Ireland’s seafood industry is – pardon the pun – on the crest of a wave, with the produce of our impressive seas in big demand as far away as China and Japan.
A smart office block tucked away off the N71 in Clonakilty holds the key to the success of many innovative products, hoping to tap into that potential.
The expert staff in the state-of-the-art facility at BIM’s Seafood Development Centre (SDC) are hugely passionate about the opportunities on offer to Irish firms willing to take a chance in this burgeoning industry.
Aileen Deasy is a Seafood Technologist at the Centre, and one of the driving forces behind the development of many of the new Irish seafood products you will see on your supermarket shelves.
She explains that the Centre is built around five key platforms – innovation, market research, product development, process development and industrial scale-up.
The innovation involves the SDC’s on-site scientists testing and exploring new products and ways of treating fish, and there are some very impressive machines at the Centre, that do everything from blister packing, to crumbing, to deep-frying products on a commercial scale.
The equipment on-site is expensive and needs regular maintenance – and access to these services is invaluable to a new start-up or a medium-sized company thinking of scaling up, that can’t take the investment risk without testing the market first.
The BIM operation means producers can come in and work on-site, test recipes, trial methods, see what the competition is doing, and leave with a ready-for-sale product that is comparable with anything the big firms can offer.
It’s a priceless resource for someone nervous about taking that first step with a new idea, and Aileen and her team will, in effect, hold the hands of anyone needing a bit of encouragement to try something new.
The Centre also shares information about new products and innovations with its client base, and there are regular workshops, too, to share this intelligence. It also creates a nice network for industry movers and shakers, and a great forum for peer companies to meet and discuss changes in the sector.
‘There is a big increase in innovation in seafood,’agrees Aileen. ‘And we communicate that through the workshops and by engaging with processors. I would say the level of interest in what is happening is definitely on the up. What you saw happening in the dairy and meat industry 15 to 20 years ago, is happening with fish now. Fish is now the fourth highest traded commodity in the world.’
One of the recent workshops examined new and emerging technologies – ideas that can cut costs and provide options for producers that they might not necessarily know about, or have thought about.
These can range from developments in shelflife, to new ingredients, to new processing methods. ‘People travelled from all over the country to the workshop and there was a huge uptake in it,’ recalls Aileen.
She adds that workshops can also be tailored to particular clients. ‘We sometimes target the workshops, as they may not be relevant to all. For example, we might decide to share the development of new recipes or flavours, that wouldn’t be for everyone.’
Another recent innovation is teaching firms how to recover more flesh off the bone, to add value to their product. ‘This reduces the risk of investing, if the processor can get more from the fish. We have equipment here and the technology that can do that, and it reduces their initial cost if they don’t have to invest in that at the start. We are taking the risk for them.’
They are also developing processes that can extended shelf life, and ‘use by’ dates. ‘This can have a huge impact on a company,’ explains Aileen. ‘If you can add two days to a product, it is the difference between selling it in Ireland, a market of 4m people, or getting it to the UK, with 64m people, or on to France.’
But not every initial idea results in success, of course. ‘We fail a lot of products, too, and sometimes people come in with one idea, and leave with another one,’Aileen points out.
The in-house chef, who has an impressively stocked larder, is on hand to help firms trial new recipes, products or ingredients. ‘He can tweak recipes, and organise tastings, and there are a lot of innovative things coming from UCC, too, that we can put into practice here.’
Aileen sites the success of the Limerick-based company Silver Darlings, run by Finnish native Kirsti O’Kelly, which has discovered an Irish market for a Scandinavian delicacy – pickled herring. Kirsti is, so far, the only herring pickler in Ireland!
The Centre also has a hub in the North West – in Killybegs in Donegal – another huge area for fisheries and new products. And there are local offices dotted around the coast – which should be the first port of call for local firms. From that initial contact, the local manager can filter the ideas and refer the ones with the most potential to Clonakilty.
The vast facilties in Clonakilty belie the modest size of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ team. From cool rooms, to freezer areas, testing facilities, blind testing desks, supermarket display cabinets, product comparison and packaging cabinets, kitchens, a canteen area, and machinery of every kind – even showers – are all available to clients.
With 20-30 projects on the go the whole time, research is a huge part of the service, too, as nutrition is becoming increasingly important when marketing a new product, and all the talk about ‘superfoods’ – of which fish is, of course, one of the oldest and best.
‘We are here to serve the seafood processors,’ says Aileen, ‘and ideally, we are aiming at the export business.’
She gives the example of Keohane’s Seafoods from Bantry: ‘Five years ago they knocked on our doors. Today they have 70 people employed.’
When a firm does come ‘knocking’ the Centre can give them advice too, as well as the practical help. Enterprise Ireland offer innovation ‘vouchers’ worth up to €5,000, and the SDC can point applicants in the right direction to avail of this, and other, resources. They have also produced a ‘Start your own business’ pack for incubator firms and start-ups.