From working as a film researcher to co-founding of one of the most innovative marine businesses in the South West, it has been an exciting few years for Tom Birbeck and James Doddrell of ARC Marine. With entrepreneurial credentials that are beyond doubt, Tom admits that he was sceptical about lawyers and how they could help his business … until he met experts from Stephens Scown’s marine team.
Four years ago, Tom Birbeck’s latest project as a film researcher was artificial reefs. An online article led him to James Doddrell. The pair spotted the potential to engineer solutions to regenerate fragile and damaged marine ecosystems.
Within a few months of meeting they were confident enough in their ideas to set up ARC Marine. Their first major success came with a Virgin Start Up loan in early 2016, which enabled them to develop some of their ideas. They then became Virgin Start Up Ambassadors, spending in Tom’s words, “a very surreal morning” with Richard Branson at his home, talking about their business ideas, particularly the potential of artificial reefs for leisure and tourism projects.
The success continued with the firm raising the most amount of money for a marine conservation business on a crowd funding platform. Around the same time ARC Marine secured a tenancy at the Brixham Laboratory where they could test and develop their ‘reef cube’ idea in salt water fed facilities.
Last year ARC Marine won the Technology Innovation Award from Marine-I for the development of the reef cubes innovation.
Getting the right legal advice
With such early success it was important for ARC Marine to get the right structures in place to start the business on a stable footing. However, Tom was wary of lawyers:
“I was very cautious after a bad experience with the first firm of solicitors who drafted up our shareholders’ agreement. However, things were different with Stephens Scown. At our first meeting the firm’s head of marine Verity Slater came along with two colleagues, Christian Wilson from the corporate team and disputes expert Jeremy Crook. All three really knew the sector and impressed us straight away giving us their time for an initial consultation. They couldn’t have been more helpful.
“So far we’ve had help with our shareholders’ agreements and will be looking for employment law support as our team grows, as there will be eight of us at ARC Marine by the summer.”
After long hours of experimentation with various prototypes, ARC Marine has now invented a number of products including artificial reef modules.
“The concrete mix we use is biologically inert, and we have extensively tested our designs in Lyme bay, Torbay and Vobster Quay. We’ve spent a long time looking at our design to see what modifications we can make to attract different marine creatures,” explains Tom.
ARC Marine’s reef cubes are attracting interest from a variety of clients. Tom adds: “Diver tourism is a key sector and we are in discussions with clients in the British Virgin Islands and Dubai.
“Closer to home we are installing units around the base of offshore windfarms. Our reef cubes reduce the impact of scouring around turbines and provide a habitat for marine creatures. The benefit to the marine environment is clear, but it does not stop there. The benefit for operators is that the reef cubes will help the wind farms to last longer and vastly reduce decommissioning costs because the reef cubes will have improved the marine environment and can be left in situ. The cubes create much more complex marine habitat around the wind farms, which will also improve commercial fishing opportunities.”
ARC Marine also has a focus on sustainable fishing, supplying lobsters, crabs and scallops hand-picked by divers and delivered to top London restaurants. Discerning customers are increasingly worried about where their seafood comes from, so the ability to trace their catch back to the exact spot they were caught is a big selling point.
Tom explains the synergy between the two streams of the business: “Damaging fishing practices have obliterated many marine habitats. So, as well as promoting sustainable fishing ourselves, we are developing products to help rehabilitate those damaged marine environments.”
So how does Tom find doing business in in the South West? “Cornwall is a brilliant place to run a marine business. We are based at Tremough Innovation Centre in Penryn and are in the process of setting up a manufacturing plant in Truro which allows us to benefit from working more widely. Cornwall works for us as there is a lot going on with the Wavehub, as well as access to Falmouth University and the docks. We also work very closely with Plymouth University and its COAST Laboratory team. The one thing we would improve is the journey time to London!”
With so much achieved in such a short space of time, what is next for ARC Marine? “Sea grass regeneration is our next big project. We are also part of the Innovate UK GBIP trip (global business innovation programme) to visit two provinces in China and meet with potential Chinese clients in a bid to export reef cubes to their growing offshore wind industry. We are growing and although we are a young business we have big ambitions.”
For more information on ARC Marine visit www.arcmarine.co.uk
Brixham Laboratory, Freshwater Quarry, Brixham TQ5 8BA
Image courtesy of ARC Marine