Interview with Jørn Ulheim


by Jørn Ulheim

CEO of Patogen

Jørn graduated with a BSc in Resource Economics from the NMBU in Norway, followed by an MSc in International Trade with Agriculture Commodities from the University of British Columbia in Canada. He joined AquaGen in 1999 as Market Director and then in 2003, he took up a post as Business Development Manager at Norsvin International AS. In 2007, Jørn became CEO of Cryogenetics AS and he has been CEO of PatoGen AS since 2016.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

In my first job after University, I was working for the Norwegian Trade Council and I was asked by the company that everyone these days known as AquaGen (their former name was Norske Fiskeoppdretteres Avlsstasjon AS), to find a new name for the company. I was later hired as Market Director for the company. Growing up on a farm I was very familiar with the production of meat, but when entering aquaculture in 1998 I found this very exciting, seeing opportunities for development and improvements in all areas of fish farming. The will to succeed among the farming pioneers, the willingness to take risk, the involvement of banks and other financing institutions and a group of great people worldwide in this industry made this a perfect area for me to be.  

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

Quickly after I was hired in AquaGen, I got the responsibility of establishing AquaGen activities in Chile. I have some of my best memories from this period. A wonderful country and very nice people to work with. I travelled once a month to Chile for a period of 2 years before I lived locally in Puerto Varas for a year.

After a period working in International Agriculture, living in Eastern Europe for 2 years, I re-entered aquaculture when the company Cryogenetics was formed. This was a spin-out of AquaGen some years earlier. I got the opportunity to manage and build this start-up. Cryo-preservation of milt laboratories was established in Norway, Chile, Canada, and the US. I lived in all these places during the build-up. Again, great memories.

In 2016, I got the chance to manage PatoGen, and I entered the world of fish health. This is a very interesting field both in terms of technologies and importance for future growth of salmon production. Lots of opportunities in this area to explore!   

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?

I get inspired by people that have a drive for taking the next step and have the inner motivation to work hard to obtain these goals. In my early days I learned a lot about freshwater production of salmon and trout from Svein Hjeldnes and Ola Sveen, both Norwegian pioneers in Chile and elsewhere.

How important has networking been to your career?

Networking is key for aquaculture in general – and for me. In realty this industry consists of a few hundred people worldwide driving change. I can see that a lot of leaders in the industry prefer to stay in aquaculture rather than taking on opportunities in other industries. This is a very good sign! I have lived 9 years outside of Norway and the network this gave me, is important to me every day.

As a senior manager, have you noticed inequalities in the sector, be it in policies or culture? If yes, what actions do you think would best address those issues?

It would be naïve to think that inequalities do not exist in salmon farming. Change in inequalities must be observed over some time I believe. In aquaculture, I think definitely there are some encouraging changes. First, we can see that a new generation of talent gets more and more important positions as the pioneers retire. To transfer responsibilities to talents between 30 and 40 years old is important for this industry to develop further. Second, we can see more women entering into aquaculture, also more and more in management positions. This development will continue. When considering the split between men and women entering veterinarian and biological education, this is an easy numbers game. The third thing I would like to mention is the transfer of talents between regions. When I started in aquaculture, only experts from Norway and Scotland worked in countries like Chile and Canada. These days many of the most exciting positions in European salmon farming have backgrounds from several different countries, for example Chile.    

You have had a long and successful career. What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

Observing over a period of 20 years how many people in Region 10 in Chile have moved from poverty to a middle-class status based on the large number of jobs that have been created by aquaculture in the country, I must admit that my role in creating new well paid jobs in this region carries a lot of importance to me.

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?

I have clear advice on this; invest time into practical farming. I am a bit worried that with the structural change in the companies and the same structural change on the supplier side, there are less and less people that actually go to the farms and listen to staff with experience from practical farming. If I was 25 years old and fresh out of university again, I would have dedicated one or two summers to feed fish.

If I can add a second piece of advice, I would encourage learning from international agriculture. I have always picked up a lot of relevant guiding from a more mature value chain.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?

There is an informal society-based contract between aquaculture companies – governments – media – environmental organisations. Somewhere in the middle between these stakeholders’ interest there will be a freedom to operate for the aquaculture industry. Innovations leading to less use of scarce resources, less pollution to the environment, fish welfare etc., and at the same time provide profitability for the fish farming companies, will all be innovations in demand in Scotland and elsewhere.

Read more interviews