Two Northeastern students team up to create Phytabar

James Sibley had a passion for aquaculture, while Sebastian Sanchez had a love for entrepreneurship. The two students eventually teamed up to work together, combining not only their skills, but also seaweed with chocolate to create their own unique business.

Sibley came to Northeastern as a biology major, intending to go into biotechnology. But then he got the chance to work in seafood distribution and fell back in love with food, a passion he initially discovered working on a farm while growing up in Carlisle, Massachusetts.

Sibley would start his days early, getting to work at 5 a.m. Rather than making a full breakfast, he’d go for a protein bar. As he learned more about seafood, he began to think about ways people can enjoy the benefits of this food group without harming the planet.

Thus came the idea for a nutrition bar that harnesses what Sibley said is the often-ignored power of seaweed. The 2023 Northeastern graduate ended up teaming up with Sanchez, a Northeastern senior and entrepreneurship major, after the two met in a class about marketing for startups. With Sibley’s knowledge of seafood and Sanchez’s background in business, they came together to launch Phytabar, a chocolate bar with seaweed. The product launched in May and over one thousand bars have already been sold.

“Phytabar really came out of frustration with the lack of utilization of seaweed in the U.S.,” Sibley says. “The most common places you’ll find it are in skin care products. It’s a shame because it is the most bioavailable biomass on the planet. I just thought that was like an incredible thing.

You’re helping the environment and you’re producing food. I wanted to find a way to get that seaweed that has that hyper sustainability into the American diet.”

Phytabar combines wakame seaweed, dark chocolate, almonds, dates, stevia, monk fruit and a protein blend into a vegan nutrition bar that has 13 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein.

These bars are also packed with omega-3s, a fatty acid that is often found in seafood and can aid the body in many ways, including improving mood and boosting brain function.

But, according to Sibley, many people don’t get enough omega-3s, and a good way to get them is seaweed, which also isn’t part of many people’s diets. Adding it to nutrition bars could be a game-changer, both for consumers and the environment, given the benefit farm seaweed has to marine environments.

“I just fell in love with aquaculture” says Sibley, who now works for a salmon farming company and runs a TikTok account dedicated to teaching people about aquaculture. “We have this vast ocean and instead of dragging nets and depleting it, why don’t we farm it? I got really into that side of it from the biologist perspective … and you really just find that seaweed is one of the best ways to do this.”

Sibley spent a year making prototypes for Phytabar in his kitchen as he entered his fourth year at Northeastern. During this time, he added a marketing minor to learn more about launching a business. In one of these classes, he met Sanchez, an entrepreneurship and marketing student from Hollywood, Florida, who is now going into his final year at Northeastern.

Sanchez, who was a freshman at the time, heard Sibley’s pitch in class and was hooked on the idea of the Phytabar. Sanchez asked his professor if he could work with Sibley on a group project dedicated to this proposal. By the end of the semester, Sanchez was part of the company’s team.

“(James) saw something very interesting in this whole market, that no one’s using seaweed,” Sanchez said. “I knew it was a good idea, but I would not really join unless I tried the bar. So James provided a little sample … and it was amazing. I was shocked at how good it tasted. After that moment, I really wanted to pursue this.”

Sanchez’s entrepreneurial background allowed the newly formed team to tap into Northeastern’s resources for student businesses. He persuaded Sibley to pitch their idea to the Husky Startup Challenge, where they won first place and audience favorite, earning them $5,000.

The team then worked with Scout, a student design organization, to make their logo, and with IDEA, another business-oriented organization that helped them launch their product and raise funding for it. Sanchez also did the Sherman Center co-op, which allowed him to work on his venture full time for six months.

“We used every aspect of the Mosaic ecosystem, from the Entrepreneurship Club to IDEA, anybody who would help us,” Sibley says. “Through that, we were able to raise $25,000 and build a lot of mentorship. It’s really great to have that in addition to everyone who’s really supportive of what we’re doing. Northeastern is what helped us get where we are and we want to maintain that relationship and give back as best we can.”

Sibley says he hopes Phytabar can maintain a presence on college campuses like Northeastern in addition to selling online. Their target market is people interested in health foods who aren’t scared off by the idea of combining seaweed with sweets, Sibley says.

He said they plan to craft a bar next that isn’t vegan, but still maintains the same nutritional benefits.

“Our product is not meant for everyone,” he added. “Seaweed chocolate, I believe, is a great combination. A lot of people do. There are those who don’t, and that’s fine. … However, we’re missing a big portion of the market that cares about protein content, which we can’t get any higher without dipping out of the vegan world. I want to explore utilizing some other aquaculture ingredients like cod liver oil. If we could figure out how to incorporate that successfully, it would no longer be vegan, but it would be a powerhouse in terms of oceanic nutrients.”

“We used every aspect of the Mosaic ecosystem, from the Entrepreneurship Club to IDEA, to anybody who would help us. Through that we were able to raise $25,000 and build a lot of mentorship. Northeastern is what helped us get where we are and we want to maintain that relationship and give back as best we can.”

—James Sibley, S’25

This article was originally written by Erin Kayata
and published in Northeastern Global News.