An Overview of the Challenges and Innovations of the Current Cellular Aquaculture Industry
All things considered
Aquaculture is not without its challenges from mislabeling of seafood products, unethical labor practices and vulnerabilities in the supply chain, to the unsustainable nature of the industry that contributes to climate change and threatens wild habitats. Additionally, conventional seafood production has been fraught with concerns about antibiotic use and pollutants such as mercury, pesticides, and more recently, microplastics. Along with considerations for global food security, there is a strong interest in establishing a steady and consistent supply of seafood that can deliver a traceable, defined product without such concerns.
A rising tide
Recently, Bluu Biosciences made news as the first company to pursue cellular seafood in Europe. The Berlin-based company raised €7 million (~$8.24M USD) in a round of funding to develop cell-cultivated seafood, focusing on salmon, trout, and carp. The company’s product choices reflect the scientific expertise of one of the co-founders, Dr. Sebastian Rakers. A marine and cell biologist, Rakers brings over a decade of research experience in establishing and studying fish cell lines to Bluu Biosciences.
Some of his published studies give insight into the technology behind Bluu Biosciences. Rakers’ work establishing various fish cell cultures is some of the only publicly available research relevant to cell-based seafood. While much of the research in this field is generated by private companies and are therefore proprietary, there are efforts towards open access science to support the scientific community and the industry in this emerging field.
His work includes establishing a long-term cell culture derived from the fin tissue of carp and development of established cell cultures of skin and scale from rainbow trout. Sebastian Rakers also presciently suggested the potential of using fish skin stem cells to produce collagen, which could replace bovine collagen in medical and cosmetic applications.
In Asia, where per capita fish consumption is projected to see the fastest growth, cell-based seafood is gaining traction with companies such as Avant Meats and Shiok Meats.
Based in Hong Kong, Avant Meats recently unveiled its cultivated fish fillet and is working on cell-based fish maw and sea cucumber, tailoring to consumers in China and Southeast Asia. The company, which raised $3.1 million in a seed round last December, announced its partnership with QuaCell, a contract research and manufacturing company specializing in industrial cell culture. Avant projects that this partnership will amount to a 90% cost reduction using FBS-free media and accelerate scaling up by at least 12 months.
Avant has also applied its cell culture technology to launch a marine protein powder for beauty products. The protein ingredient, derived from Avant’s cultivated fish cells, could be applied in skin care products, beauty supplements, and functional drinks. Avant claims that internal testing of its product demonstrated anti-oxidative properties and ability to promote the production of structural components — elastin and collagen — in skin cells.
A Singapore-based startup, Shiok Meats has developed prototypes of cell-cultivated crustacean meat, featuring its cell-based shrimp in 2019 and lobster last November, with plans to release a cell-based crab prototype as well. Shiok Meats is also patenting its shrimp and lobster flavorings created from the same production process.
Shiok Meats raised a seed round of $4.6 million in 2019, an additional $3 million in a bridge funding round, and most recently, $12.6 million in Series A funding. The funds will go towards building a commercial pilot plant with the goal to launch minced shrimp meat in 2022.
Dr. Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder, has been working with various types of stem cells through her research career. Driven to take action on unethical and unsustainable practices in the seafood industry, Sriram and her co-founder, Dr. Ka Yi Ling, started Shiok Meats in 2018. Ling is also a developmental and stem cell biologist with over a decade of experience.
Singapore, where Shiok Meats is based, is working towards a “30 by 30” food security goal that would have 30% of the nation’s nutritional needs produced locally by 2030. The Singapore Food Agency supports the research and development of climate-resilient, sustainable food technologies and highlights cell-cultured meat as one of its focus areas.
Among the growing number of cultivated meat companies in the US, BlueNalu, Wild Type, Finless Foods, and Cultured Decadence focus on seafood.
BlueNalu has developed stable cell lines for a variety of species including red snapper, yellowtail amberjack, bluefin tuna, and mahi-mahi. Lou Cooperhouse, president and CEO of BlueNalu, said that these species are typically imported and were chosen specifically not to compete with the local fish industry.
The San Diego aquaculture company has raised more than $80 million, with investors such as Thai Union Group, a traditional seafood company and parent company of Chicken of the Sea, South Korean food company Pulmuone, and trading and investment company Sumitomo Corporation of Americas.
With the biggest investments in cellular aquaculture to date, BlueNalu is working on phase three of its five-phase strategy towards commercial scale production. The company is currently building a pilot production facility in San Diego, with plans to expand into large-scale production in 2024 or 2025. The pilot facility is projected to be capable of producing up to 500 pounds of cell-based seafood per week, using a cold extrusion process. BlueNalu has also partnered with Nutreco, a fish feed and animal nutrition supplier, which will provide its knowledge in fish nutrition and source ingredients for cell culture media.
To help guide this ambitious commercialization plan, the company board brings together current and former executives in the food industry, as well as various experts in supply chain management, marine biology, nutrition research, regulatory affairs, and culinary arts.
Wild Type, a San Francisco based startup, has raised a total of $16 million towards developing cell-based salmon. Wild Type cultivates cells from Coho salmon, a species native to the Pacific coast from Alaska to California. The company considers conservation of wild fish stocks as one of its core goals; Wild Type’s cultivated salmon is derived from wild Coho salmon, which is federally recognized as endangered.
As a new approach to ocean conservation efforts, cell-based seafood could help reduce the environmental pressures that threaten wild species and their habitats. The path for this to happen, however, may be a long process that involves not just overcoming the technical challenges of delivering a product, but also consumer demand and supply chain dynamics down to the level of fishers. Ultimately, the demand for cell-based seafood would have to reach a level that displaces conventional seafood and reduce fishing below current levels, in order to make an impact for ocean conservation.
For its product release, Wild Type is targeting restaurants, where a majority of seafood is consumed. The company is building a network of chefs across major cities in the US who would bring cell-based, sushi-grade salmon to the plate.
Another Bay area start-up, Finless Foods, has been working on developing cell-based bluefin tuna. Founded in 2017, Finless Foods was the first company to feature cell-based fish, presenting fish cakes made from cultivated fish cells at a tasting event. The company has been optimizing scale-up, finding that it is more efficient to use single systems in which cells grow and differentiate in the same bioreactor as opposed to using different bioreactors for different stages of production. Finless Foods has also been experimenting with different methods of culturing cells, such as suspension culture, in which cells are floating freely in growth media, and attachment culture, where cells attach to a scaffolding that adds structure to the final product.
Finless Foods joined BlueNalu and three other cell-based meat companies to form a coalition representing the cellular agriculture industry. The Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation (AMPS Innovation) will be informing the public on the science and technology behind cellular agriculture, and to raise awareness of cell-based products as they near commercialization. While cell-based products are not on the market yet, it is important for the industry and advocacy groups to set the stage before products become available for the public.
AMPS Innovation is also actively engaging with policymakers and regulatory agencies such as FDA and USDA to ensure a defined, evidence-based regulatory pathway is established for cell-cultured products. Earlier last month, the coalition submitted a document to the FDA urging adoption of the term “cell-cultured” in labeling its products. While a study showed the term “cell-based seafood” outperformed “cell-cultured seafood” on recognition among consumers and distinction from conventionally produced seafood, AMPS Innovation supported the latter on account of uniform labeling.
The latest addition to the cellular aquaculture space is Cultured Decadence, a start-up based in Madison, WI. Co-founders John Pattinson and Ian Johnson each have worked in the cellular agriculture space, and started the company in the midst of the pandemic last April. They chose to start with cell-based lobster, leveraging the technical experience of Ian, who worked at Finless Foods for two years. Based at Forward Bio Institute, a life sciences incubator at the University of Wisconsin, Cultured Decadence is currently in the process of cell line development and media optimization.
While commercial efforts are currently focused on fish and crustacean products, cell-based seafood research can extend to other species. Vanessa Haley-Benjamin, a New Harvest research fellow, is conducting fundamental research on mollusks such as shellfish, oysters, and abalone. She is specifically working with conch, a culturally significant species of the Bahamas under threat of extinction.
Cellular aquaculture has much potential as a new way to meet the limitations of wild capture and aquaculture in supplying the global demand for seafood. Cell-based seafood would also help conserve and restore our oceans and aquatic habitats, as the industry becomes increasingly efficient and innovative.
Written by Nahee Kim, Correspondent for Helikon Consulting