In the fall of 2017, Lou Cooperhouse took the stage at the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation conference to talk about what he saw as the trend that would lead to the total transformation of our food supply: alternative proteins.
At the time, Cooperhouse — whose long career in food innovation includes founding and running Rutgers Food Innovation Center, an incubator for startups — was working with multiple companies making plant-based products. (Impossible Foods Inc., of Impossible Burger fame, was a client.) But the real transformative technology, in his view, was the use of cell culturing to make meat from animal cells — products that would have the look, feel, taste and nutritional content of real meat, because that's exactly what they are.
The first cell-cultured hamburger — a five-ounce patty that cost more than $300,000 to produce — was made in 2013, and a slew of beef and poultry-based products were under development. "I said to myself, that's amazing technology," Cooperhouse said, "but the real home run, the holy grail, would be seafood."
Chris Somogyi, an entrepreneur in the audience that day, agreed. Before the year was out, Somogyi and Cooperhouse had teamed up with Chris Dammann to launch BlueNalu, a seafood-focused cell culture company. Since its founding in 2017, the San Diego-based company has become the first to create stable cell lines from a variety of fin fish. (Both Somogyi and Dammann have since left the company.)
The cell-based protein industry is booming. Dozens of startups trying to grow food in labs have formed in the United States in recent years, and they raised more money in the first quarter of 2020 — some $189 million — than in all previous years combined, according to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for alternative meats.
BlueNalu President + CEO Lou Cooperhouse
So far, only one company has made it to market: the U.S.-based start-up Eat Just received regulatory approval to sell it's cell-cultured chicken at a restaurant in Singapore in late 2020. One of the major obstacles for many companies has been cost, and most are still working to bring down the price of the raw materials, scale-up production and gain regulatory approval. A few more are expected to hit the market this year. By one estimate, as much as 35% of meat will be cultured by 2040, buoyed by efforts to reduce carbon emissions, antibiotic use and the risk of disease.
But to Cooperhouse, seafood, more than any other industry, is in need of a transformation: Overfishing has pushed fisheries around the globe to the brink of collapse. Ocean acidification, heat waves, plastic pollution, and more threaten the stocks that are left. Research suggests that as many as 60% of the marine species humans fish are at a high risk for extinction in the coming years. Yet demand continues to rise since at least the mid-20th century. According to the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization, the rise in global fish consumption since 1961 has outpaced both population growth and increases in production of other meat products.
"Our global supply gap is only getting worse, our supply is increasingly compromised with mercury and environmental pollutants and plastics, and we just can't feed the world," Cooperhouse said. But in cell culture technology, he saw an opportunity to create a stable supply of one of the world's most sought-after protein sources, easing pressure on our oceans and feeding the world at the same time.
In January, the 40-person company announced it had raised $60 million in debt financing led by Rage Capital, bringing its total fundraising up to more than $84 million. BlueNalu's other significant investors include New Crop Capital, Lewis & Clark Agrifood, Siddhi Capital, and Rich Products Corp. The latest round of funding is expected to see the company through the next two phases of its development, according to Cooperhouse: FDA approval, and the initial launch of its products in select restaurants in San Diego.
It's too soon to say which restaurants those will be.
After market testing in restaurants, BlueNalu plans to scale up production with the construction of more factories, creating jobs and providing consumers with a third option to farmed or wild caught fish.
Already, the company is building out its facility in San Diego. By the end of the year, it will be capable of producing several hundred pounds of cell-cultured fish per week.
The Good Food Institute, which has called on the Biden administration to allocate some $2 billion toward research and research facilities for alternative proteins, believes that the production of plant-based and cell-cultured meats "will spark a renaissance in American manufacturing."
Critics of cell-cultured meat worry that the product could put farmers and fishermen out of work, but BlueNalu claims that it is carefully choosing its products with these issues in mind. Its first product to market will be mahi-mahi, a nod to the company's Hawaiian roots, and the most practical choice for a company that's trying not to compete with U.S. fisheries.
"We're specifically targeting seafood that are typically imported, that are high in mercury or other contaminants, or they can't be farm-raised at all," Cooperhouse said. A cell-cultured Bluefin tuna, a species that is both overfished and high in mercury, will follow. "The bottom line is there's a fundamental global supply chain gap. If we don't find another solution, we will be out of fish or it will be so high priced it will be unattainable."
The National Fisheries Institute, a nonprofit focused on seafood sustainability, is supportive of cell-cultured seafood as part of the solution. "As the global demand for seafood increases, so will the need for innovative solutions like cell-cultured products," an NFI spokesperson said by email.
The final challenge for the first cell-based fish company is marketing. To prepare for direct-to-consumer sales, BlueNalu worked with the Alliance for Meat, Poultry and Seafood and the NFI to agree on a term that would allow the public to distinguish between wild-caught, farmed and fish grown from fish cells: cell-cultured. The term can be used more broadly to distinguish proteins from animals, and those made from animal cells.
As CEO, Cooperhouse has worked to distance BlueNalu from earlier cell-cultured products presented to the public as meat grown in petri dishes. BlueNalu's facility is a food factory, he says, not a lab.
"We are first and foremost a food company," he said. "BlueNalu is a culinary driven company. We are making great-tasting seafood products with all the sensory benefits, all that you love about seafood, but without the mercury, microplastics or pollutants."
Lead Image by Ian Hurley.
Two months ago, the CEO of a new ecommerce app, GoodHuman, where shoppers can find $95 Allbirds tennis shoes or pick up a set of $118 bamboo sheets, made the tough call to drop the popular clothing brand Reformation from its marketplace of sustainable companies.
The top-selling L.A.-based company — whose slogan reads "Being naked is the #1 most sustainable option. We're #2" — seemed to be a perfect brand for GoodHuman's site, where shoppers are encouraged to "discover all things sustainable and ethical." But the women's eco-conscious brand had taken a hit months earlier after one employee spoke out about a work environment that undermined and mistreated people of color.
Reformation released the results of its internal investigation last month finding its "workplace culture is not 'racist,' as alleged in the social media allegations."
The report didn't change GoodHuman co-founder and CEO James Glasscock's mind.
"We did pull it from curation because we felt like there was some work to be done," Glasscock said. "They've also been a leader in some areas over several years. It's complicated, to be fair."
Those complications, of what exactly is an ethical or sustainable company, are the territory that GoodHuman wants to own. Last week, Glasscock launched the company's app, an Amazon-like store that promises the "largest curated collection of sustainable products from ethical brands."
But figuring out who makes the cut isn't always simple and shows the many pitfalls brands face. GoodHuman isn't the only one doing this. Retailer giant Amazon rolled out its own eco-friendly platform in Europe last year.
GoodHuman determines what brands they sell based on five criteria. The site looks whether a company is certified in things such as fair trade, if it's free of 23 "toxic" ingredients and if the company is transparent. The other two considerations are internal research and, as they call it "community-driven discourse" or opposition by consumers to the brand.
"We think it's difficult for one person, one company to decide what is good for everybody," he said. "I'm not even the right person to decide if it is good or is not good. That's where the community comes in."
That last part is what ultimately triggered Glasscock to pull the popular Reformation.
"Our approach has been if we have to talk about it for too long, then let's just pull it," he said. "There are plenty of ethical and sustainable brands that have a good reputation that many users haven't even heard of."
What's an Ethical Brand?
Glasscock said his approach is "definitely not a perfect solution," but that consumers are seeking guidance in finding brands that align with their values. Some brands on the site sell more expensive products that can take longer to ship, but he said that's not the priority of shoppers that land on his site.
The company, founded in 2019, has so far vetted 680 brands and 50,000 products, which users can scroll through on the discover page under curated headlines like "Fashionably Frugal" and "Wholesome Home."
Glasscock, who spend much of the last decade in entertainment on the distributions side, said the startup has raised $1.2 million to date.
The company relies on the long list of independent bodies scanning brands for how they source materials and the impact of their shipping practices on the environment. Those standards, like Certified Organic and Fair Trade, are stamped on the front of chocolate bars or bagged coffee beans sold in grocery stores. Another is Certified B Corp, the guarantee given last week to L.A.-based organic food seller Thrive Market.
Those certifications have become a key marketing material as consumers become more environmentally conscious. Brands from H&M to McDonalds have embraced the idea of sustainability.
Joshua Clark Davis, a professor of history at the University of Baltimore, said businesses are eager to "give the appearance of sustainability," but not all of them fully practice it. In February, he published a book tracking the rise of mission-driven businesses and "conscious capitalism" that began in the 60s and 70s.
"Right now, especially in the age of Trump, people are looking for ways to advance and implement their values," he said. "We've seen how corporations in 2020 are eager to jump on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon, some of them sincerely, some of them less sincerely."
It's reflective of a shift in both consumer and business behavior. But will customers be willing to spend more? Glasscock thinks so. His biggest rival is Amazon.
"We got to make being a good human as convenient as being a bad human," he said. "For us, that means making it as easy as Amazon."
In September, the retail giant rolled out its own shopping platform for vetted eco-friendly products. It launched it in the UK and parts of Europe last. week. With it, Amazon also announced its own certification process, Compact by Design, to encourage companies to make products with less packaging.
"Amazon is a profit-first company," Glasscock said, adding that the move will end up saving Amazon money by lowering shipping costs and fitting more packages into fewer trucks, trains and ships.
"What's it all mean for GoodHuman? Validation of the opportunity for sure," he said. "On one hand we have the most fierce possible competitor a tiny L.A. startup could have. On the other hand, we are more focused on just this and confident we can build a better experience differentiated through curation, authenticity and community. Amazon has many priorities, we have only one."