In March 2012, Robert Mock left the world of financial derivatives behind with an idea for a healthier chip that incorporates seaweed. Nine months later, he and three fellow cofounders have launched Burlingame, CA natural foods product company New Frontier, secured seed funding to produce Ocean’s Halo sustainably harvested seaweed chips, gotten distribution in natural food stores throughout the bay area, and are poised to roll out to Whole Foods and HEB-owned Central Market shelves on Jan. 1.
“The product has national appeal, and that’s what we were going for,” Mock told FoodNavigator-USA. “We didn’t want a chip that just appeals to a niche. I think seaweed is starting to grow out of its niche position in the market. By putting it in a chip, you really blow it out and it can become a national product.”
Mock, along with cofounders Mike Shim, Shin Rhee and Mike Buckley are all former finance and tech industry executives, which Mock says helped them get the company off the ground quickly. “We’re not 25-year-old guys. We may not be food people, but we’ve all had careers and know we can go fast if we need to,” he said.
The tech connection
New Frontier secured $1.7 million in its first round of seed funding last month, from a mix of private investors and advisory board members including current and former executives at ConAgra, Starbucks, Yahoo, Google, Hershey (Scharffen Berger), Pinterest and Facebook. The company raised additional funds through CircleUp, an online platform that helps connect investors with consumer brands.
“There’s definitely that tech connection—Mike [Shim] has a nice network of tech folks because he worked for Yahoo and Groupon here on the west coast," Mock said. "But I also sent product to my network in Texas and other places like Oklahoma, where you wouldn’t think you’d have early adopters—and I was surprised we had so many of those people invest. That was encouraging to me to see it had wider appeal.”
The funds helped New Frontier launch Ocean’s Halo The Seaweed Chip at Natural Products Expo East this year. Mock and Shim hired San Francisco-based product development company Mattson—which has worked with the likes of Nabisco, Kraft, Frito-Lay and Hormel—to help them develop the chip after a short stint of experimenting in their own kitchens.
“At Mattson, we went through 70 iterations to make seaweed in a chip form. We really wanted to achieve the right balance of nutrition and ingredients,” he said. “Mattson originally laid out a two-year plan for us, but from start to finish it took just eight months. They said it was the fastest launch they’ve ever done.”
Nailing the supply chain
The chip is gluten-free (made with rice flours and sesame seeds) and non-GMO. It’s made with the Porphyra Tenera seaweed variety, (the scientific name for nori that’s used in Japanese sushi rolls). New Frontier currently sources its seaweed exclusively from South Korea.
“We’ve tried really great seaweed from Austin, Texas; New Zealand; and Ireland, but the highest grade, best tasting edible seaweed we could find was South Korean,” Mock said. “That was a huge hurdle for us to overcome and made us that much more secure in how we supplied our raw material.”
He added that having a secure supply chain makes it easier to ramp up in anticipation of rolling out at bigger retailers. “Part of our success is we’ve completely nailed supply chain up front and way ahead of launch,” he noted.
Seaweed’s multifaceted appeal
Although some nutrients are lost during the baking process, seaweed has an excellent nutritional profile—high in calcium, iodine, iron, and vitamins A and C—which is far superior to any chip, “even kale,” Mock said. “Making a chip that’s healthy, rather than ‘less bad for you’ is awesome for the four of us because we’re all dads.”
Not only that, but seaweed is sustainably farmed in the ocean using sunlight, which “resonates with a lot of folks,” Mock noted. “We didn’t set out to save the planet by finding a sustainable, negative carbon footprint ingredient in seaweed, but it’s hard not to rally behind it. We tried to stay on brand, so ended up spending a bit more to get a certified compostable bag as well.”
Knowing when to hold back … and when to listen
Ocean’s Halo is currently available in four flavors—chili lime, Korean BBQ, hot & spicy and sea salt—and the company has two additional varieties that are ready to be rolled out: Texas BBQ and sweet onion. The company launched with the most popular four flavors (based on consumer tests) and is holding the other two back.
“No store is going to pick up all six flavors—probably the most they’d take is three,” Mock said. “When we go for someone like Target, it’s nice to have those other flavors available. When Target picked up Pop Chips, for example, they offered them a special flavor only available at Target. Retailers love that, and now we have flavors we can offer exclusivity on, so we’re going to bring those out over time.”
In addition to advising on product rollouts, Mock said the advisory board has been critical in many parts of the decision-making process, particularly given the founders’ inexperience in the food industry.
“We set up the advisory board with some of our earliest investors, and we talk to them every week—even on little decisions,” Mock said. “We do a lot of listening. Because of them, we were able to know which shows to go to, what to expect from them and who to talk to. We’re also avoiding a lot of mistakes by continuing to listen and be open to those know the business and have good advice.”