How Earth’s Tiniest Vegetable Inspired Journey to Big Business

ABOVE: David Hunter, CEO & Founder of Karen Phytoplankton

By David Hunter, Founder & CEO of Karen Phytoplankton

When I first tried phytoplankton over seventeen years ago, I had no idea the incredible journey it would take me on. After founding Karen Phytoplankton, I partnered with a scientist in Spain, moved from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic, and grew my Karen Phytoplankton up while running a restaurant to pay the bills, into now selling in over 3,000 stores across Canada. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Small Beginnings

When I first started taking phytoplankton, I noticed the benefits almost immediately, but little did I know the impact it would have would go far beyond even this. After giving phytoplankton to others, they also noticed a plethora of personal benefits and enthusiastically wanted to buy more. The problem was, marine phytoplankton had never been sold for human consumption. There was a long road ahead. Working through the regulatory process was just the beginning and, as any entrepreneur will tell you, there is always more to be done.

ABOVE: A younger David Hunter, after first experiencing phytoplankton.

From Restaurant Table to “Farm to Table”

Knowing that the journey had just started, I moved from British Columbia clear across the country, to Moncton, New Brunswick. To keep the lights running while I developed Karen Phytoplankton, I opened Pickle’s European Deli in 2009. While I ran the restaurant, I made a pact with myself to work on the regulatory component everyday before lunch started and between lunch and supper.  This process took five years.

After this phase was over, Karen Phytoplankton was born and I was excited to finally give people the experience of consuming phytoplankton. My first store was a pharmacy and the pharmacist started out skeptical, but in a short period of time he became a big fan because people felt the same enthusiasm as their predecessors in 2005.  This excitement created momentum and Karen Phytoplankton went from one store to a thousand in a year and a half, almost by word of mouth alone. Just as I knew I had discovered something big when I first tried phytoplankton, so many years later our customers continue to feel the same way. Just like the tiny marine phytoplankton itself, Karen had come from the tiniest of beginnings, and in 2015 I closed down my restaurant to focus on Karen Phytoplankton for good.

ABOVE: Pickles European Deli & Specialty Foods, 2010. 

The Original Superfood

Phytoplankton is the foundation of virtually all marine life.While many think of whales when talking about the giants of the sea, tiny phytoplankton are the real giants, “responsible for much of the air we breathe and the food we eat.”2 While Karen Phytoplankton may be leading the charge, phytoplankton is no new trend, but rather the longtime (think millions of years) basis of the food chain.3 It stands as the basis of life in the coldest stretches of the sea and we are simply helping phytoplankton make its entrance on land as well. Vital to the health of our oceans, we hope to harness the power of the world’s smallest vegetable to increase the health of our people as well.4 With preventable illnesses related to poor diets estimated to cost Canada up to $26 billion annually, the small but mighty phytoplankton pulls well above its weight, and can help do for us what it does for our seas.5

We had no data on the books for phytoplankton when we started, but by 2018 we had proven our case so well that the New Brunswick government got on board, helping to fund a study to look into the profound nutritional activity of Karen Phytoplankton.

ABOVE: Karen Phytoplankton “Optimum” tablets.

Good For the Sea

With the very real dangers of overfishing, harvesting from the ocean was a nonstarter.6 Overharvesting of krill and other aquatic life has been harming our oceans, and rather than be a part of that, I wanted to find a way to grow our phytoplankton sustainably. We partnered with Fitoplancton Marino in Cadiz, Spain, and developed the first licensed process in the world to farm our particular unique phytoplankton for human consumption.

ABOVE: Karen Phytoplankton’s “futuristic” garden in Cadiz, Spain.

We couldn’t exactly go down to the hardware store, so we built the cleanest ocean water filter humanly possible to grow clean, safe phytoplankton – and the only byproducts are clean ocean water and oxygen. We bring in ocean water and purify it to grow our phytoplankton. After extracting our phytoplankton, we return the water to the oceans – cleaned of micro plastics and other toxins, with increased levels of phytoplankton. In fact our garden can produce as much phytoplankton in a year as the entire east coast of North America, helping phytoplankton and our oceans make a comeback. With our growing process, a typical tablet has over 67 billion phytoplankton plants.

Revised FM Growing Video from Tyler Mason on Vimeo.

ABOVE: Karen Hunter

Karen Phytoplankton

I decided to name it Karen in honor of my late mother. A nurse at Maple Ridge Hospital outside of Vancouver, she passed away at the age of 46. Her health struggles were attributed to malnourishment, and in her memory, I hope that we can do all that we can to prevent anyone having to go through what my family and I did.

A Comeback For The Ages – For All Ages

Karen Phytoplankton has come a long way, from the humble beginnings of my small restaurant to selling across the country, and rapidly expanding, with thousands of happy customers who are like family, and a national listing in Costco (which was my mom’s favourite store). Sustainably growing phytoplankton represents a real sea change. We started as a small company with a small product, but we are making big waves – literally! We knew seventeen years ago the impact it could have, and spent years building this business into what it is today. Now the time is right, and we are ready to keep the comeback going.

ABOVE: Karen Phytoplankton at Costco across Canada (excluding Quebec).