Mike Selden - Growing the next generation of seafood
In this interview with HATCH, CEO of Finless Foods - Mike Selden - talks about disruption in consumer behavior and his relationships with the salmon industry, while also explaining how his technology works, how much it currently costs him to produce a pound of fish, and why this will be the next generation of seafood.
Mike was trained in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Massachusetts and has diverse work experience ranging from teaching high school kids chemistry in Taiwan to developing high-throughput cancer screening in New York. Mike is undoubtedly one of the most interesting food-tech entrepreneurs out there.
About Finless Foods
California-based Finless Foods develops lab-grown seafood that does not involve animals in its production process. It secured its seed investment round earlier this year and is currently employing seven full-time people, of which almost all are tissue-engineers, cellular biologists and biochemists. With a growing team, Finless Foods is about to expand its operations into a new 7,000 square feet building, right outside San Francisco.
In short terms, what is Finless Foods all about?
Finless foods create non-vegan, non-vegetarian fish meat for human consumption. This fish meat does not contain mercury, plastic or antibiotics, and does not involve any added growth hormones. The big difference between what we are making and what conventional fishing and aquaculture offers, is that our products does not involve animals at all. We produce this real fish meat, identical to the fish meat that people already eat, but we do it by using cellular biology.
How did you come up with this idea?
I looked at animal agriculture from an early age and thought to myself that this is the most inefficient thing I have ever seen. If you were looking to produce something like a hamburger and you had no idea how a hamburger was made, you would never have invented the cow. I thus started thinking about how we can design something better from the ground up.
“I wanted to create a product that allows people to continue eating the food they love, but shift their habits away from something that is harmful to the environment and towards something that is better.. “
How is your funding situation?
Funding has been good. People are really interested in something that has such a high potential for profit, but also has such a high potential for environmental good. In the end, people having faith in this technology and being interested in it, is what will make it succeed.
How does your technology work?
What we do is that we take a small sample from a real fish, the size of a U.S. quarter dollar and put it through a complex series of filters in order to get the cells that we are looking for. These cells, progenitor cells, are the same cells that heal you when you get a cut on your body - they reconstruct the tissue that has been damaged and put your skin back together. We use these cells because they can divide and grow in large quantities. The process is carried out in a bioreactor, which looks a lot like a fermator you produce beer in. From there these cells are turned into the muscle, fat and connective tissue that people really think of as the meat that they eat, and we structure them in a way that gives them the same look and feel of real meat.
What is your product?
Our technology comes in two parts, the first part being large scale production of unstructured cellular biomass - growing a lot of cells and making them taste good, have the right nutrition and be affordable. The second part is the structuring of cells, giving them the right texture, look, and feel of meat. The unstructured products will be something like fish paste, fish sauce and surimi, while the structured products will be something more like steaks, filets, and sashimi in sushi. The unstructured products are really just to show people who we are, get people used to our technology, go through regulatory hurdles, and create a brand for ourselves while we really work on the tissue engineering which will bring us to the fish products that is our actual goal - fish steak, fish filets and sashimi.
How much are you currently producing and how much do you expect to produce in 5 years’ time?
“We are currently in an R&D phase where we produce very little, about one eighth of a gram per week.”
We do this production just for prototyping purposes, to keep tasting it and ensuring that we are on the right track. This round that we have raised is entirely focused on R&D, and we’ll be doing R&D up until mid through 2019, at which point we will be raising our series A and actually start production. We hope to be in restaurants by the end of 2019, in limited quantities. Production levels further down the road in hard to estimate. We are looking to release at first in urban environments where we can scale up and down fairly simply. Basically, it is the demand, in terms of how many restaurants that are interested in getting involved, that sets the bar. We can easily produce about 13 000 kilograms in six days using one tank, so scaling will be fairly easy.
What is the current cost of production and what level do you expect it to be at in 2 and 5 years’ time?
Right now, it’s very expensive, which is why we don’t sell it yet. The technology we plan to use already exists - it’s basically 3D-organ printing technology that we are making cheap. So, we can make fish today, but it’s about 7,000 USD/pound, which is very expensive. By the end of 2019, when we plan to sell to restaurants, the idea is to be at price parity with bluefin tuna, which is a very expensive fish. Once we are around those prices we plan on getting into restaurants and from there we plan on decreasing the price more and more. I can’t make any promises on future cost levels, but we have a very aggressive plan to reduce prices as fast as possible. Most people buy food based on taste and cost, so we are making sure that those two things are our highest priorities.
What are the main challenges you need to overcome in order to reach your production cost goals?
The real barrier to this is cost, and the main factors involved in reducing costs are related to the cellular media, the feed, that the cells eat. The current gold standard in cell culture is using serum, which is distilled and purified animal blood. We don’t want to use that for several reasons; it’s incredibly expensive (500 -1000 USD/liter), it involves killing animals, which is against the whole point of what we are trying to achieve, and the quality of the serum is very variable from batch to batch. We are therefore working on replacing the serum with a chemically media of cell feed that we produce in-house. Cells eat three things: salts, sugars and proteins. The salts and sugars that we are using are the same salt and sugars that people eat, which we will buy from food suppliers, while the proteins will be produced with our own technology. We will produce these proteins using synthetic biology, in the same way that somebody would make insulin for diabetics.
Do you consider yourself a food production company?
Yes, we do. We are trying to create something that people will actually be interested in eating, not something that is technically perfect. There are easier ways to do this technology that we are not engaging in because people are against that sort of technology, like for example GMO. If we wanted to create fish meat using transgenic engineering, we would be on the market by now, but because people don’t like the use of GMO, we are avoiding the use of this type of technology.
“Food is very emotional and it’s very personal for people, and so we want to create something that isn’t just technical, just scientific, but more attached to what people want in terms of food.”
How would you say the market acceptance of your product is?
Some are very excited, and some are very not, it’s a wide range of opinions. Right now, consumer acceptance seems fairly high, although it very much depends on how we brand our products. We have decided to call our industry clean-meat, which is not a made-up marketing word, it’s very literal. The meat we are producing, since it’s produced in a sterile environment, has considerably less bacteria. Less bacteria have a lot of advantages, being that customers are less likely get sick by foodborne pathogens in the fish, and the products spoil much slower.
“Often when I talk to people about what they want in a food-product, they say they want organic food that is sustainable, cruelty-free, and healthy - which is what our products are all about. So, what it is your looking for out of organic is that, we are the most organic there is."
Who do you see as your main customers?
At first, we are really looking at restaurants in urban areas. We understand that we are newcomers to an industry that has a lot of history and a lot of tradition and we would like to make sure that people understand that we are coming at this from the right angle, so we really want to work with chiefs. There are a lot of restaurants right now that do sustainable seafood, and when they do sustainable seafood they don’t serve bluefin tuna. We can fill that whole by producing the only real sustainable bluefin tuna. So, at first it would really be restaurants, but a lot of that is due to the costs, so once we can get our prices down we plan on moving on to grocery stores.
What countries are most open for your products?
We are very focused right now on America and China, mostly because those are the markets we understand the best, but we are open to anywhere. It really depends on whether we can find strong partnerships that can help us get through the regulatory system and help us speak to the public in a way that the public would act positively to.
Do you think your technology are disrupting the aquaculture and fisheries industries?
At first, it’s not really disruption. Our first goals are producing bluefin tuna, mahi-mahi and halibut, and none of these species are commercially viable by aquaculture yet. So, at first, we are not really disrupting or competing with anything other than wild-catching of these species. Eventually we would however really like to produce more commercially viable fish on a wider market, expanding into species like salmon, sea bass, and eventually tilapia. We would really like to replace industrial fishing and industrial aquaculture.
In your opinion, will the aquaculture and fishery industries exist in the future?
For fish production the first step was wild-caught fish, and once we realized that we could not continue wild-catching the way we were, but still wanted to increase production, we moved to the next step, namely aquaculture, and I think that our technology is the step after aquaculture. I think that for a very long time all three of us will exist in large scale, but we have the benefit of reducing the strain we are putting on the earth, which I think will be a competitive advantage in the future.
In what way is Finless Food more sustainable than the aquaculture and fishery industries?
Compared to capture fishing, we are not decreasing wild fish populations, we are not dealing with boats that are disrupting ocean ecosystems, and we are not doing any sort of dragnet fishing. Compared to aquaculture, we don’t need any ocean real estate, we don’t need any large boats that cause air and noise pollution, and we don’t use any pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that seep out in the ocean ecosystem.
How do you see yourself integrating into the existing seafood supply chain?
I’m not a marketing person, I’m not a sales person, I don’t have distribution channels, and I don’t have any connections to the industry. I am a scientist and an environmentalist from New York. We need people who can help us get to supermarkets, restaurants, get tastemakers onboard and have them try our product, people who can help us with packaging, shipping, distribution. I mean, there is a million ways to collaborate with us in a million different parts of the industry.
“I definitely see the seafood industry more as an industry we can collaborate with than an industry we will compete with, and we would really like to cooperate with the main protein producers who share our vision of a future consisting of a mix of proteins.”
Have you considered the Norwegian salmon as one of your products?
We haven’t yet worked with any salmon at all. We know that salmon production has a very low feed conversion ratio, and that salmon producers, like Norway, focus a lot on the environment, so salmon is just not a focus for us yet. We really want to tackle things that are large-scale problems at first, i.e. bluefin tuna, which is on and of the threatened species list.
What do you have to achieve in order to become a billion-dollar company?
We have to deliver and drop our cost. I eat our fish all the time, and it tastes like fish, so the taste is not the problem. It’s the cost. And once they are reduced, the taste is what is going to make us a billion-dollar company.
“I think that, given the opportunity to eat something that taste the same as wild fish, have a lower potential for foodborne illness, have no mercury and no plastic, can be super local, super fresh, can be brought into areas that previously had no access to fish, and sold at a reasonably price, people will buy our products."
Author: Marianne Wethe Koch