Irish start-ups have a sea of opportunities in aquatech

19 Oct 2023

Technicians testing a nitrate sensor at the Aquamonitrix lab in Co Carlow. Image: BIM

BIM, the Irish seafood development agency, wants to make Ireland the Silicon Valley of aquatech. Today, an inaugural business award will mark its first major step.

In recent decades, Ireland has established itself as an EU hub for Big Tech despite being a small island, and has become an particularly strong medtech hub despite lagging behind its similar-sized neighbours in clinical trials.

One area of technology, however, where Ireland’s growing prowess should not come as a surprise is aquatech, that is, the technology industry built around fishing and seafood in Ireland, given that we are an island with a seafood economy worth €1.3bn in GDP as of last year.

This growth is evidenced by the fact that Irish aquatech companies turned over €212m last year, according to Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), Ireland’s seafood development agency, prompting some to proclaim we have the potential to become the next Silicon Valley of aquatech.

To help promote this burgeoning industry to more entrepreneurs and investors, BIM, which was founded in 1952, is hosting an in Kerry today (19 October) where the inaugural BIM Aquatech Business of the Year will be awarded a grand prize.

‘We can farm only so much on land’

We recently spoke to Richard Donnelly, development and innovation director at BIM, about the role the agency plays in fostering the aquatech ecosystem and how the Kerry event will further this mission.

“In 1952, we were set up to help develop the fishing industry in Ireland because it was really underdeveloped – we didn’t even have vessels to go and catch the fish,” Donnelly said, describing how BIM developed boatyards and provided loans to those involved in fishing to promote activity in the sector.

“In the last 30 years, we’ve taken an active role in aquaculture, the farming of mainly salmon, mussels and oysters. Through that involvement, we’ve always been directed at the seafood sector,” he said.

“But more recently, only in the last five years, we’ve looked at what we call the aquatech sector. And this is technology directed towards the global aquaculture industry, which we really want to focus on.”

But why aquaculture? Donnelly said that growing Ireland’s seafood industry by involving technology has several key benefits to the economy, not least because of the wealth of water access available to the island.

“Aquaculture is the fastest growing protein sector in the world. To feed the planet in the future, we can only farm so much on land now and the logical place to go is into the sea,” he explained.

“But aquaculture is a relatively new industry. It had been practiced by monks in the past, but modern aquaculture, particularly salmon and shrimp farming, has only developed in the last 50 years, meaning that the technologies are primitive compared to agriculture.”

Taking advantage of tech talent

And now, given the availability of abundant coastline as well as a thriving tech entrepreneurship scene, BIM believes Ireland should capitalise on this global opportunity.

“We have a small aquaculture industry compared to the likes of Norway or Scotland. But where we have a real advantage is in our young, educated population and our tech industry, especially around pharma, genetics, financial services and IT,” Donnelly went on.

“What we are looking for, is to cross-fertilise those industries into the aquaculture industry. We need start-up companies coming to service that industry from those other disciplines.”

This is the aim of BIM’s Innovation Studios, the two-week programme aimed at Ireland’s aquatech start-ups that has led up to today’s conference.

One winner will be chosen from a pool of three finalists out of eight companies that took part in the programme based in Killorglin, Co Kerry. The three finalists in the running for Aquatech Business of the Year include Aquamonitrix, Aqualicence and Konree Innovation.

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic