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Remember that lab-grown fish startup? They just got $20M to build a ‘mini-factory’ in San Diego

BlueNalu Corporate Chef Gerard Viverito prepared fish tacos, seafood bisque, poke, and kimchi dishes, all using BlueNalu’s yellowtail product.
(Courtesy of BlueNalu)

BlueNalu will use the funds to expand its local team and build a small-scale facility to test out its manufacturing methods

A San Diego startup that’s growing fish fillets entirely from cells has just landed $20 million to build out a mini-factory in Sorrento Valley. This attention from major investors is propelling the company to the front of a worldwide race to manufacture cell-based seafood for public consumption.

The 2-year-old startup, called BlueNalu, made headlines in December when the company announced it had hit a scientific milestone many researchers only dream of. In front of a small crowd gathered at San Diego Bay, the company’s chef prepared lab-created yellowtail fish in a variety of ways, from fish tacos and poke to seafood bisque.

“As global demand for seafood continues to increase, and our supply continues to be compromised, we are excited at the potential for BlueNalu to play a significant role in feeding the planet in the decades to come,” said Chuck Laue co-founder and chair of Stray Dog Capital, which co-led the latest investment round.

For those unfamiliar with cell-based seafood products, they are made of real fish meat and fat — or what we call “fillets” — grown through cell cultures in a food manufacturing facility. The hope of companies like BlueNalu is to meet the demand for real fish products while addressing ethical and environmental concerns of eating fish.

While the process is unfamiliar to the average person, the company’s founders say the lab-made seafood products aren’t any more unnatural than, say, Greek yogurt, which also requires the culturing of cells.

With this new investment, BlueNalu will be expanding its 6,000 square-foot office to a 12,000 square-foot facility, building out a “mini-factory” adjacent to the office to test making small batches of the product. By the middle of next year, BlueNalu’s CEO Lou Cooperhouse said the startup will be able to produce “several hundred pounds of cell-based seafood per week.”

BlueNalu raised $4.5 million in 2018, bringing its total capital raised to $24.5 million since inception. The company attracted the attention of a large cohort of investors spanning 11 nations, from Brazil and Saudi Arabia to Japan and Sweden. Cooperhouse said its investors were chosen strategically, each contributing expertise in supply chain infrastructure, marketing, distribution, or other areas of growth. Investors include Nutreco and Griffith Foods, among many others.

Investors are chasing an emerging market within cell-based foods. While cell-based meat and poultry have some advanced players, cell-based seafood is a little less mature. BlueNalu’s fish appears unique in its ability to withstand different cooking methods, a competitive manufacturing advancement.

Several other science startups are working on potential seafood products, and have showcased their experimental foods at industry events. San Francisco-based Wild Type organized a dinner last year to feature its lab-grown salmon, but it falls apart when cooked at high temperatures.

“Our medallions of yellowtail can be cooked via direct heat, steamed or even fried in oil; can be marinated in an acidified solution for applications like poke, ceviche, and kimchi, or can be prepared in the raw state,” said Cooperhouse in a statement in December. “This is an enormous accomplishment and we don’t believe that any other company worldwide has been able to demonstrate this level of product performance in a whole-muscle seafood product thus far.”

In a Union-Tribune profile of the startup last May, industry players addressed the huge scientific hurdles companies like BlueNalu face. One big challenge is manufacturing the products in large batches, which researchers and startups have long struggled to accomplish. Just creating the small batches of yellowtail cooked during the demonstration was a considerable accomplishment.

This small manufacturing facility will comply with good manufacturing practices (GMP), and the sale of BlueNalu’s products is pending a green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Cooperhouse said BlueNalu has been in talks with the FDA from the start, and expects to get clearance to move forward by the middle of next year. The company employs 16 staffers in San Diego and plans to hire an additional 5 to 10 people each quarter over the next year, including a chief financial officer.


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