Pia Winberg

Pia Winberg

Marine Ecologist, Dr Pia Winberg, is an Entrepreneur who has started two companies called Venus Shell Systems and Phycohealth. She is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Scientist of both companies.

At School

Pia came to Australia from Sweden when she was four. She grew up in Sydney spent a lot of time at the local beaches,

At school she liked biology. In year twelve she studied Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Music.

At school, I just knew that I loved the oceans – I didn’t think about becoming a scientist.
I didn't have plans exactly but followed my passion and opportunities then a plan evolved.

Pia loved other things as well as science. She took a break and studied at art school for a year, but then she felt that it was actually science she really wanted to study long term.

My inspiration

David Attenborough’s Life on Earth series came out when I was 10 and I loved watching them. He was my big hero. Using a snorkel and mask for the first time really opened my eyes to what was under the ocean.

University and first jobs

When Pia was 18, she bought a one-way ticket and went back to Sweden. She completed a science degree, specialising in Marine Ecology.

Some of the jobs she did while studying were waitressing, working in a tap factory and as a train conductor.

After spending 15 years in Sweden, researching in marine ecology and learning about the waters of the Northern Hemisphere, Pia returned to Australia and worked with the Marine Parks Authority. Then she received a scholarship to complete a PhD at the University of Wollongong, where she continued to study marine ecology.

I often reflect on how strange it is that I ended up doing a PhD and am now considered a scientist. I would never have imagined I’d end up in this career if I asked my 17 year old self.

Pia’s advice to students

Pia says it’s fine to change, change back again. You don’t have to be certain. Just know what interests you and have a go.

Know what interests you and try it. That is the most important thing you can do, because if it interests you, you will really give it a go! Learn more about it, then it will really start to excite you.
It was a great privilege to be able to learn and teach within an academic setting, but it is another thing for these ideas to actually affect the real world. Therefore the only path forward for me was to start a company to progress the ideas of sustainable marine nutrition.

Pia says her most valuable personal attributes that have helped her succeed are persistence and sharing stories. Communication is vital – and different people read things differently – you have to keep talking and listening to work out how people think.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

Pia worked for many years as a researcher studying the ecology of the sea. She found out about aquaculture, which is the farming of sea animals like fish, prawns and oysters for food. She saw that there were problems in the industry. The farmers put lots of nutrients into the water and the animals used up the oxygen, and produced carbon dioxide and lots of waste. The water used for aquaculture became polluted and the industry was in danger of not being sustainable.

At the same time, Pia was also studying the algae (seaweed) that is unique to Australian waters. She found that it is very nutritional, containing protein, minerals and dietary fibre. She thinks that if we all ate more seaweed products, the incidence of chronic nutrition problems and auto-immune diseases will be reduced.

Pia put these two ideas together. She saw that seaweed cleans out the excess nutrients and the carbon dioxide in fish farms. She also found a unique green alga that grows quickly absorbs all the nutrients and is high protein anti-oxidants, fibre and other nutrients.

The big step was to not stay in academia, but to start up my own company.

She and her team think that if we eat seaweed every day, then we will be much healthier. Her next problem was how to get people to eat more seaweed.

Pia found out that one of the most common meals in Australia is spaghetti bolognaise, so she decided to add seaweed flour to pasta to make bright green spaghetti. She has also added it to corn chips and muesli.

There was too much damage from the early aquaculture systems of fish production, and overfishing was a problem and created unemployment locally, and keeping the coastline clean while developing new industries is a challenge. I felt that I had a small solution to contribute.

Pia’s current job

As a start-up to scale-up company, Pia says she has to cover many things from the development of applications and administration of the company, to making sure that the cultivation and scientific knowledge can be scaled as the company grows.

The company started small and as it grows, they need to work with engineers, food scientists and industrial chemists, building up a team of people with a lot of different skill sets.

She also has to find partner industries that can help us to manufacture finished goods and that we develop a brand and communication strategy that works for the consumer. A lot of her time is used chasing funding from grants and investors – this is the boring but essential part at an early stage where there are still no profits yet.

STEM at work

We are a data heavy company, collecting water quality and seaweed production data all the time, and working with engineers on our systems design and development. We use a lot of spreadsheets and business intelligence systems.