BlueNalu, which raised $4.5m in seed funding in 2018 and a $20m series A round in early 2020, has just closed a $60m round* in debt financing that will enable it to move to a facility capable of producing around 500lbs of finished product per week, CEO Lou Cooperhouse told FoodNavigator-USA.
BlueNalu can proliferate stable cell lines for multiple species including red snapper and yellowtail amberjack, but will launch with mahi mahi, followed by Bluefin tuna, in order to get consumer feedback, with products likely appearing in a variety of formats (tacos, poke bowls etc) in restaurants across the US in late 2021.
Different cell types – muscle, fat, and connective tissue - will be grown in separate bioreactors and then combined post-harvest and formed into shapes via a variety of techniques including a type of cold extrusion process.
‘We all need to be better technology scouts’
If you were to visit the facility once it is up and running, you’d see a series of smaller bioreactors concluding with a larger stainless steel 2,000 liter terminal bioreactor, said Cooperhouse, who wouldn’t go into detail about the production process, but said BlueNalu would not be using any kind of edible scaffolding to create its products.
“We’re not using scaffolding,” added Cooperhouse, noting that the texture and structure of many seafood products is very different, to say, beef steak: “There's a reason you cut meat with a knife and seafood with a fork.”
From a cost perspective, significant progress has been made over the past year to reduce the cost of key components used in the growth media for cell-based meat and seafood, noted Cooperhouse, with a flurry of startups and more established companies now devoting resources to developing more cost-effective ways to produce growth factors, signaling proteins that stimulate cell growth and differentiation.
“We’ve seen dozens of companies in this space and sister industries with all kinds of different solutions over the past year, and if anything we’ve really recognized that we all need to be better technology scouts,” added Cooperhouse, who has attracted strategic investors include animal nutrition and aquafeed firm Nutreco; product development firm Griffith Foods; healthy foods co Pulmuone; Sumitomo Corporation of Americas; and Rich Products Ventures, the corporate venture arm of food manufacturer Rich Products Corp.
While no one is going to disrupt a multi-billion-dollar market – or make any money - with 500lbs of product, the commissioning of the BlueNalu pilot plant will mark a significant step forward in a field in which most players are still working in a laboratory (as opposed to a factory), he said.
“This pilot facility is to validate our product and process so we can get feedback from the market.
“We’ve always been very clear about our five-phase strategy. Phase five is large-scale profitable production, and a key milestone is phase three, which is what we’re doing with this near 40,000 sq ft facility, which will be our new headquarters, but will also house all our R&D and Q&A, and a hygienic, segregated, GMP-inspected food production facility.
“It will also have a product development and demonstration kitchen where we can bring in customers and corporate chefs and demonstrate all the different applications for our products, and even provide tours of the facility so they can gain knowledge and confidence in our process. It should be complete in about six months, and then we’ll do the commissioning.”
While Singapore recently became the first country to approve a food product containing cell-cultured meat (from Eat Just), all eyes are now on US regulators, said Cooperhouse. “I think as soon as the FDA grants approval to any company, that will enable other countries to quickly follow.”
The addressable market for cell-based seafood
So are the drivers for cell-based seafood the same as those prompting interest in cell-based sausages and burgers?
Broadly, yes, argues Cooperhouse, who said the plant-based meat industry had really paved the way for the cultured meat industry, while both tapped into growing interest from consumers and investors in products enabling shoppers to express their values through their purchases.
That said, given the laundry list of problems linked to the seafood industry - from overfishing to inhumane slaughter, toxins, contaminants, pollution, plastic, fraud, mislabeling, illegal labor practices, habitat damage, bycatch and inconsistent quality and freshness – you could argue that seafood is an even more compelling place to start than beef if you're interested in cellular agriculture, he said.
"We're running out of fish."
While much of the focus on finding alternatives to seafood focuses on sustainability, there is also an animal welfare component to cell-based seafood, said Cooperhouse, who noted that fish do not have a quick and painless death, even if their lives are more enjoyable than their factory farmed feathery or furry counterparts (they are dying a slow death from asphyxiation, live evisceration or depressurization).
* Rage Capital led the $60m convertible note financing, and other significant participants include Agronomics, Lewis & Clark AgriFood, McWin, and Siddhi Capital. Strategic investors in this financing include Radicle Growth, by way of the Radicle Protein Challenge by Syngenta; Rich Products Corporation; and Thai Union. A partial list of other investors includes: AiiM Partners, Clear Current Capital, CPT Capital, Flat World Partners, KBW Ventures, Losa Group, OurCrowd, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Stray Dog Ventures.
Regulatory framework, USA
When it comes to product safety, cell-cultured seafood remains under the sole jurisdiction of the FDA; while the FDA will work together with the USDA to oversee cell-cultured meat and poultry using existing regulatory frameworks.
Under a joint agreement announced in March 2019, the FDA will oversee cell collection, cell banks, and cell growth and differentiation, with a transition to FSIS (USDA) oversight to occur during the cell harvest stage. FSIS will then oversee the production and labeling of foods derived from these cells.
What's in a name?
According to consumer research conducted by Dr Bill Hallman at Rutgers University and funded by BlueNalu, 'cell-based’ – while not perfect – may be the best common or usual name to describe seafood grown from animal cells on food labels. Read more HERE.
Despite the hype, most startups in the cell cultured (a.k.a. cell-based, cultivated) meat space are still working in a laboratory (as opposed to a factory), although several have raised more substantial sums (Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, BlueNalu, Future Meat Technologies, Wild Type, Aleph Farms, Meatable, Eat Just) to build pilot-scale facilities.
Silicon Valley-based Eat Just, meanwhile, recently hit the headlines after launching chicken bites containing a combination of cell-cultured chicken and plant-based proteins in Singapore under the GOOD Meat brand.