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P | P | P – our chat with ARC Marine

We caught up with Sam Hickling, CSO and Oceanographer at ARC Marine as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. ARC Marine are an eco-engineering and sustainable fishing company. Founded in 2015, the team are world leaders in nature inclusive solutions. Using their patented technologies, ARC Marine are able to provide lasting solutions for the future success of marine life. Their award-winning eco-designs are suited to sub-sea infrastructure, including Reef Cubes®, Marine Matt®, Marine Crete®, and Marine Armour®.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Hi Sam, great to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself, what ARC Marine do, the stage you are at currently, and what makes ARC Marine’s offering unique?

Sam: My name is Sam Hickling, and I am the CSO at ARC Marine. ARC Marine is an ecological engineering company our mission is to accelerate reef creation, we specialise in hard infrastructure within the marine environment. It is ecological engineering because we focus on the creation of marine ecosystems, particularly integrated into normal engineering. We have just secured our seed II of £2 million investment and we are hoping to begin our series A in 2023   before an eventual IPO.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Please could you share the origin story behind ARC Marine?

Sam: It started with Tom Birbeck (CEO and Co-Founder), James Doddrell (Manufacturing Lead and Co-founder) and James Murphy (Marine Scientist). They noticed that there had been a lot of damage to coral reefs in the news and also witnessing it first hand as divers on the seafloor. The rocky reefs in Lyme Bay are of national significance, but Tom, James, and James noticed a lot of damage that was being done to the area on the seafloor by trawling. There was a nature reserve created in the area and that was a stimulator for the guys to realise how much damage had actually been done on the seafloor. They took it upon themselves to try and create a reef. James had been in the process of trying to create a reef with an old naval vessel, the ARC Royal, and Tom, who was working in media at the time, got together with James and they decided to try and make a reef. As they were going through the materials to try and make the reef, they decided they could make their own version of a concrete unit, and this spurred on the beginning of ARC Marine and the reef cube product. Since then, it has been exploring all of the different diverse ways that we can use reef cube in the marine environment and incorporate it into normal business, rather than using them in an abstract way.

Imogen @ ADLIB: I have seen previously the use of cinder blocks on the ocean floor to support lobster hiding spots in a similar vein to an artificial reef. Could you discuss why the reef cube is a superior product to the use of alternatives that are not for a specific marine purpose, such as cinder blocks?

Sam: It comes down to habitat complexity; if you compare a normal piece of hard infrastructure such as a boulder or a rock that has been dropped on the seafloor to protect windfarms or concrete mats to layover pipelines. There is a wide variety of hard objects that are placed on the seafloor that prevent erosion or to protect mankind. However, none of them have that much going on in terms of habitat complexity. For example, they are often basic objects which are very smooth and featureless because they have been designed to suit a purpose for mankind.

The difference between reef cubes and an everyday object like that, is that the reef cube has passageways on each side and a spherical chamber in the centre. The spherical chamber is really good because it allows fish to shoal inside and shelter and each of the openings allows access to the space, and escape routes. The holes also allow water to funnel through the chamber so the organisms living on the outside have a greater surface area to occupy and a greater variety of surfaces to occupy. By incorporating greater complexity into the structure, you can create more shelter opportunities for mobile species and more habitat opportunities for the sessile species. This also increases feeding potential for the sessile species as the water funnels through quite quickly through the inside of the structure. Because you are actually creating secondary production, you are encouraging more feeding opportunities for those grazing mobile species so targeting the bottom species. This is what makes ARC Marine more unique, as we are trying to take the ecosystem as a primary design mentality and the engineering goes hand in hand with this. The higher complexity means that there are a wider variety of niches that exist in the ecosystem and so because there are more niches, you can expect a greater diversity in the ecosystem itself, either in the functions of the different animals living there, but also for the number of species too and their relationships too.  

Imogen @ ADLIB: That makes sense to work based on what the habitat already shows you and develop a product that helps imitate this.

Sam: There are some older examples of people using bricks vs cinder blocks and even in this case, it was found that there were advantages in terms of secondary production just by having spaces inside the cinder blocks. However, the problem with that is that you only have 1 shelter space size and 1 shape so you are not mixing it up very much. What we like to try and do is incorporate as many different sizes of reef cube as possible and then also put smaller reef cubes inside of each other and add little attachments, so you are creating a really great variety of shelter spaces. You can then cater for organisms that are all different size ranges, rather than focusing on 1 species. ARC Marine has an ecosystem approach, rather than a monocrop approach, such as focusing solely on supporting lobsters. Unfortunately, part of the funding system is heavily associated with fishing so sometimes it is important to have a fishery species target, but I don’t think it is a very long-term view if you are just targeting 1 species and looking at immediate catch increases.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Yes, I completely agree. Speaking of people, could you share some challenges that ARC Marine have faced, are currently facing, or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you would like to share with businesses you think will share similar issues?

Sam: Yes; one of the major issues that we are facing at the moment is that we have an idea of roles that we need to fill in the future but at present, there isn’t enough demand within the company to warrant creating a full-time position. It is quite difficult to encourage committed staff members to come in when you are starting it off with piecemeal work. This is especially so in terms of manufacturing. We manufacture ourselves as this gives us greater control of the process and what goes into the materials, at this point in time for the company the amount of orders mean that we do not require a team of full-time staff members but it is hard to encourage people you want to keep long-term to join the company in a part-time or casual capacity.

I think in terms of overcoming this, it comes down to creating a clear scale of work so that you can encourage someone in on a casual basis and saying to them you can be made perm further down the line.

In terms of advice for other companies, from a leadership perspective, even on a small team basis it is important that you aren’t surprised to be disappointed by some people. It can be easy when you are in a start-up to have a massive vision and be really motivated by it, and it is good to give people in your team the same opportunities and to grow, but it is important to expect to be disappointed if members of your team don’t necessarily share the vision. You need to know how to manage this in case it does happen.

Imogen @ ADLIB: That is really interesting, do you mean in terms of some people are there for a job alone and aren’t motivated by the vision?

Sam: Yes, I think so. We work for a very interesting company, and I really enjoy it, I think you can go overboard and push people too hard rather than just expecting that they might not be the right person for the job. You may have to accept that people aren’t as passionate about what you’re doing as you are.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Moving to product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit, or sales cycles?

Sam: From my perspective, the initial thing that we look at is the science. The science plays a big role in the product and so we look at the literature and do a lot of Google Scholar searches on the subject to see if anyone has done something similar. Oftentimes there will be encouraging or discouraging material depending on the idea. Based on the scientific basis in the idea, we will pursue it further.

This doesn’t mean that there has to be someone with the idea first, but it is a good starting point because scientists are basing their ideas on data so you know they have a reliable opinion that you can trust. Once we have an idea that we think is scientifically backed, that then informs our design a little bit further as well so we know what to improve on, or what we should be improving on. From there, it usually goes into conversation with partners who will help introduce the product, or clients. Sometimes a really good idea in scientific literature, industry partners could still be really resistant to it because of a whole sweep of issues that the scientists may be unaware of. For example, how difficult it is to implement it into the system, or how difficult it is to manufacture it at cost, or how much more it is going to cost. From there it is about figuring out how to fit it into the industry and then moving on from there. Research and literature are the easy part; it is figuring out how to fit it into the industry and make it happen that is the harder part.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Yes, I can imagine. ARC Marine is also a sustainable fishing company as well; could you discuss this a little further?

Sam: Yes. We mostly just do scientific fishing at the moment, but it is an area we know needs reform. We are currently looking into the trapping of invasive species that are causing problems in ecosystems. One of the issues that we have with fisheries is that they are so unsustainable because they constantly consume but if you have a model of a fishery where you want it to be that way because you are trying to eradicate a species, we feel like that fits really well.

We mostly use static gear, like pots. We recognise that potting does have environmental issues with lost gear or crushing of vulnerable habitats within rocky reef areas. We use this to do scientific fishing. Over the past 2 years, my friend and I were doing scientific potting around a reef site in Torbay. The reform of fisheries is an important area for funding and also in general so it gives us an extra element to our research and it is also an important potential function of the reef cube product because if you can use it in co-location with aquaculture sites such as rope grown mussels, then you are looking at multi-trophic aquaculture where you are farming the seafloor as well as the water column and maximising that space whilst also renewing biodiversity in the space.

Imogen @ ADLIB: For potential, could you share some challenges or barriers you have faced when creating your products?

Sam: I would say that developing our own low carbon concrete was quite a big challenge because there aren’t many providers of cement alternatives that worked very well with our casting system. We created our own variety of concrete that we call Marine Crete®. This was mostly based on the literature with a little bit of experimentation by ourselves and local academics. This was a challenge to overcome because it required a lot of testing and trials but luckily it happened at a stage where we were quite new, so we had the time to trial it. What is really lucky is that we have come up with a good recipe in time to make the changes to our largescale manufacturing as it goes into effect because there would be new infrastructure that you would have to put into a normal conventional concrete establishment.

The other main challenge is acquiring funding for pilots and trials beyond investment. For example, grant funding is a major challenge for us. Grant funding is very useful for our research, and we wouldn’t be where we are without it, but it has also taken a significant amount of time to do the paperwork and manage the projects.

Imogen @ ADLIB: In terms of investment, what would your advice be for other start-ups who are looking to seek investment?

Sam: I don’t work too closely with seeking investment myself; perhaps fortunately! But Tom and James have managed it and I have watched them quite closely when they are seeking investment. It seems that a lot of our success comes from them maintaining a presence, for example calls with new investors and giving presentations and pitches. Some great success has also come from in-person pitches and accelerators. This has allowed us to maintain that presence and align the publicity with the investment and the vision of the company all at the same time.

Thank you for your time, Sam!