Finless Foods' upcoming plant-based tuna was sort of an accident — one that led to a fantastic product, co-founder and CEO Michael Selden said.
The California company was founded in 2017 to create cell-cultured seafood. Finless Foods is currently working on creating bluefin tuna from cells, since the large and endangered fish cannot be naturally farmed in an economic way.
While cell-based meat is identical to that which comes from animals, developers have to do extra work to ensure the cells are arranged and have a texture familiar to consumers. One way to do this is through a scaffold — a structure upon which cells grow in order to look and feel like animal meat. As Finless Foods was testing potential scaffolds, its development team decided to eat them to see how they affected the sensory experience, Selden said. However, the scaffolds didn't have enough of a taste by themselves. So the team flavored the scaffolds, tapping the plant-based growth medium used to cultivate Finless' cells for a base.
And just like that, Selden said, Finless Foods had created a tasty plant-based tuna. While several team members pushed to introduce a product, Selden at first demurred. But he quickly realized that if Finless Foods doesn't have a product to market, it is just doing R&D.
"Becoming a food company would just give us such a leg up in this industry, because so many of these companies are just pure R&D operations," Selden said. "Food is hard. It's complicated. And to not be a company that has any sort of interface with customers at all, or the food world — distributors, manufacturers — that's a serious disadvantage. So I think this will really bring a bunch of capabilities onboard quicker, which will allow us to actually get our cell-cultured product to market sooner — as soon as we get regulatory approval — while actually putting out a great product that serves our mission."
Finless plans to make its plant-based tuna available to restaurants and foodservice next year. But it's continuing to work on its cell-cultured seafood as well. The company recently started converting a former office building in Emeryville, California, into a pilot facility, which it plans to move into in October, Selden said. The facility will be large enough to supply a handful of restaurants with cell-cultured bluefin tuna, once the product receives regulatory approval.
Selden, who entered the food business out of a desire to make a difference through environmental activism, said producing cell-based seafood is important to Finless Foods. But it isn't the only way he wants to operate.
"These are all technologies that work towards doing this mission that we're interested in," he said. "We're not super ideological about what technology it is. I want us to be leaders in moving the industry into a more flexible direction. Into a direction where it makes it clear that the consumers are not going to buy what we make because of the technology that makes it. They're going to buy it because of the functionality that the technology can get it."
From horseshoe crabs to sashimi
Selden's path to starting Finless Foods is somewhat roundabout.
After finishing his bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, he spent some time in Taiwan and China, teaching chemistry and translating news. Upon returning to the United States, he read an article that changed his career path. The 2014 story in The Atlantic, called "The Blood Harvest," describes how horseshoe crabs are caught, their blood harvested for medical uses, and then returned to the sea. The story explains that scientists were searching for a replacement that wasn't so harmful to a living species.
"That was sort of a moment for me where I was like, wait a minute — if you can make horseshoe crab blood without horseshoe crabs, can't you just make any animal product without animals in a way that's a bit better for the environment?" Selden said.
In 2014, cell-based food technology was in a nascent stage. Selden started doing research and found Mark Post's first cell-cultured hamburger — later parlayed into cell-based meat company Mosa Meat. He also found plant-based leather company Modern Meadow, which was also doing work on cell-based meat, and cellular agriculture research institute New Harvest. Selden began volunteering at New Harvest and working on a Ph.D. in cellular agriculture.
As he was formulating ideas to create meat from cells, several potential investors came to him. A friend convinced him to drop out of the Ph.D. program, start a cellular agriculture company and take the money, since it might otherwise go to something less world-changing.
"Becoming a food company would just give us such a leg up in this industry, because so many of these companies are just pure R&D operations. Food is hard. It's complicated. And to not be a company that has any sort of interface with customers at all, or the food world — distributors, manufacturers — that's a serious disadvantage."
CEO and co-founder, Finless Foods
Over a meal of Impossible Burgers, Selden discussed his cell-culturing idea with Brian Wyrwas, a friend from undergrad. Wyrwas worked doing primary cell culturing at Weill Cornell Medical College, and corrected a lot of Selden's workflow ideas. The duo decided to pair up and start Finless Foods, which began with funding through the incubator program at SOSV's IndieBio.
Finless Foods was one of the first players in the cell-based meat space, and from the beginning the company had decided to focus on seafood. Selden said starting with cell-based bluefin tuna makes sense from many angles. Because the fish is rare and endangered, it's fairly pricey to eat. But people do enjoy it; the fish is treasured in high-end sushi and sashimi. There is no ecologically sensitive way to take bluefin tuna from the ocean. And because bluefin tuna are major predators, they may have high levels of mercury that can be harmful to consumers.
"We can give people this mercury-free, sustainable option for something that previously was like a delicacy," Selden said.
Cost also factored into Finless' choice to pursue cell-based bluefin tuna, Selden said. Although the cost of cultured meat has dropped significantly since Post's $325,000 hamburger in 2013, it still is rather expensive to produce. While companies making cultured chicken and beef are racing to get close to price parity with meat from animals — Future Meat Technologies says it can make a cultured chicken breast for $7.50 now — it's much less of a stretch for Finless Foods. Wild-caught bluefin tuna can sell for $200 a pound — a price more easily within reach for cell-based meat makers, Selden said.
From an R&D operation to a food company
Finless Foods' unintentional discovery of a tasty plant-based fish analog is the beginning of the next phase for the company. And by diving into plant-based, Finless is already starting to confront a lot of bigger questions for the whole space.
Shannon Cosentino-Roush, who was recently elevated from Finless' director of policy and strategic partnerships to chief strategy officer, said there is a tremendous white space in the alternative seafood category. While there are a couple companies with national distribution in the space, it's nowhere near as popular or as crowded as plant-based burgers or chicken nuggets. Cosentino-Roush said that Finless Foods is still working to understand its potential customer base, and what they are looking for in seafood alternatives.
"I think a lot of that understanding and learning will also parlay into sort of creating a really fit-for-purpose go-to-market strategy for the cell-cultured product," she said.
When that cell-cultured product will actually get to go to market is an open question. Currently, there is no regulatory framework in the United States for cell-cultured meat and seafood. The federal government has been working toward a framework since 2018. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has sole jurisdiction over regulation of traditional seafood, will also oversee the cell-based product. Experts say the department is making significant progress and its engagement with several companies about their processes and products has been promising.
Finless Foods is among those businesses working with FDA, according to Cosentino-Roush. The process of establishing regulations has been iterative so far, she said.
Finless Foods wants to first establish its cell-based product in the United States, but Cosentino-Roush said the company is looking to obtain regulatory approval in other countries. Of particular interest right now is Singapore, she said, which already has regulations for cell-based meat and has given approval to Eat Just's cultured Good Meat chicken.
Selden hopes there will be some overlap in the target consumer for both of Finless Foods' product lines. By getting a plant-based product into the market now, it begins the journey of earning brand recognition among consumers, he said. And brand recognition is vitally important, Selden noted. While people in the food business are very interested in the details of the technology to make both plant-based and cell-based fish, some consumers really won't care.
"We have to make sure that we're creating messaging that works for those people as well," Selden said. "And I think that if we're trying to sell our product based on the tech that creates it, no one's excited about that — or very few people are excited about that. People are excited about what the product can do for them."
Although not many companies are pursuing both cell-based and plant-based meat analogs at the same time, Selden said both funders and the food tech community have largely been enthusiastic about Finless' new strategy. While it's easy to try to pit plant-based and cell-based companies against each other as rivals, Selden said each solution is trying to move consumers away from animal-based meat, as well as expand the food supply in a sustainable way. Selden hopes more companies will follow in Finless' footsteps.
"We have these sensory and texture expertises on board already in order to do our cell culture work," Selden said. "We have work in terms of ingredients, supply chain. We have these food relationships. To not use those effectively by putting out everything that we can in order to work on the mission that we're dedicated towards is a little bit wasteful to me."