1 Aug 2018

Matts Johansen, Aker BioMarine: “You have to envision your success and go all in without hesitation”

Aker BioMarine is a company synonymous with innovation. Focussed not only on the production of krill-based products but also continuously researching sustainability, Aker BioMarine is tackling some of our biggest global challenges head on and preparing for the issues we may face in the future. Not content with changing the world, they’ve also spent the last decade since their inception completely revolutionising their industry and growing to becoming a $150 million business. With this making up the DNA of Aker BioMarine, it’s no wonder that the judges saw their potential and awarded them The Award for Innovation at this year’s European Business Awards.

Following on from their win, we spoke to their CEO, Matts Johansen, about all things Aker BioMarine – from what being named Europe’s most innovative company has meant to them, to their recent agreement with Greenpeace regarding no-fish zones and the impact that Matts’ skateboarding past has had on his business mindset.

Congratulations on winning The Award for Innovation at the European Business Awards! How did you feel when you found out that you had won one of the most prestigious prizes in business?

Thank you! I felt proud and honoured when finding out that we had won. Being named Europe’s most innovative company first and foremost reflects our dedicated employees; they have contributed to making our business a success. In addition, we were named Norway’s most innovative company last year, which made it extra special to stand out in Europe this year.

What has been the most unexpected outcome of winning the Award?

Actually, the networking opportunities with possible new partners. Winning the award gave us attention, and many companies have contacted us in efforts to collaborate. Also, it raises the self-esteem of our organization to keep doing things no one has done before and going for the unknown.

For many people ‘Innovation’ connotes technology, yet Aker BioMarine is built on what could be described as one of the most ancient and natural resources – krill. What does innovation mean to you?

To us, innovation is about meeting a need and the organization’s ability to enable ideas. Innovation and entrepreneurship is an integral part of Aker BioMarine’s DNA, from how the krill itself is harvested and processed, to the type of products it becomes. This openness and willingness to pursue fresh ideas and new ways of working allows us to continue exploring interesting opportunities.

Enabling our colleagues to work autonomously with ideas they believe in is essential for innovative, forward-leaning companies. The leadership of Aker BioMarine actively promotes these values, which are an integral part of our culture.

How was Aker BioMarine able to envision the global potential and be inspired by these tiny crustaceans?

When it comes to envisioning the potential, you can look at it like this: Krill are one of the biggest biomasses on earth, present in all the oceans and sitting at the bottom of the food chain. After millions of years of evolution, krill and the nutrients in krill have become important for all life.

What we do at Aker BioMarine is to extract those nutrients important for life, study krill’s biological impact, and then commercialize the findings.

Aker BioMarine was established as an independent enterprise in 2006, building on years of deep-water fishing experience as part of Norway‘s Aker Group. Since day one, our organization has worked with WWF, other environmental organizations and research institutions to learn more about sustainable harvesting in the Southern Ocean and focus on development of krill-based ingredients for both the consumer and animal feed markets.

Aker BioMarine have recently been in the news regarding the agreement to limit krill fishing in the Antarctic – why was it so important to you to be involved in this agreement and what impact will this have on Aker BioMarine’s future?

In dialogue with Greenpeace, Aker BioMarine has taken extra precautionary measures to safeguard the environment in Antarctica. The commitment is based on the latest scientific research from British, Chilean and Argentinean scientists, who identified ecological sensitive areas recommended for protection.

From 2020, Aker BioMarine will observe a permanent closure of these areas. We believe that no-fish zones and sustainable fisheries can co-exist.

Our company has made these commitments to improve sustainability, as well as recognizing the industry’s role in contributing to the creation of a large-scale network of marine protected areas in the Antarctic Ocean. We have also committed to encouraging other members of the industry to commit to these initiatives, as well as advocating their adoption of CCAMLR regulations. Other measures of the commitment include adopting new standards around transhipment and vessel safety.

As a company that is committed to improving human and planetary health, was there a particular personal moment when you decided that you had to take action and become committed to having a positive impact on the world?

Doing things the right way has been a priority for us since day one. Even before Aker BioMarine deployed its first trawler in the Southern Ocean, we had initiated a dialogue with WWF to support the development of a responsible harvesting area. The WWF partnership’s accomplishments include by-catch reduction, reducing the environmental footprint of operations, and hosting observers onboard Aker BioMarine’s vessels, in addition to cooperation with several WWF branches.

With an expanding world population, it has never been more important to ensure the availability of healthy food and nutrients while also keeping our planet’s ecosystems healthy. Our solution has been to align sustainability and profitability.

When Aker BioMarine was starting out, your unconventional approach to krill-harvesting was snubbed and seen as financially unviable – was there ever a moment when it seemed like Aker BioMarine’s vision wouldn’t become a reality?

Managing and developing a business such as Aker BioMarine is challenging. Having a supportive owner in Aker ASA with a long-term vision has been vital to Aker BioMarine’s development.

There is no cheap way to harvest krill in the Antarctic, only the expensive way. There were many times when things looked difficult, but there was never a moment of doubt. In our business, it is all or nothing, and we were committed enough to go all in.

Just over a decade later, Aker BioMarine have completely revolutionised its industry – what gave you the belief to carry on in the face of these objections and what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs when they have their own ideas shaken by others?

I believe it comes down to people and culture for all business. That is what creates results. One thing that reflects the Aker BioMarine culture, or our ‘Heartbeats’ as we call them, is the attitude, “We can do, and we grind through”. In my opinion, that attitude across the whole organization is exactly what gave us the belief to carry on and do things differently.

Another piece of advice for entrepreneurs getting their ideas shaken up by others is to ask yourself, do you believe in your idea? Do you have a good team? Do you have a plan? If the answer is yes, go all in without hesitation.

What has been your proudest moment at Aker BioMarine to date?

It is difficult to find just one proud moment in Aker BioMarine, but I am very proud that we have built Aker BioMarine from nothing to a 150 million USD business in just a little more than ten years, and that we have a very promising outlook for the future. Mentioning a particular event, I am very proud of the partnership we have with the US military, where we are investigating how our products can affect the resilience and performance of the elite soldiers of the US military. We will have the results in 2019.

What’s the one thing that you would most like to achieve at Aker BioMarine?

I would like to continue our mission to improve human and planetary health with an ever increasing impact, and be recognized for it. We have some important R&D programs running which can be a potential game changer for our company.

You’ve spoken about how you grew up skateboarding and the positive impact it has had on your business career, but is there any advice that you would give to teenage-skateboarder Matts?

My advice for teenagers, in general, is to find and follow your passion; I believe today's society with instant access to entertainment through your phone makes teenagers passive and that is something that worries me about today's youngsters. For those teenagers who have already found their passion in skateboarding, keep going for it. Skateboarding has taught me a lot and some of my success in business comes from skateboarding.

When you skate, you learn two things. First, it is all about hard work and practice. The more you skate the better you will become and just like in business, the harder you work the more success you will have. Second, landing a skateboard trick is all about mentally preparing for nailing it, and then going for it without hesitation. One slight hesitation and you will land on your face. The same goes for business. You have to envision your success and go all in without hesitation.

Did you always envision yourself becoming the CEO of such an innovative company? Or was there another path that you could have taken?

No, I just followed the flow. I have always gone in 100% with everything I do. Whether it is training, skateboarding or work. In business, I have always worked hard and said yes to opportunities that maybe were a bit unclear. If you are too focused on one path, you might miss the opportunities that can take you further.

Finally, what’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given?

You have to say ‘yes’. This, in itself, is somewhat unnatural seeing as though humans are naturally prone to say no, which is probably something that stems from the Stone Age and our fear of losing food. We tend to value ‘not losing’ over any potential upside, or success.

As innovative leaders, we need to have a bias towards saying ‘yes’. Often you do not know if an idea is good enough. Most ideas do not seem great initially, but as they grow, they become better – you just have to work at it.



For more information about Aker BioMarine and the work that they do, head over to their website

Relive the moment that Aker BioMarine become Europe’s most innovative company here

And find out more about the rest of the Winners of the 2017/18 European Business Awards here

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