Will North Carolina become the Napa Valley of Oysters? A group of entrepreneurs certainly hopes so..

The future of the oyster industry may hinge, so to speak, on research and “unique, patent-pending material” being developed by a startup in Morehead City.

Think “substrate, substrate, substrate,” as one of its founders declares.

A team of experts in the field of oysters and academics has formed a company, Sandbar Oyster, that could have an international impact on the oyster industry. Niels Lindquist, one of its founders, shares the company’s story after receiving one of the five latest NC IDEA grants.

WRAL TechWire is profiling each of the winners, letting executives tell their startup stories in their own words. Each was asked the same five questions:

  • Focus of the business
  • What sets it apart?
  • Who are the founders
  • How did they come up with their ideas
  • What’s the backstory behind the company name?

First, here’s what Thom Ruhe, CEO of NC IDEA, which awarded $250,000 in the grants, had to say about Lindquist and company:

“Sandbar Oyster is a company that we immediately identified as being a good fit for an NC IDEA grant. The eclectic team of field experts and academics has developed a platform technology that could have international reach. The company’s patented substrate and strategic location in Morehead City, NC allow them to farm the coveted Atlantic Emerald Oyster, with huge branding potential.”

The Sandbar Oyster story

In response to WTW’s questions, Lindquist responded with more of a narrative that question-by-question response. In keeping with our theme of “In their own words,” Lindquist shares the Sandbar Oyster story.

“Thank you for your interest in running a story about our start-up oyster growing company and our great fortune to be a recipient of NC IDEA grant. The funds and the business expertise that comes with the award will be a tremendous boost for a successful launch of the Sandbar Oyster Company.

“So, the company name – Sandbar Oyster Company.

“This name derives from the fact that in coastal waters where the waters are relatively salty, oyster can only exist in abundance in the intertidal zone, which means that are typically exposed to air each tide cycle. In these water too are a great many oysters pests – predators, competitor and parasites for example – that prevent oysters from surviving and producing reefs where they would always be submerged.

“Sandbars and other intertidal flats are safe zones for oysters in salty waters because they close their shells and easily endure the periodic areal exposure and the associated environmental stresses (e.g. desiccation, freshwater rainfall, extreme high/low temperatures, etc.) that their pests cannot endure. The other safe zone for oysters in estuaries are closer to the headwaters where less salty waters and large period input of freshwater keep oyster pests in check.

“In these low salinity regions, oysters can form large reef complexes that always remain submerged. Intertidal flats are used in many regions of the world where oyster grows to place materials that oyster larvae (i.e. their small planktonic babies) swimming in the local waters attach to in great numbers. After the oyster grow for a period of time in the intertidal safe zone, they are often transferred to the low salinity safe zone to grow to a mature market size.

Unique, patent-pending technology

“We are using the intertidal safe zone like many other people around the world growing oysters, but we’re using our unique patent-pending material that allows us to do so much more with the immense numbers of oysters that attach to our substrate.

“So, the name – Sandbar Oyster Company – speaks to the great importance of the intertidal safe zone for raising oysters and that we can take our material and oyster growing methods to practically any oyster growing region of the world. This is in stark contrast to the great majority of oyster growing companies that have place-based name. The patent application that was submitted will allow us to choose countries beyond the U.S. where we might want to work with commercial exclusivity.

“From what I’ve said about our name, I imagine you can begin to see what sets us apart from the crowd – substrate, substrate, substrate!

“It’s designed to degrade and crumble away with time, leaving behind oysters but no permanent fill. Plus, it has great structural versatility. We can create shape, sizes and durability tailored for many different purposes.

“Flat, net-like sheet with low durability are excellent for shedding oysters off the substrate at an early age without killing them (something not easily done when juvenile oysters are attached to a hard substrate). The shed single oysters are the prized seed oysters for aquaculture.

Sons and daughters of wild oysters

“Another distinguishing aspect of our oysters is that they are the sons and daughters of the wild oysters that inhabit the local environment. Thus, oysters caught in our sandbar-based operations are true local oysters, unlike oysters raised by many growers that are bred strains, sometimes produced to have an extra set of chromosomes, imported to North Carolina waters from other states.

Author Rowan Jacobsen writes extensively about culinary, social and environmental aspects of oysters, and he has promoted the notion that with it great diversity of estuarine waters that North Carolina could be the Napa Valley of oysters. What he means with this term is that oysters growing in different water bodies have different flavors and levels of saltiness, not unlike the great variety of wines and regional differences among them.

“Sandbar Oyster Company is poised to bring forth the true essence of the Napa Valley of oyster concept for North Carolina. There are many regions of North Caroline where we can set up shop to promote the growing of true regional varieties of oysters.

“The epitome of this idea was written about by Jacobsen when he learned that ‘green gill” oysters – a prized oyster in France – occurred in North Carolina, and that Clammerhead was working to make them a special, high-demand oyster product, which he has accomplished.

(“Here is a link to Jacobsen’s article in the Tasting Table, an on-line culinary magazine:

http://www.tastingtable.com/travel/national/green-oysters-north-carolina-fines-de-claires-gills-france-clammerhead )

Future for food, future reefs

It is important to note that oysters and other filter-feeding bivalves have been proposed to be a crucial future protein source for a hungry planet. Oysters were once kings of the coasts that fed people for centuries, if not millennia, before severe over harvesting and coastal habitat degradation over the couple of centuries has severely depleted oyster populations worldwide.

Oysters feed freely on micro-algae that need to be controlled in coastal waters. Land runoff loaded with our nutrients fuel blooms of microalgae, but oyster feeding can reduce their levels and clean coastal waters. Eating oysters is good for coastal environments so long as we replenish what we harvest and act to add more oysters to our estuarine waters. There are no downsides to oysters, except perhaps when you are cut by their sharp edges.

Oysters also create reef structures that host a cornucopia of life, including commercial and recreationally important fishes and crustaceans. Oyster reefs also can protect shorelines from erosion and storm damage. There is great public and private interest in restoring oyster habitat and creating reefs along shorelines. Our material excels on these fronts.

More durable, modular shapes of our material can be tied together to form reefs of any desired dimensions. Importantly, this construction method yields reefs within which their entire volume is filled with living oysters. In contrast, traditional reef foundation material (e.g. oyster shells, various types of rock) are stacked or piled up to create an structure that rises above the bottom, but oysters can only settle and grow on the surface of the structures.

To illustrate the 3-D nature of reefs created with our substrate, [here are] a couple links to some walk around views of two reefs we created along the shore of the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences:

  • Oysteration 1:


  • Oysteration 2:


How did we come up with the idea for the venture?

The venture is really the substrate, the idea for which was underpinned by our early research efforts on oysters, which began about six years ago. I came into oyster research via a type of marine sponge that bores into and excavates space within carbonate materials, including oysters shell and marl rock, both of which have been used for decades to create the foundations of oyster reefs in North Carolina and other states.

Boring sponges are oyster killers, and some of our thoughts about how to overcome the boring sponge problem was to develop a non-carbonate substrate that boring sponges would not invade. Oysters readily settle on cement-based structures but boring sponges cannot penetrate them. These notions lead Clammerhead and I to think more deeply about substrates, and eventually lead us to try infusing plant fiber cloths like burlap with cement. We started doing this in the summer and fall of 2014.

This preliminary work led to funding by UNC for a scaled-up feasibility project and prompted UNC to file a provisional patent application covering our invention. Results of the demonstration project have been spectacular!

With this success, we moved forward with forming Sandbar Oyster Company. UNC has now filed a full patent application and we’re working with UNC now to acquire an exclusive license for the commercialization rights for our invention.

[Note: You can also learn more about Sandbar Oyster Company and me and Clammerhead by listening to this Public Radio East story – The Down East Journal:

http://publicradioeast.org/post/scientist-and-local-fisherman-work-restore-oysters-crystal-coast ]