BY JESSICA HICKS AND DIANA NICHOLAS
Marc Laflamme is co-founder and COO of Kelpy, a kelp chip company that’s shifting sustainability and health in consumer food products. Along with three other students at Lehigh University, Laflamme created the seaweed-based snack that’s highly nutritious and promises a higher impact for the environment, than say the usual potato chip snack. Laflamme took the time to update the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center on how the company has grown in its size and mission to make Kelpy a staple snack food on supermarket shelves.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
ML: Entrepreneurship means pursuing something that has no ceiling or limit and being able to apply creativity and dedication into something I can call my own. Being an entrepreneur is likely the best experience of my life — albeit, very challenging at times.
What inspired you to turn seaweed into a healthy snack?
ML: It all started in a sustainable development class I took my freshman year. A handful of Lehigh University students — who would eventually comprise the Kelpy team — and I were working on a project to curb nitrate pollution at the mouth of the Mississippi River. One of my group members read about the potential of seaweed, especially kelp, to bolster aquatic environments damaged by agricultural and industrial runoff.
We then spent a lot of time assessing kelp as a consumer good. We saw that there wasn’t a huge market for kelp in the U.S., but found that it is huge in the salty-snack category in Asia, especially Japan and Korea. We looked at what has worked in Asian markets and adapted the concept to the tastes and culture of Americans. That summer, our team took part in Lehigh’s Mountaintop Initiative, which is when we finally arrived at the concept of Kelpy — a healthy, environmentally beneficial and great tasting snack at an accessible price point.
How did you balance your roles as a student and a business person?
ML: It’s very hard to balance school with a business, but it’s doable if you have the right mind set. Student entrepreneurs have to be realistic and diligent in setting milestones — good scheduling is your best friend. On the other hand, you can’t take it all too seriously. Make sure you have fun with it, keep an open mind and above all, remember that creative solutions and adaptability are key.
How is Kelpy changing the landscape?
ML: Kelpy is making the food industry more sustainable for the environment and for consumers. During the first few years of working on Kelpy, we recognized many issues in the food industry. For instance, healthy foods are too expensive for the common market, so we aimed to make a product that bridges that gap. Large agricultural companies, especially corn and livestock, are the biggest contributors to the pollutants causing problems in our oceans, so we worked toward creating a product that not only competes with things like corn chips, but also cleans up those industries’ byproducts.
We are also working to change the fact that ocean agriculture has been entirely overlooked, especially in North America. Ocean agriculture is generally more sustainable than land farming, doesn’t require irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides, and removes the problem of losing arable land. We hope to send a powerful message that now is the time to take advantage of this incredible opportunity.
Many of your partners were also Lehigh graduates. Can you describe your experience working together and confronting challenges as a team?
ML: Overall it has been a fantastic experience. What sets our experience apart is the fact that no one on our team has an academic background in business — in fact, we’re all engineers. I think that is a big asset for us because we have similar backgrounds in problem-solving techniques and can connect on a certain level.
We get to learn business components together and teach each other new things. A very important lesson I’ve learned is to be friends with your team — it makes for more productive conversations, better creativity and smoother dynamics. On the flip side, everyone should always have clear roles, milestones and deliverables so that every team member knows what each other is bringing to the table.
What have been your proudest and darkest moments thus far?
ML: Participating in TedX and winning Lehigh’s Eureka competition were some of our high points. Some of our lower points came when we were contracting co-packing facilities to make a test batch of Kelpy to send to supermarkets. We learned that corn-chip facilities aren’t too keen on putting untried mixtures — in this case, our Kelpy recipe — into their assembly lines. That closed a lot of doors for us, because none of these co-packers knew how our recipe would react to their production equipment. A very proud moment came when we finally found one that would give us a shot. We’re actually in the middle of that deal right now.
Success means many things to many different people. What does it look like for you and your team and what steps are you taking to get there?
ML: I want us to be recognized as a national brand of snack foods on shelves around the country. I also want us to move into the biofuel market and other potential applications for kelp. That’s what I’d call our professional goal. That being said, while I think it’s important to celebrate successes find happiness in them, it’s equally as important to never limit myself. My mentality, at least, is “OK, what’s next?”
What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as, as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
ML: I aim to be innovative and influential but down to earth. I want to be remembered for doing something positive and important, as I think most of us do. I’m working hard to be successful, and if I get to where I’m aiming, I don’t want to lose sight of why I’m there. It seems that a lot of the problems our country is facing today is because people in industry and politics have lost touch with the needs and daily lives of the population, so I want to defy that pattern. I also want to be an entrepreneur who doesn’t give up. We have a long way to go and a lot of challenges ahead, but I know our product is amazing and our vision is big, so I never want to be deterred.