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Startups

How Silicon Valley intends to feed Asia safer fish

Ocean-migrating bluefin pick up mercury, microparticles and other pollutants

These days, a lot of tuna is raised in aquafarms, like this one operated by Japan's Kinki University. But tomorrow's supermarkets might offer fish meat raised in Silicon Valley. (Photo by Yoshiyuki Tamai)

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- A U.S. startup is in a race to market fish flesh cultured in the same kinds of places where beer and snacks are made.

Because the cost of producing artificial fish meat does not vary by species, California-based Finless Foods is first working to produce bluefin tuna, which produces a luxurious meat that fetches high prices in Asia.

The startup hopes to start selling its product in 2020.

Finless Foods' recipe goes something like this: Remove cells from a bluefin's edible parts, culture them in a sanitary environment and allow them to divide and multiply. Then process the material into food.

The images of a trial product released on the company's website show fish patties that look close to the real thing.

The company is still trying to clear its main hurdle -- production costs. To create a prototype meat last year, Finless Foods ended up spending $19,000 per pound (about 450 grams). The company has since lowered production costs to $6,000 per pound, still far from where it needs to be to move into mass production.

Co-founder and CEO Michael Seldon said in an email that when his company brings its product to market, the meat will be "around price parity for current bluefin tuna available on the market."

The company intends to do this by improving the culture fluid in which the cells multiply and by taking other measures.

Finless Foods' goal is to reach this sweet spot next year. The next step would be to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Eventually, the startup wants to bring its product to the land of sushi, as well as to the rest of Asia.

Besides bluefin, the company intends to consider developing patties of meat from other highly sought after fish.

Some people doubt if consumers will embrace these cultured alternatives. Artificial protein slabs are often described as "lab-grown" -- a term that turns off many consumers.

Seldon said snacks and beer are also studied and developed in laboratories and made in factories -- and that the thought of this does not turn anyone's stomach. Cultured fish meat, he said, should be no different.

Currently, he said, "our product does taste like tuna but the texture needs work. What we have is more of a negitoro product. ... We intend to take the negitoro to market first and then once we have the technology more thoroughly understood we can move in to sashimi."

Negitoro is minced tuna.

Selden and Brian Wyrwas started the company in 2016. The company's website says the college classmates are "on a mission to transform the way fresh, sustainable seafood arrives on our tables."

About 30% of the world's fishing grounds are depleted or recovering from depletion due to overfishing and other factors, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

And due to their polluted habitats, fish, especially migratory species like bluefin tuna, have become contaminated with microparticles of plastic and mercury. This means the source of one of the world's healthiest proteins is now raising fears of ill health effects.

Seldon said his company is working to provide safe and affordable "clean fish" alternatives that can stabilize our food supplies and protect the environment.

In 2017, Finless Foods participated in a support program offered by IndieBio, an influential biotech accelerator.

That September, the company succeeded in completing a fish meat prototype made from carp cells.

In June 2018, it raised $3.5 million from the U.S. venture capital firm Draper Associates as well as from other parties.

At the time the company was founded, research papers and books about artificial fish meat were extremely rare, compared to those for other kinds of test-tube meat.

Seldon said his company has taken a trial-and-error approach to developing its culturing method.

But it is also on the clock -- other companies just like it are racing to market.

The amount of investment money flowing into startups working on animal protein alternatives is accelerating. Tyson Foods of the U.S. in January announced that a subsidiary had invested in Memphis Meats, which is developing artificial animal meat.

Memphis Meats has also attracted funds from Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, and Richard Branson, who began the U.K.-based Virgin Group.

Tyson Foods has also made an equity investment in Future Meat Technologies, an Israeli cultured meat startup. Mosa Meat of the Netherlands is developing similar products.

Other startups are developing animal protein alternatives with plant-derived materials. One of them, Impossible Foods, secured more than $100 million this past spring from Temasek Holdings, a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund, and other investors. The U.S. company has so far procured about $400 million.

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