With a $20 million funding round that closed this week, cell-based seafood company BlueNalu is on track to produce cultured mahi mahi for a test market by the end of 2021, President and CEO Lou Cooperhouse told Food Dive.
The funds, many of which come from strategic partners that can help with production and distribution of the cell-based seafood for the Southern California-based company, will be used to get BlueNalu into a new 12,000-square-foot location.
The new headquarters is twice the size of where the company currently operates and will allow for more production, engineering and commercialization of cell-based fish, as well as biological R&D, Cooperhouse said. He called the facility a "mini factory" that will eventually be able to produce several hundred pounds of seafood a week, and will help BlueNalu toward its long-term goal of being a large producer of seafood from cells.
BlueNalu has a comprehensive five-point plan to get to that goal, Cooperhouse said. It starts with figuring out the biological elements to make cell-based meat, then building a team, getting regulatory approval, building strategic relationships, testing products and scaling the company. He told Food Dive this funding puts BlueNalu on step three.
"This one is really to just get product into introductory markets," Cooperhouse told Food Dive. "So it'll do a few things. One is it'll help us get product in commerce — in itself a huge milestone for this industry. But secondly, ... [it will] get product ... in the hands of food service operators and allow us to demonstrate how the product performs in the market."
"We're also talking about food security. So, as you can imagine, not just from an innovation but from a sustainability commitment, ... what we're doing as a company is something that's certainly very transformative for our meat supply, but also something that we all feel is critical for the planet."
President and CEO, BlueNalu
The funding round was co-led by Stray Dog Capital, CPT Capital, New Crop Capital and Clear Current Capital, all of which participated in the cellular aquaculture company's seed round in 2018.
Other funds came from companies that are either working with BlueNalu now or will work with the company as it grows. Nutreco, a Dutch producer of animal feed and aquanutrition, is one of the funders. BlueNalu announced a strategic partnership with the company for its supply chain and feed expertise in January. Other funders include Griffith Foods, an Illinois company known for its expertise in food science and sensory optimization that Cooperhouse said can help its products better look and behave like the conventional fish that consumers are used to. Asian companies Pulmuone — based in South Korea — and Sumitomo Corporation — based in Japan — both funded BlueNalu and are ideally positioned to help get its products regulatory approval and distribution in Asia, which consumes four times the seafood as the U.S., Cooperhouse said. Rich Products Corporation, which has several bakery and frozen brands — and a growing presence in value-added seafood — also contributed funds through its corporate venture arm.
"All companies need a fair amount of funding. But companies also need strategic partners to really get to market in an efficient fashion, and efficiency [is] not just in costs but also in time," Cooperhouse said. "So we specifically sought out these five partners."
Cooperhouse said BlueNalu is confident in the product it is making so far. The company did limited product testing with cell-based yellowtail in December, bringing in chefs to make the product using several common fish preparations. The cell-based fish performed as expected in cooking under direct heat, steaming or deep frying; marination in more acid solutions to be used for poke, ceviche and kimchi; and raw.
BlueNalu is one of several cell-based meat companies gearing up for larger-scale production in the near future. While there are no cell-based products on the market anywhere now, that is likely to change in the near future.
California-based Memphis Meats closed a $161 million funding round last month, paving its way for a pilot plant to produce a diverse array of meat products, which the company is hoping to have available by 2022. Israel's Future Meat Technologies received $14 million in funding last year and is close to having its pilot plant completed — and ready to produce products next year. Mosa Meat, located in the Netherlands, also recently received funding from a partnership with Nutreco and is aiming to have cell-based hamburgers on the market in Europe by 2022. And while San Francisco-based Just has not recently announced any new funds or facilities for cell-based meat production, the company told Food Dive this month it is ready to sell cell-based chicken nuggets in limited quantities, but it needs to find a market — likely in Asia — that will provide regulatory approval.
Cooperhouse said all of that movement is creating renewed enthusiasm among companies in the cell-based meat space. But BlueNalu's team and investors is particularly excited as it is the only one of these companies focused solely on seafood.
"You have an increasing demand and in the years to come, the problem obviously, is a rapidly decreasing supply — and the supply is very vulnerable and very variable and increasingly compromised by microplastics, environmental pollutants and vulnerable to global environmental disaster," Cooperhouse said. "So to have a stability in that supply chain for seafood is really just critical for the entire planet. ...We're also talking about food security. So, as you can imagine, not just from an innovation but from a sustainability commitment, ... what we're doing as a company is something that's certainly very transformative for our meat supply, but also something that we all feel is critical for the planet."
While BlueNalu will continue to develop products, whether they can get on the market is subject to federal regulatory approval. In 2019, the FDA and USDA agreed to jointly regulate cell based meat, but specifics have not been publicly released since then. Cooperhouse said BlueNalu is working with the federal government toward regulation, both on its own and as a founding member of cell-based industry group the Alliance for Meat, Poultry & Seafood Innovation.