Seaweed Technology 

8 min read
11 Jun 2024

Interview with
Inez Linke,
CEO at oceanBASIS

Inez Linke’s story is one of love and entrepreneurship, fueled by the ocean. Inez was born in Kiel but only returned to the region as an adult, thanks to her husband Peter Linke. The two biologists first met in the ‘90s during a research trip to Norway. At the time, Inez was doing her PhD in Hamburg, and Peter was working in Kiel’s Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research (GEOMAR), an institute specializing in climate dynamics, marine ecology and biogeochemistry, and ocean floor dynamics and circulation. After the Norway trip ended, they decided to stay together. “That was thirty years ago,” says Inez. “After that, I was doing a post-doctorate in Copenhagen, coming back to Kiel every two weeks or so. But when I was pregnant with our second child, it made sense to stay in Kiel as a family.” 

She decided to stop working as a researcher, since it would require her to spend time away from her family, and remained open-minded regarding her next steps. “In 1994, I met up with friends from former research projects who had founded Coastal Research and Management.” CRM, based in Kiel, is an interdisciplinary team of marine biologists, landscape ecologists and biotechnologists that offers consulting services and performs applied research on marine topics. “In 2000, I did an internship at CRM, which had just successfully completed a research project on sustainable algae aquaculture in the Kiel Bay. The project showed that the native sugar kelp was growing well and that the farm had a sustainable positive effect on the marine environment. So we thought, why not develop it further?” Slowly, her entrepreneurial journey started taking place. 

CRM was focused on surveys and research only, but Inez wanted to develop algae-based products as well. The result was the creation of a new company, oceanBASIS, cofounded in 2001 with Levent Piker and Christian Koch. To begin with, oceanBASIS started with the existing CRM algae farm in the Kiel Fjord. In 2002, it had grown to 15,000 square meters, and the team was able to celebrate the first big harvest. 

Inez Linke — Photo by Jan Konitzki

As a mother of two, health and well-being are very important to me. Caring for the needs of nature is deeply rooted in me.

“At that point, Coastal Research and Management were five people,” says Inez. “They had a huge office right on the coastline, so there was enough space for our little startup to share. At the beginning, this was a great help, because it meant we didn’t need outside investors. We could just do our research, and whatever product ideas we discovered, we developed.” 

The focus of the research and development was around sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima), native to the North and Baltic seas. The seaweed contains minerals, special amino acids and polyphenols with enormous healing and nutrition potential. The polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect the sugar kelp from drying or being damaged, perform the same function on the skin, reducing oxidative stress caused by environmental toxins and solar radiation, protecting DNA and RNA from free radical damage and boosting anti-inflammatory effects. The challenge was to develop an extraction technique to obtain the ingredients of kelp gently and without loss of their bioactivity.

Inez and her team built a large fermentation device and also started using the labs at CRM. Although they hadn’t intended to, they began developing another brand: Oceanwell, which focuses on natural cosmetics based on their own fermented algae extract and natural seawater. The NATRUE-certified skincare brand develops natural cosmetics and contributes to marine conservation. “We are marine biologists, process engineers, researchers, northerners, water rats – and, yes, skin experts,” the Oceanwell website explains. 

However, Inez didn’t stop there: after founding oceanBASIS and Oceanwell, the team established a new business segment they called “ocean food” and created the Meeresgarten (Sea Garden, in English) product series: seaweed flakes from Brittany for food. “You can add dried flakes of algae as a healthy spice to get the minerals and vitamins from the ocean directly on your food,” says Inez. oceanBASIS extracts marine active compounds from two other seaweeds in addition to the sugar kelp, and collagen from jellyfish. These extracts are sold to other companies. 

You have a network that grows up and develops to support newcomers.

Like the rainforests’ effect on the Earth’s climate, marine algae store CO2 and have a crucial function for the marine environment. It is therefore very important to only use seaweed from sustainable wild collection or from seaweed farms. One of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, first proposed in 2015 and adopted by all members, is “Life below water,” which aims “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” Preserving the oceans is now a mainstream idea and is present in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “Now everybody’s talking about it, but we wanted to use the ocean in a sustainable way more than twenty years ago,” she says. “That’s the outcome of three marine biologists working together.” 

The team, along with OceanBASIS, are involved in many research projects for marine-based active substances. For now, medical research and clinical studies are too steep an investment for oceanBASIS, which is why their product development is still focused on nutrition and cosmetics. “When we launched our first cosmetic products back in 2009, we were the first certified organic cosmetics using marine ingredients. It was a USP we had by chance, and it helped us enter the skincare market quite nicely.” 

But how does a marine biologist and researcher in Kiel transition to entrepreneurship so easily? “I had no business plan,” Inez says. “We were just doing experiments, trial and error.” However, she highlights the importance of a great team. “As a biologist, I lacked some business knowledge. But luckily, our third founder, Christian, is very close to calculations and numbers and has good knowledge of how to deal with costs and income and so on. That was so lucky. I just did the laboratory things and product development.” For her, the big message for startups is to pay attention to who on the team brings what knowledge. That way, it’s possible to balance the imminent struggles without burning out. 

Despite being at the right place at the right time, the struggles did come. Even with research and development experience, the team had to figure out the skincare recipes and how to use the algae extract to ensure the creams were stable and effective for the final customers. “And personally, I had two small kids, and my husband was going out on research vessels, sometimes for a couple of weeks or a couple of months,” she says. “And with our third baby, oceanBASIS, time management became quite challenging. It’s still a challenge. When you’re six people, you sit down together at lunchtime and discuss what you need to do. But now, with twenty-five people, we had to build up some structures within flowing projects. I found it quite demanding, but it’s working.” However, she notes that the support of her two other founders reduces the pressure of being a solopreneur. 

Inez Linke — Photo by Jan Konitzki

“The easy part was establishing our business in the Kiel Region,” she says. “There is a great network of people. Of course, we had a very good connection to the university, to GEOMAR, to other marine biologists, and we could ask for recommendations and introductions. Even twenty years ago, that was already happening. Everybody knows each other, everybody is very honest with each other.” That’s one of the greatest advantages of being in Kiel. “And we don’t talk too much. We just do things,” Inez says.

As part of the Kiel network, Inez is a member of the commission for the Schleswig-Holstein Stipendium, a fund that encourages startup developments in the region, covering their costs and supporting their business plan development for one year. “We give people the chance to pitch, show their ideas, and get started.”

In addition to solid networks, Kiel does not feel too busy. “If you compare Kiel with other regions in Germany, we still have lots of space,” she says. “Not to mention the ocean, the good air, the countryside.” While other regions offer more density, the connections between the towns and villages in the Kiel Region have grown strong over recent years. “I think this is also an advantage, not being too close together. Then you also have the space to work, to have ideas. And the proximity to institutes that are working scientifically fosters a spirit for using scientific results, turning them into products or somehow transferring them into society.” 

Kiel claims to be a Meeresschutzstadt (“ocean-protector city” in English), and the region also has a platform called Ocean Summit, promoting networking events and workshops to not only the region’s scientists but also to entrepreneurs and students. “This open network with the goal to support or protect the ocean has developed intensively in the past years.” When Inez was a student, being a scientist meant focusing on scientific publications, but now it’s a lot more open-minded, she says, “especially if you’re working with the ocean.”

Inez sees Kiel’s startup ecosystem and the way it’s developing as a lot like an ocean ecosystem: “You have a network that grows up and develops to support newcomers,” she says. “Overall, at oceanBASIS, we still have this startup feeling after twenty-three years. In our company, our specialty is that we all love the ocean, and we’re still sitting here right on the Kiel coastline.” 

[Flash Q & A]

What’s your favorite book?
Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits. I loved that book.

What’s your favorite place for creative thinking?
The beach.

What’s your favorite weekend activity?
Doing a bicycle tour – not necessarily by the ocean.

‍[City Recommendations]

Favorite coffee shop:
It’s right in our neighborhood: the Schiffercafe. You can have a coffee looking at the Kiel canal area. 

Favorite museum:
The Zoological Museum. It’s a Martin Gropius building, and there’s a big whale skeleton right under the roof. 

Local food recommendations:
Besides the seaweed? I’m thinking Baltic Sea sushi, but it hasn’t caught on yet.

Favorite place to hang out:
Forstbaumschule is a great place. And also the Holtenauer Strasse. There are different restaurants, cafés, and shops there.