A tried and tested approach to innovation

We have recently established a new group – the Seafish Expert Panel - to help our work to bridge the gap between the seafood industry and the research community. One of the priorities of this panel is to promote, support and drive innovation in the seafood industry. Mark Berry, the panel’s chair, blogs on how the Seafish Expert Panel will look to act as the catalyst to help the sector solve its enduring technical challenges.

The Seafish Expert Panel comprises of a number of experts that know something that’s relevant, useful and interesting to the seafood industry in the UK. Our focus is to support the industry as it tries to overcome its problems. We can do this by identifying gaps in knowledge, support research to fill these gaps and help industry to use what we find out to make better business or policy decisions.

At the core of the panel we have a small number of experts with very different expertise. Steven Mackinson’s knowledge is in fisheries management, stock assessments and marine sustainability; Liam Fassam is an expert in supply chain and logistics while I am a bio-chemist by training with knowledge in nutrition, and many years of experience in research and innovation from the food industry. We are currently recruiting for a further member with expertise in behavioural science or marketing who can bring that perspective to issues such as what drives a consumer to choose fish rather than chicken or why some fishermen choose not to wear safety gear when at sea even though the law requires them to. Supported by Seafish’s Director of Operations Aoife Martin and Head of Horizon Scanning Angus Garrett, we represent the panel’s ‘hub.’

We don’t pretend that we know everything we could possibly need to know - the seafood industry is simply too big and complex for that. We therefore have a number of further experts that we call on when we need advice on particular topics such as aquaculture, plastics, economics, policy and law to mention a few. Where we have gaps in experience, we will seek out suitably qualified individuals with a view to co-opting them onto the panel. With this hub and spoke structure we cover a wider range of topics, while ensuring we maintain a strategic focus.

We know that innovation is an engine that can drive growth. The seafood industry has a record of innovation, but there are opportunities to do substantially more. The Seafish Expert Panel will aim to facilitate this innovation by encouraging relevant research, bringing potential project partners together, unlocking funding and offering guidance and encouragement along the way.

We’re using a tried and tested approach here that begins by identifying the problems where innovation could provide the solution and which, if solved, could really make a difference to the industry. These aren’t likely to be short-term problems or specific to one business and there will be no easy wins. Rather, they are enduring technical challenges – challenges that are not going to go away any time soon. Solutions will be difficult to find – it might take two or three or even five years to make progress, but the benefits from solving them would be enjoyed by the industry for many, many years to come.

By speaking with influential and senior players throughout the seafood sector - from aquaculture and wild capture fisheries to processing and exporting – we have begun to identify a list of these enduring technical challenges. We are continuing to consult on and prioritise this list at the moment, but the sort of challenges might include how we develop a fully integrated traceability system for seafood and how we retrieve lost fishing gear. It’s likely that none of these enduring technical challenges will come as a surprise to those in the industry. However, what’s new is that we’ve decided to address these challenges in a coordinated and systematic way.

Once the list of enduring technical challenges is finalised and released, we will seek partners from both industry and the research community to work collaboratively to tackle the challenges head on. Each of us on the Seafish Expert Panel has a track record of building consortia and we will seek to partner interested organisations, individuals and experts together. There may be projects on which companies are willing to come together with their usual competitors to tackle in a precompetitive way; others may wish to work more privately.

Finding funding can be difficult but the panel will be on hand to support. The UK Seafood Innovation Fund - which reopens for bids in early 2020 – will be one route to explore but there will be other sources of funding that we will try to match projects to. Some funders will insist on small companies being involved or playing a leading role, so there is room for collaboration between players of all sizes across the industry.

Nearly all the innovations and inventions I have been involved in have come not from one bright individual but from teamwork. The most successful consortia often include a large multinational company, some very small companies and some academics. Variety and diversity is a rich recipe for success in creativity and innovation.

While I hadn’t worked in the seafood industry professionally before joining the panel, my dad’s family came from a very long line of boat builders, merchant seaman and fishermen. All my life I’ve had a fascination and interest in the sea, marine life and fish and it’s been a pleasure to work with the rest of the team doing the ground work in 2019. I look forward to working with the Seafish Expert Panel and collaborators in 2020 and the years to come to try and make progress towards solving these enduring technical challenges together.