BUXTON, Maine — After Tom Roth, a commercial fisherman for 28 years, decided to quit the groundfishing industry and sold his two long-line boats in 2005, he started looking for another way to make a living on the water.
He started working on tugboats in New York to pay the bills, but during his time off in Maine, he began harvesting rockweed in Casco Bay. He sold it to co-ops and seafood distributors who packed it with live lobster and other shellfish for shipping.
Nearly eight years later, the Buxton man’s company, VitaminSea, will be showcased to a national audience at the Slow Money conference in Denver on Tuesday.
VitaminSea is one of 24 companies around the country being considered for Slow Money’s Entrepreneur of the Year title, which comes with a $50,000 purse.
The company, the only finalist from Maine, has its production facility and commercial kitchen in Scarborough.
Slow Money is a national organization dedicated to bringing together investors and entrepreneurs working on sustainable farming and food production businesses. Since 2010, through national gatherings and regional events, the organization has helped funnel $24 million to more than 190 “small food enterprises,” according to its website.
There is also a Slow Money Maine organization, which brings together individuals and prospective investors once every few months for presentations from entrepreneurs. Roth presented his vision for VitaminSea to a Slow Money Maine meeting in January 2012.
Over the years, Roth, 51, gained clients and expanded into producing his own seaweed-based fertilizers and animal feed. But he knew there was untapped potential to produce more high-value seaweed-based food products. So he and his wife, Kelly, started baking granola bars with sesame seeds, almonds, dried cranberries, kelp seaweed and maple syrup and handing them out at farmers markets. Before long, people were asking for the product, which they called SeaCrunch.
Roth made his pitch to potential investors at Slow Money Maine that producing a healthy, locally sourced seaweed food product would be a viable business. He gained three investors and raised roughly $100,000 in capital at the meeting.
The VitaminSea business is growing, with SeaCrunch varieties available in health food and specialty grocery stores around the state. Whole Foods is going to stock the product at its Portland store starting in May, according to Rod Williams, one of VitaminSea’s investors who handles marketing for the company.
“That will be our first venture into mass market retailing,” Williams said.
Williams, who did marketing and design work for noted Maine natural products company Tom’s of Maine, said VitaminSea is working with other companies to produce specialty cheeses and butter that contain seaweed.
Even if VitaminSea isn’t selected as Slow Money’s Entrepreneur of the Year, the national exposure before an audience of 200 investors will be valuable, Williams said.
“If you have a compelling story you could attract some big-money investors who could help in all kind of ways,” Williams said. “So it’s a good place to be.”
As far as the company’s future, Roth said “the sky is the limit.”
Roth said the company is considering the use of seaweed in bread flour as a natural preservative and source of sodium, as well as seaweed extract as a natural sunblock.
Roth says a big challenge is to change people’s perceptions of seaweed — VitaminSea downplays the word “seaweed” and refers to the product as “sea vegetables,” according to Williams — and to make it more accessible.
“We hear it all the time. People know they should be eating seaweed but they don’t know where to begin,” Roth said. “We’re trying to make it more user-friendly. That’s our goal.”
Follow Whit Richardson on Twitter at @whit_richardson.