BlueNalu co-founder and CEO Lou Cooperhouse says his San Diego, California-based company is just months from accomplishing what he believes to be a worldwide first in the emerging cell-based food industry.
It’s going to produce whole muscle, medallion-size pieces of yellowtail amberjack followed by mahi mahi grown from cells placed in a bioreactor and serve them to staff.
It won’t be the first time a company has extracted cells from an animal and grown them into a portion size fit for human consumption. That happened in 2013 when Mark Post, now the chief science officer at Mosa Meat, in the Netherlands, grew enough beef in a laboratory to make a hamburger -- said to be worth $250,000 -- that he then ate during a media event in London.
There also have been other prototypes grown of cells from ground beef, chicken, pork, fish and crustaceans, each time involving the blending of small amounts of cells with filler ingredients, Cooperhouse said. The products were made with batter, breaded and fried, or served with a sauce.
This will be different, he assured.
"This will be the first demonstration of a 'proof of scale', value-added seafood product that anyone in the industry has achieved to date," he said. “Picture a fish taco or tuna poke, a half-ounce to two-ounce piece of fish flesh that will be just what tuna poke or fish taco or ceviche look like.”
The plant-based meat alternative space is having its moment following California-based Beyond Meat’s off-the-charts initial public offering in early May, and reports that Burger King will roll out nationwide a version of its Whopper made with heme (soybean roots) from Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat’s biggest competitor, by the end of the year.
The plant-based meat alternative sector did $670 million in sales in 2018 and is growing at a rate of 24% per year, according to a study by the Plant Based Foods Association. Meanwhile, there are at least five companies, including Ocean Hugger Foods and Good Catch Foods, with plant-based alternative seafood products in the market.
Though it has yet to make a product available for commercial sale, the cell-based, "cultivated" or "clean" meat/seafood space isn’t far behind. There are 27 companies worldwide, including 11 founded just last year, according to a study published in early May by the Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute (GFI).
At least five of those cell-based food manufacturers seek to produce seafood products, including two San Francisco, California-area companies that each received $3.5m in seed money last year: Finless Foods, which is developing a cell-based bluefin tuna product, and Wild Type, which is developing a cell-based salmon product.
GFI found 2018 to be a record year for investment in the cell-based meat sector, with 12 companies raising capital worth $50m in 14 deals. That's double the capital invested in 2015, 2016, and 2017 combined, GFI said. From 2015 until the end of 2018, a total of $73m had been invested.
The top three funded cell-based meat companies -- Memphis Meats ($22m), CUBIQ Foods ($14m) and Mosa Meat ($9m) -- have all announced that they expect to start selling products in 2021.
“Investors and entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a global shift in the way meat is produced. The market opportunity here is massive,” said GFI executive director Bruce Friedrich.
'[N]o compromise in quality, taste or texture'
However, BlueNalu, which itself raised $4.5m in startup funds in the spring of 2018 from a group of 26 investors, expects to be the first to the market with the large-scale production and sale of seafood products, Cooperhouse told Undercurrent. It’s the company's goal also to open up with a large slew of species in roughly five to seven years, including several shellfish, rather than only one species.
Mahi mahi, Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, crab and lobster are all premium species Cooperhouse said his company is targeting at this time. He said he's not interested in making a big splash with a product that disappoints.
“We want to have seafood products with no compromise in quality, taste or texture,” he said. “And also no compromise to the plant or with personal health or animal health.”
BlueNalu plans to build or acquire a 150,000 square foot factory capable of meeting the seafood consumption demands of more than 10m nearby residents. Because of water and labor demands, Cooperhouse told a small crowd at a conference in New York City over the weekend that the ideal location might be a former brewery of beverage bottling plant.
He was participating in a panel on seafood alternatives moderated by Undercurrent at the first ever Plant Based World Conference & Expo.
In the future, Cooperhouse said, Blue Nalu would look at building his factories all over the world, including in Asia where seafood consumption is growing rapidly.
“The beauty of what we are doing is we are very demand driven, not supply driven,” Cooperhouse said. “So if we were targeting New York City, we could put a factory in New Jersey or Pennsylvania and supply the entire population that resides from Boston to DC. We can also select distressed cities for our factories, including those that formerly had their livelihoods in the fishing industry but are today in poor economic conditions."
Within 10 years Cooperhouse expects BlueNalu's products to be price competitive with traditional wild-caught or farm-raised fish, overcoming one of the biggest challenges of cell-based food manufacturing.
"BlueNalu will work in partnership with the seafood industry in bringing our products to the marketplace," he stressed.
A few cells from one fish
The longtime food industry executive grimaces over the use of the term “lab-grown” to describe the process by which his products will be manufactured, as it suggests laboratory coats and test tubes. Rather, he maintains, it’s more accurate to describe his products as being made in a factory.
That said, a good deal of science will be involved in Blue Nalu’s process, as recently spelled out in the San Diego Union Tribune article.
To grow fish meat in a bioreactor, a live fish is first put under anesthesia so that scientists can remove a few muscle stem cells, from which then satellite cells (precursors of muscle cells) are isolated and treated with enzymes. A few stem cells can be used to produce billions more.
The cells are then placed in a bioreactor with a solution containing vitamins, salts, lipids, sugar, plant proteins and amino acids before being placed in a centrifuge that separates them from excess materials by spinning them rapidly. Lastly, the concentration of cells is mixed with a nutritious liquid called bio-ink and then 3-D printed into the desired shape.
Unlike other cell-based meats, BlueNalu won’t use animal serums to grow its fish, but has come up with an "animal-free" alternative, Cooperhouse assured at the conference.
How fast can BlueNalu grow its seafood to the size needed for sale?
"Two months," Cooperhouse told the audience.
Ultimately you want vanilla fudge swirl
Blue Nalu’s creation of its prototype this fall will mark the completion of its first phase, Cooperhouse told Undercurrent
“You need your baseline product and then you need to understand what the sensory characteristics are that consumers expect," he said. "We are very culinary driven so we’ll have a product that we believe will match the texture and the mouthfeel but will it cut with a fork and peel away the same way? Will it have some of the flavor experiences?”
“First, you have the vanilla ice cream, but you want to make vanilla fudge swirl ultimately,” he said.
Cooperhouse said the first batch of seafood to be grown by BlueNalu in its upcoming test will likely involve five to 10 medallions each of mahi mahi and yellowtail. The products will be consumed by internal staff with no press invited, he said.
The company will then continue to reproduce more fish, refining the process each time.
Meanwhile, BlueNalu has already begun preparations for meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine the necessary processes it will need to complete.
All 12 of Blue Nalu’s full-time employees are scientists, he said, including his two co-founders, Chris Somogyi, a biomedical engineer, and Chris Dammann, an expert in cellular biology.
The three men came up with the idea for BlueNalu shortly after a conference in Hawaii where Cooperhouse was a speaker, he recounted. The company's name reflects the occasion, as "nalu" is a word of Hawaiian origin, meaning, as a noun, waves or surf and, as a verb, to mediate, ponder or contemplate.
Cooperhouse is himself a 35-year veteran of the food industry who’s held senior roles at Nestlé, The Campbell Soup Co., ConAgra and in many smaller businesses where he's led teams in new business and technology development. He was also the executive director of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, in New Jersey, where he provided consulting advice to Impossible Foods in its early days.
But the company has surrounded itself with other big names, too. It recently announced the nine new members of its advisory board, which include: Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of Jacques Cousteau and the CEO and founder of Cousteau Divers; Carlos Barroso, who served in senior research and development roles for both Campbell Soup and PepsiCo; Tim Ryan, president of The Culinary Institute of America since 2001; and Roy Yamaguchi, an American James Beard Award winning chef.