A startup from Europe is joining the race to become the first big provider of lab-grown fish.
Bluu Biosciences has raised €7 million in a round of financing from investors including Manta Ray Ventures, Norrsken VC, Be8, CPT Capital and Lever VC to compete with a host of startups like BluNalu, Wild Type and Shiok Meats in a bid to market with a lab-grown fish replacement.
The market for sustainable fish is huge and growing. Already, concerns over the effects of overfishing and industrial fish farming are mounting as demand for fish increases. It's the same problem that other animal-based sources of protein face. The amount of demand for high-quality sources of protein from the Earth's several billion people cannot sustainably keep up with the available supply.
That's why a number of cellular meat companies are focusing on fish instead of other meats like beef, pork or chicken.
"There is a lot of talent in Europe and very little companies built in this space. If you compare it to the mammalian space there are a lot fewer companies," said Simon Fabich, co-founder and managing director of Bluu.
At Berlin-based Bluu, the focus is on salmon, trout and carp (the most popular fish in China). Other companies are tackling tuna, salmon and shrimp, but Bluu sees carp as an especially attractive target, given its popularity in one of the world's most populous countries.
One advantage for Bluu, its founders argue, is the deep experience that co-founder Sebastian Rakers has in the wild world of cultivated fish cells.
A marine and cell biologist who was working for several years at the Munich-based Fraunhofer Institute, one of Europe's most celebrated research institutes, Rakers led a task force that looked at potential commercial viability of cell-based meat, after conducting research on the viability of using fish cells as a component for viral production for the pharmaceutical industry.
Bluu Biotechnologies co-founder Sebastian Rakers. Image Credits: Bluu Biosciences
During his research Rakers cultivated 80 different cell cultures for more than 20 different species of fish. What's more, he was able to make these cell lines immortal.
Before envisioning an endless, ever-producing mass of fish cells that could overwhelm the world, it might be worth explaining what immortal cell lines mean. Actually … the endless, ever-producing mass of self-reproducing fish cells comes pretty close.
Most cell lines tend to die off after reproducing a certain number of times, which means that to manufacture meat at scale can require several biopsies of the same animal to cultivate multiple cell lines at a time. Rakers said that Bluu could avoid that step, thanks to the work that had already been done to develop these "immortal" salmon, trout and carp cell cultivars.
"It’s such a strong competitive advantage," said Fabich. "If you have normal cells that are not immortalized you can only proliferate 20 to 25 times and then you need to start again from another biopsy. With immortalized cells you can grow up to 100,000 times and we can double it every day."
With this technology in hand, Rakers said he was thinking about what could come next in his own career and met up with Gary Lin, an impact investor and the founder of Purple Orange Ventures.
Lin connected Rakers with Fabich and the two men set off to commercialize Rakers' research as Bluu. Even though there are several companies that have a head start in the market (and in funding), Rakers said that there are certain advantages to coming in late.
"Five years ago there was hardly any company looking into media development, hardly any companies focused on bioreactor technologies at a very large scale and there was no company looking for scaffolding alternatives for cell-based meat," he said. Now there are.
The company is picking up speed quickly thanks to those other technology providers that are coming to market and will look to have a prototype product out by the end of 2022.
The company is also pushing for regulation, which both Fabich and Rakers said were one of the last remaining obstacles to commercialization. Ultimately, the company has its eye firmly on the Asian market. "That's the one that moves the needle," in terms of sustainability, Fabich said. "We can have the biggest impact if we change production behavior there."
Bluu Biosciences co-founders Sebastian Rakers and Simon Fabich. Image Credits: Bluu Biosciences