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In The Cell Base's second instalment of ‘Start-up spotlight,' we speak to Lou Cooperhouse, founder and CEO of BlueNalu, a California, US-based start-up focusing on cellular aquaculture.

Can you introduce BlueNalu and highlight its mission and core objectives, please?

The food industry accounts for over a third of our global greenhouse gases, originating from the ways in which we produce, process and package food. We need to find a new way to feed people ethical, nutritious food without compromising our planet and seafood, in particular, has numerous unique challenges. Global seafood consumption is at an all-time high, yet many fisheries are already harvested at or beyond their maximum capacity.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, fish consumption has been outpacing global population growth by a factor of 2:1 since the 1960s, resulting in a projected gap in seafood production of 28 million metric tons by 2030. Furthermore, our seafood supply chain is vulnerable to the climate crisis and changing ocean ecosystems create uncertainty in the lives of billions of consumers who rely on seafood as part of a healthy diet. The world needs a new solution and BlueNalu can provide that new solution by developing a variety of seafood products directly from fish cells.

What inspired the establishment of BlueNalu, and what factors led the company to focus on cell-based seafood?

Our planet's ocean is under immense pressure due to overfishing, pollution and the effects of climate change. We believe that cell-cultured seafood has the most disruptive potential in the entire global protein category due to the extraordinary product benefits that can result from our process, and the existing challenges in today’s supply. Global demand for seafood is at an all-time high and is anticipated to increase significantly in the decades ahead, particularly in Asia; but our global supply is increasingly diminishing; insecure; variable; vulnerable; fraught with issues of animal suffering and bycatch; and can result in products that can be contaminated with mercury, microplastics, parasites, and/or pollutants.

BlueNalu’s products will create a third type of seafood – not wild, not farmed, but cell-cultured – that is consistent every time and has the same nutritional composition and sensory experience as traditional seafood, without health risks or strain on marine ecosystems.

What unique benefits do BlueNalu's cell-based seafood products offer, and how do you envision their impact on the future of sustainable seafood consumption?

BlueNalu has conducted quite a bit of consumer research in the US, and we have identified our target market as people who love seafood. Seafood already enjoys a health halo, and when we share that our seafood will reduce health risks from mercury, microplastics or other contaminants, consumers are drawn to these benefits. We’ve also interviewed chefs and foodservice operators who recognise that BlueNalu will provide a consistent, nearly 100% yielded product that is available with a year-round supply, eliminating the tremendous variability and unpredictability that exists in the seafood supply chain today. We envision a world where we can enjoy the seafood we love while leaving fish in the wild to repopulate.

What are the essential technologies and capabilities that makeup BlueNalu's services?

In just five years, BlueNalu has developed a technology platform that enables the company to produce premium cell-cultured seafood products from a wide array of species. The incredible R&D team led by our CTO, Lauran Madden, has been able to fast-track breakthrough and scalable technologies, including a non-GMO, single-cell suspension line with high growth rates to accelerate the company’s scale-up to large bioreactors. Married with our ability to produce high-value, culinary-driven, and whole-muscle products, like bluefin tuna toro, this technology platform enables us to become quite profitable.

Sustainability and ethical considerations play a significant role in the cell-based food sector. How does BlueNalu approach these aspects in its operations?

It is important to recognise that in today’s supply chain model for seafood, an astonishing and very inefficient level of global trade occurs in which fish may be transported thousands of miles. Furthermore, levels of bycatch are estimated at 40%, yields can be as low as 50%, and IUU fishing and overfishing are significant challenges. In our business model, we are displacing today’s supply-restricted model with one that will be vertically integrated and demand-driven.

Our cell-cultured seafood production method offers a significant opportunity to improve the environmental and sustainability footprint of the seafood system. As we expand to large-scale production in the coming years, we will work with third-party organisations to establish a life cycle assessment of our production method, which will allow BlueNalu to specify our environmental impact, which we believe will be demonstrably superior to the practices that occur in our seafood supply chain today.

Has BlueNalu encountered any challenges on its journey so far? How did the company navigate and overcome these obstacles?

When BlueNalu began its operations over five years ago, we recognised that there were so many unknowns in the category of cell-cultured seafood, for example: no stable cell lines had previously been developed among finfish species globally, no established pathway to scalable technology for viable large-scale manufacturing (meeting food industry volumes and profit margin targets) existed, no food grade supply chain was established for this industry, no regulatory pathway or process was in place anywhere in the world for these novel products, and, of course, no consumer had even heard about the concept of real seafood products that were made from fish cells.

With such extraordinary challenges, we knew that it would be imperative to bring on a talented, multidisciplinary team and work with a variety of strategic partners to make the dream of cell-cultured seafood a reality. We have made remarkable progress in each of these areas during this time period as we have developed a scalable technology and an extraordinary value proposition, and we are now preparing for large-scale commercialisation.

Collaboration with the scientific community can be crucial in advancing cell-based technologies. Can you shed light on BlueNalu's engagement with researchers and partners?

BlueNalu's focus on collaboration is rooted in our belief that the sum is greater than the parts, and in order to bring our cell-cultured seafood to the world, we cannot do this alone. BlueNalu is quite fortunate as we have publicly announced a total of ten strategic partners to date, including investments from these companies in several instances. These partners span across the globe and include multinational organisations in various nations throughout Asia (Pulmuone, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Thai Union and Food & Life), the US (Griffith Foods and Rich Products), Europe (Nomad Foods and Nutreco) and the Middle East (NEOM). These collaborations accelerate our journey to market, enhance scalability, and ensure a global market fit for our innovative cell-cultured seafood products. We are continually developing new partnerships, and plan to announce more of these in the coming months and years.

What exciting developments or plans does BlueNalu have in the pipeline for the future and what can we expect to see from the company in the coming months or years?

In the near-term, BlueNalu is focused on continuing our scale-up journey, getting regulatory approval in the US, Singapore and additional nations around the world, and then launching our products into commerce within selected restaurants. We have already completed a comprehensive techno-economic analysis based upon our process parameters, and in the longer term, we are making plans for large-scale commercialisation. In tandem we’re working with chef partners to perfect our product, while conducting market research around the world to home in consumer preferences in each region we plan to go to market. We will also be announcing new strategic partnerships in the months and years ahead that will facilitate our global commercialisation strategy.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Over the last three years, BlueNalu has interviewed and surveyed around 4,400 consumers and 75 chefs in the United States to better understand the benefits and challenges of both conventional and cell-cultured seafood. Our market research outlined in this whitepaper highlights the complex dynamics of conventional seafood as a unique protein category with a variety of positive and negative perceptions related to nutrition, human health, supply-chain, and more. The results from these research efforts showcase the role of cell-cultured seafood as an important and transformative product. Through our market research, we have learned that consumers are eager for our products. They want sushi-grade quality; and they appreciate and value the superior health benefits. Foodservice operators are similarly excited to put our product on their menus thanks to its consistency of quality, and year-round availability.

#BlueNalu #US

Start-up spotlight: BlueNalu

Phoebe Fraser

6 December 2023

Start-up spotlight: BlueNalu

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