Impact Journalism Day
Resuscitating seaweeds for a better world
Most people don't think of seaweed as a particularly valuable resource. However, a newly-found Greek company, "PHEE", has identified in seaweed a first class and innovative business opportunity.
Approximately three years ago, at a conference on entrepreneurship, Stavros Tsompanidis heard the founder of Coco-mat, Paul Efmorfidis, say that seaweed is an asset for Greece. At that time, a large wave of events and seminars to support young companies had begun; something that interested the then 20-year old student of the department of Banking and Financial Management at the University of Piraeus. Tsompanidis wanted to test himself in the business world and working with seaweed was the idea that he was looking for and inspired him to take action. What would he do? "Revive" dead seaweed.
For several months he carried out research to see how he could use the dead leaves of the Posidonia oceanica seaweed that washed up on the nation's shore. This is a marine plant that lives at a depth of 1–35 m (depending on the water clarity) in dense fields or along channels in the Mediterranean sand. Its fronds decompose prior to the winter season and the dead seaweed accumulates along the 46,000 km Mediterranean coastline. The Greek coastline spans 13,780 km, thus the dead seaweed that is washed up on our beaches make up 28% of the total.
And he found it: He could process dead seaweed and transform it into natural surfaces, from which recyclable products and accessories could be derived – a worldwide innovation. This is how "PHEE" was born. Young people with different educational backgrounds and skills started working on the idea alongside Stavros, who had the entrepreneurial vision, and almost from the beginning engineer and aeronaut, Dr Nikolaos Athanasopoulos of the University of Patras, co-founded the company with him as head of research and development of the company, to focus on research in the field of materials and specialisation in the development of biosynthetic materials.
By talking to coastal municipalities, the members of the team discovered that an average of 200–250 tonnes of seaweed is washed up every year on the beaches of each region. "We realised that the raw material is there, and actually in huge quantities. At the same time, municipalities are spending a lot of money cleaning up seaweed from the beaches and bury about 60–70% of it in sanitary landfills, which has economic and environmental implications", explains Dr Athanasopoulos, who states that their company has a significant environmental and social impact, as it helps to reduce the volume of garbage and save public money: "We are something like an anti-landfill."
For the last eighteen months, the "PHEE" company has been operating in the region of Achaia, where they have set up a small production unit somewhere near the sea. "Coastal municipalities will supply us with the dead seaweed. We are already working with municipal authorities of Achaia so that they can provide us with the raw material, as our company does not undertake the cleaning of the beaches. We then process the raw material using a method we have developed over the last two years. In the next stage and through a process which is completely environmentally friendly, we produce natural surfaces (panels) – the PHEE board – a product that is protected by a patent in selected countries in Europe and America," mentions Stavros.
According to laboratory research, the company's panel can be considered to be a substitute for specific timber products (e.g. MDF). And with regards to commercial applications? There is a plethora of items that can be made from the panel of processed seaweed: From everyday products and accessories to furniture and thermal insulation panels.
In the middle of May, the company launched the Phee-case, the first case for smartphones made of seaweed, which consumers can find in selected shops in Greece and abroad as well through their on-line shop. "Our goal was to make useful end products which have been derived from a raw material which is considered by many people in Greece to be solid waste and unfortunately ends up in landfills." So, how would you feel about wearing sandals made of seaweed or protecting yourself from the sun with ... seaweed sunglasses? PHEE is already designing and developing the next products to be made with the PHEE-board.
A business idea with significant recognition
The innovative entrepreneurial vision, as well as the countless hours of research, harvesting and processing seaweed that the team spends in perfecting its product, seemed to bear fruit: In addition to the patents that the newly-found company has registered with the Hellenic Industrial Property Organisation, PHEE has excelled in several competitions at home and abroad. The company even reached the final stage of the European Social Innovation Competition in 2015, organised by the European Commission and in which 1,400 participants from 40 different countries participated.
How easy is it for a 23-year-old Greek businessman in 2016? Stavros Tsompanidis says that, "if you have the right partners, nothing is impossible. Persistence and patience are required to take on the business risk. However, it is true that entrepreneurship in Greece is not aided; there is a lack of tools to help young businessmen in their first steps."