Nelson entrepreneur Alex Pressman is turning an invasive marine pest into a business. He harvests a species of native seaweed and turns it into plant nutrients and crop protection products for domestic and overseas markets in Asian, American and European farmers.    

Pressman moved to New Zealand in 2002, settling in Nelson after he sold a software company he established in the Silicon Valley, which had 160 staff. Now he harvests the pest species of seaweed called Undaria (wakame), classified as an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act 1993. But the pest is also edible and can be turned into organic products for farmers, which Pressman manufactures, markets and distributes to the growers through major agronomic supply companies such as Mainfert, Horticentre, Daltons and PGG Wrightson.

Pressman has an active mind and loves solving problems. “We had a problem in the environment of an invasive species of seaweed, Wakame. So, I thought, ‘why don’t I get it out of the marine environment and solve a problem of overuse of toxic chemicals in our farming system.’ At the time Undaria was not being developed by anyone else in NZ so I took on a challenge to see if I could make a sustainable business out of it.”  

Pressman and his young family moved to New Zealand 22 years ago, while in his thirties. He wanted to take early retirement for a quieter life, but his active mind had other ideas. “I did retire, and it was not good for my mental health,” he says. “I felt I had a lot to contribute.”

So as CEO of Waikaitu, a startup he founded in 2012, Pressman registered his bio-fungicide product, a liquid spray, with ADAMA, in Peru. ADAMA, a $4.5B company, is one of the world’s leading crop protection companies. Waikaitu’s product, ACTAVAN®, is ADAMA’s first global bio-fungicide. It helps to prevent the occurrence of fruit rots in crops such as grapes, berries, and certain vegetables, incorporating sustainable agricultural practices. Many more countries are now in the process of registering ACTAVAN® as a bio- fungicide.

 Waikaitu uses 100% wild harvested seaweed, made exclusively from the brown algae species Undaria pinnatifida which is invasive to New Zealand.

“Sustainable farming is the future for feeding the world’s population in a way that is better for the planet and better for business,” Pressman says. “We are trying to reduce the damage to the environment and to our health by reducing the amount of toxic chemistry in our food.”

Pressman was able to get the attention of ADAMA through business contacts of one of Waikaitu’s investors, who knew the head of the New Zealand branch of ADAMA.  However, registering the product was a time-consuming process. It took more than five years, which he says was frustrating.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s so non-toxic, all the ingredients have been given the tick by the European Food Safety Association. The market wants these types of products, this product shows good efficacy, and it shows tremendous safety, but it still takes many years to get it through the registration process. However, ADAMA has a great track record of getting products through the registration process, so we really can’t ask for a better partner.”

Pressman soon found that running a startup like Waikaitu was quite different to managing a large software company in the United States. He found it surprisingly challenging but pressed on, knowing that any benefits outweigh challenges, and is rewarding.

When I see the product, I get a feeling of tangibility that I didn’t have in software,” he says. “But it’s been a lot harder than I expected it to be. We are not doing it because it is easy, we are doing it because we thought it was going to be easier than it is.”

The seaweed Waikaitu uses is an invasive species, but it is a surprisingly beneficial seaweed for human consumption, Pressman says. “Think of it as a medicine for plants. The ability to produce plentiful inexpensive food is the foundation of civilisation and we have excess food that we can sell on the world’s market, so anything we can do to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel additives is worth exploring.”

By removing Undaria pinnatifida from the water, the spread of viable spores is reduced, minimising their impact on the marine environment.

Given Waikaitu’s widespread distribution in New Zealand through major companies, Pressman says most people would have eaten vegetables sprayed with his product.

“I would say that everyone who drinks New Zealand wine or has eaten avocados or kiwifruit have eaten food that has used our product.”

Developing the product required several years of trial work to ensure crops or people’s health weren’t damaged, and he raised $3.5m of venture capital, creating a business plan, pitching it to friends and family as well as investors.

Were Pressman to restart Waikaitu, he says he’d do almost everything differently; in particular, the process of registering products. “If I had known of the complexity of the registration process, I probably would have handled it differently, done some steps earlier, and saved a year and a half off the process.”

As an entrepreneur, Pressman has had mentors throughout the business process, taking their advice for every aspect of the startup. They also brought connections and customers and were vital to the growth of Waikaitu.

“If we don’t have mentors, how are we supposed to understand all aspects of the business? It doesn’t come naturally,” he says. “We should learn from other businesspeople who can guide us past the minefield of potential mistakes.”

He also has some words of advice for those seeking to run a startup later in life. “Age is not a barrier to starting your own business. Be prepared for it to take much longer and be much harder than you think; and be prepared to react to changing customer demand and be open to change. Curiosity, inventiveness, and flexibility are important in surviving and thriving in our rapidly changing world. Thankfully, New Zealanders are well suited to entrepreneurship because they have the right attitude of self-reliance and drive.”

But the biggest quality of entrepreneurship Pressman has learned is resilience. “I think it’s very important for entrepreneurs to understand the need for resilience, and to take care of themselves. Healthwise, running a startup like this takes a lot out of you, so you need to stay physically fit. There can be some low lows running a startup but the highs are worth the journey.”

Story by Dave Crampton in partnership with Nelson Regional Development Agency (NRDA).

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