Interview – Dr. Helena McMahon, Co-founder of Seabody

WRITTEN BY Meg O' Doherty

March 6, 2023

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Interview – Dr. Helena McMahon, Co-founder of Seabody

Meg O' Doherty

6 Mar, 2023

I’m joined virtually by Seabody co-founder Dr. Helena McMahon, her dialing in from Co. Kerry and I from Co. Donegal. While we’re as far from each other as possible on the isle of Ireland, both geographically and in dialect, one thing connects us – the Wild Atlantic Way. It is from the Atlantic coast that McMahon and the Seabody team extract the many wonderful molecules that make up their line of luxury skincare and supplement products which succeed in bringing the health benefits of the sea to your home. 

As much as it is a health and beauty brand, Seabody is also a biotech company made up of a passionate team of biochemists who take a science-led approach to health and beauty. They use their expertise to unlock the power of native Irish seaweeds to create beauty products such as cleansers, serums, moisturisers, and SPFs. The brand complements a sustainable lifestyle by offering nature-based solutions to help proactively manage your health using supplements that support movement, bone and joint health, beauty and skin health, and much more. Today, the co-founder lets me pick her brain on how Seabody came to be and the science behind the sustainably driven business. But first, I had to know how her grá for sustainability was born.

Dr Helena McMahon, co-founder of Seabody

Reflecting on her personal love for the environment and why it is so integral to Seabody’s business model, McMahon describes an affinity with nature that relates to us all. “My interest in nature originated from my interest in the human body” she explains, adding that “humans are like bioreactors, basically, if you get down to what we are at the cellular level”. 

This makes sense considering the businesswoman’s background, with a BSc in Biomedical Science and an MSc in Molecular Medicine. “I went off on a journey of really focusing on humans and human health, and I was absolutely fascinated by that” she notes. 

Her interests developed into biotechnology following a PhD in Gene Cellular Therapeutics which involved studying genetic engineering. The world of biotechnology colliding with nature came from McMahon’s decision to leave Dublin and return to her roots in Kerry. 

I wanted to come back to Kerry because the landscape in Kerry is so beautiful. I missed the ocean, I missed getting out into nature, and the pace of life in Kerry,” she describes.

The move brought her closer to the coastline that hosted the precious sea plants that would come to shape her career right under her nose.

Fenit lighthouse, Co. Kerry

“I took a job in Munster Technological University to work on a project that involved mining seaweed for molecules, compounds and ingredients for health that had commercial potential,” she explains, describing her first introduction to natural molecules. McMahon recalls being blown away that “cells were responding in as potent a way to these natural molecules as they were to synthetic genetic constructs and drug molecules that I had been working with in my PhD,” she continued, “I did not realise that nature had all of these amazing molecules locked up in plants and that really got me thinking”.

Where once seaweed may have appeared a slipping hazard or something to avoid touching while swimming, McMahon’s view of the plant has completely transformed since gaining an understanding of all the “magic”  locked up inside. “Now when I see it on the beach, it really makes me smile, you know, because now I have a completely different connection to the plant,” she explains. The strong connection she feels to algae and the ocean at large is one she hopes to ignite in Seabody customers through its range of products for health and beauty.

It is from the understanding of the power and complexity of marine plant life that sustainability has become so integral to Seabody’s business model. McMahon explained “If we can make all of these products for health and wellness, using the bounty of nature, we can’t just do that in an unsustainable way.” She notes the many environmental benefits offered by sea plants and algae – “you’ve got carbon sequestration, nitrogen sequestration, the purification of the ocean, the provision of habitats”. Therefore, to utilise Ireland’s native seaweed commercially, the Seabody team knew that they couldn’t impact on these environmental functions, and that their own environmental footprint had to be a positive one.

The business farms and harvests seaweed by hand using a clean processing approach which allows them to work seasonally with nature and to rotate plant species, promoting regeneration. The principles of circularity are truly embedded within Seabody’s processes with their zero-waste approach. Their packaging is a fusion of biodegradable and toxin-free inks, forest-steward certified paper, and recyclable glass (added bonus – the glass blocks out light, preserving the product inside). Any wastewater generated by their processes is utilised by a sister company that produces organic bio-fertilizer, linking land and sea. 

This collaboration, and the makeup of the team behind Seabody, speaks to the value of interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches to sustainability and how Seabody as a business is tapping into this. On the subject of accelerating the circular economy and wider sustainability agenda, McMahon highlights “systems innovation and systems approaches – that you don’t just look at one industry or one problem in isolation, you have to look at it as a system and see all of the different interplaying and contributing factors that relate to sustainability”

As demonstrated by Seabody, there is significant opportunity for synergies between the marine and agricultural industries by identifying the potential of each sector’s waste streams. Seaweed can be used in feedstock to reduce methane emissions from cattle and its use in fertiliser can aid soil nutrition, stimulate soil bacteria while increasing soil structure, aeration, and moisture retention. It’s easy to understand Helena’s fascination with the plant given its many uses. 

The future of Seabody is an exciting one. While the main molecule that the brand works with, fucoidan – “the collagen of seaweed” as McMahon describes it, was discovered in 1918, the interactions between phycology (the study of seaweed) and cellular biology is still an emerging area of research with lots to be uncovered. 

Explaining what is described as a ‘Pandora’s box’ of potential, McMahon states that “there are hundreds of different molecules in seaweed and as the technologies advance, the ones that are there in very small quantities, you’ll be able to isolate much more easily, and it’s also the combining of the molecules that will create different efficacies and bioactivity.” 

Noting where Seabody made its mark on this evolving area of research, McMahon says “one of the innovative things we have achieved that has enabled us to get ahead is that where scientists were producing five, ten, or fifteen grams of molecules in the lab, we actually scaled the production from that very small amount to hundreds of kilos which enables us to create these products that you can sell”, an impressive feat considering that all of this was done in such a sustainable way.

Looking ahead, Seabody will continue its sustainability journey towards becoming a carbon neutral company. The brand recently became a member of Positive Luxury alongside brands such as Tom Ford Beauty and Dr. Barbara Sturm. Positive Luxury is a global ESG+ standard that certifies sustainability in luxury products, aiming to make luxury a force for good. McMahon describes being “thrilled” to be involved with the certification. “It’s an external validation around the fact that, as a luxury beauty and wellness company, we are doing a good job in being as sustainable as we can,” she expresses.

As a player in the blue bioeconomy, which promotes the economic use of renewable natural marine resources in a sustainable way, the Seabody team commend marine protection in Ireland. Embedding sustainability within its business from the get-go means that Seabody is well placed to welcome new and developing environmental regulations, supporting policymakers in protecting our natural world while driving the circular bioeconomy. Seabody is a business to admire, demonstrating an unrelenting commitment to their purpose – ‘to sustainably harness the health, beauty and regenerative powers of ocean plants for the benefit of people and planet’.

 

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