being here in Otaniemi. We think that the closeness to the Aalto University campus is extremely nice. Besides, we are looking forward to some interesting meetings that have been arranged for us by Enter Espoo. Thus, at the moment, we think that this environment is really good for us. 

What are the next steps for Origin by Ocean? 

Currently, we are doing product sample shipments to our customers on a weekly basis. And we are hoping to enter the next phase of this project, an integrated pilot phase, a year from now. It will be a key step forward for us in the journey towards our first commercial biorefinery unit, planned to open in 2025.  

Images: Origin by Ocean

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