Ohad Maiman reveals the Maine drivers behind the Kingfish Company’s expansion
Ohad Maiman is the co-founder and CEO of The Kingfish Company, which is seeking to become one of the foremost innovators of technology-driven aquaculture and to establish a position as a market leader in the sustainable production of premium marine seafood, according to the company’s mission statement.
Founded in the Zeeland province of The Netherlands in 2015, the company started production of kingfish, or yellowtail, in a bespoke recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) in Kats, The Netherlands, with an annual production of 600 metric tons (MT). Building on its initial success, The Kingfish Company is now ramping up production at the Kats facility to an expected 5,000 MT annually by 2021. The firm has also chosen the U.S. state of Maine as the site of a new RAS facility it plans to build by 2021 to launch its expansion into the United States. If all goes according to plan, it should be producing 6,000 MT of kingfish by 2022, according to Maiman.
Maiman first encountered the land-based aquaculture sector in 2013 during his tenure as vice president of business development at the Merhav Group, where he developed and managed multiple operations in the oil and gas, petrochemical, water treatment, and agricultural industries. The potential “to deliver in aquaculture the level of impact that greenhouse technology achieved in agriculture” is what prompted him to leave his job and focus his sights on land-based aquaculture. Maiman spoke with SeafoodSource about what’s ahead for The Kingfish Company as it trailblazes across “one of the last frontiers in major human consumption.”
SeafoodSource: Who is the founding team at The Kingfish Company?
Maiman: The Kingfish Company was founded by myself, RAS expert Kees Kloet, and veteran seafood [Mowi, née Marine Harvest] executive Hans den Bieman. In 2017, former HSBC investment banker Itay Young joined the founding team as CFO.
SeafoodSource: How did you get involved in the company and what about aquaculture attracted you as a business proposition?
Maiman: Seafood is one of the last frontiers in major human protein consumption that is both still heavily reliant on wild catch, restrained by supply limitations, and exposed to sustainability concerns, making the sector a prime target for a technologically-enabled disruption. On all of these fronts, RAS – when done right – can deliver a solution.
SeafoodSource: Why did you choose to build a recirculating aquaculture system versus other forms of sea-based or land-based aquaculture types?
Maiman: RAS allows us to operate at a very high sustainability standard, and offers a competitive advantage when farming a premium-priced species, particularly in import-reliant lucrative markets.
SeafoodSource: Why did you choose yellowtail kingfish as the species you wanted to focus on? Can you talk about the tasting sessions you held with chefs and any other factors you took into account?
Maiman: The main reasons for the species choice were its excellence performance in RAS, its high market price, and the fact that the European Union and U.S. markets are primarily reliant on imports from Japan, enabling us to offer a unique proposition: Locally-grown, sustainably farmed antibiotic- free, and competitively-priced premium fresh product. The yellowtail kingfish enjoys familiarity and appreciation from both raw use in Asian cuisine, as well as center-plate cooked use in Italian cuisine. Beyond existing uses, however, extensive testing with fine-dining Western chefs and premium retailers has shown a strong potential for a wider premium market adoption.
SeafoodSource: When and why did you decide to make the jump into the U.S. market? Did you always have plans to move into the United States, or were you waiting to see how your product performed in the market tests conducted?
Maiman: We identified both the E.U. and the U.S. markets as prime candidates for yellowtail kingfish RAS farming. The first step, however, was for us to prove our design and operations in the Netherlands site. Having successfully ticked the box on the key performance indicators during 2018, we have turned the page towards the large-scale commercial scale-up phase, and the U.S. market is the natural progression.
SeafoodSource: You’ve said in the past that you had some key meetings at Seafood Expo North America that helped clinch your decision to enter the United States with a scaled RAS facility. How did those meetings come about and why did they take place at the expo?
Maiman: I first attended Seafood Expo North America in 2018 to start exploring the U.S. market. It was apparent that the size and potential of the market warranted our attention, and it was meeting [nonprofit business development consultancy] Maine & Co. and hearing about the regulatory advancement towards RAS in the state that focused our exploration to Maine.
SeafoodSource: Why did you end up choosing Maine as the site for your U.S. farm? And, in particular, why Jonesport? Did you find that Maine had a special cachet for customers, considering you’ll be selling under the “Kingfish Maine” brand?
Maiman: Our criteria for a choice started with securing a clean seawater source, followed by the benefit of the seafood processing and logistics infrastructure available in the state, the academic institutions supporting RAS education and R&D, and the efforts of the state to encourage the development of a RAS sector, resulting in a straightforward permitting process. On all criteria, the Jonesport site was optimal, and the warm welcome from the local community sealed the final choice.
SeafoodSource: When do you plan to break ground (assuming all goes well with permitting), and when do you plan to have your first U.S.-raised fish available?
Maiman: If permitting advances smoothly, we should be able to begin construction towards mid-2021, resulting in U.S.-raised fish starting in late 2022.
SeafoodSource: How easy or hard is it to obtain funding for RAS projects in the United States? Can you go the conventional route or do you have to be more creative?
Maiman: RAS is a specialized sector, offering a disruptive technology-based solution in a mature protein industry. It therefore requires investors with the right appetite mix to take part in a mature production market while choosing to support a disruptive vision. When we started in 2015, the sources were quite limited, however, having proven our design and production, we have been able to bring in tier-one industry investors and, along with the growing interest in the sector, we now find that there are substantially more funding sources willing to back RAS.
SeafoodSource: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected the company? Has the pandemic dealt any kind of a setback to its expansion plans?
Maiman: While it has been a challenging period, requiring the implementation of strict health and safety protocols while adjusting to fast changing market conditions, we have been able to keep our operation on track. Sales shifted to retail clients resulting in continuous sales at an 80 percent run-rate by April, followed by return to pre-COVID run-rate by May; construction of our farm expansion in the Netherlands remained on time and on budget, and our work towards permit submissions in Maine continues as planned.
SeafoodSource: Have the large-scale changes that have occurred in the U.S. retail and foodservice sectors changed your company’s approach to the market?
Maiman: The market changes affected our priorities and timelines, focusing our efforts on retail, however both retail and HORECA [hotel, retail, and catering] are important target markets for The Kingfish Company, and so during 2018/2019, we have invested in additional in-house processing capacity and went through the ASC and BAP audits to assure premium retailers that we can deliver the product they need with the reliability they expect.
SeafoodSource: Does the crisis affect the position of premium, domestic fish produced from aquaculture for the better or worse?
Maiman: In our view, the crisis strengthened the case for RAS farming as one of the important technologies in support of local, reliable, and sustainable food production. Before the crisis, the reduction in transport-related environmental impact was already a strong point in support of deploying RAS operations at the relevant target market. However, post-crisis, it has become apparent that reliable local production may prove to be critical for food security.
SeafoodSource: The past has not been kind to RAS projects in the United States – you’ve said “it has been quite a painful road for the sector … littered with quite a few failures.” Does the future hold a different outlook?
Maiman: Growing pains are natural when a new technology is developed. In my view, most past failures can be attributed to three primary causes: subpar design or technical system capacity, inexperienced operational team, or the wrong choice of species. On all three accounts, we are confident with our approach and set-up, and will strive to continue to strengthen and optimize the operation further.
Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource