After eventful 2022, BlueNalu seeking scale, teases new product
Cell-cultured seafood start-up BlueNalu is beginning to scale up its operations as it enters the commercial market.
BlueNalu is aiming to produce and scale a cell-cultured bluefin tuna product. BlueNalu Co-Founder, President, and CEO Lou Cooperhouse told SeafoodSource that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the first cell-culture animal protein, produced by Upside Foods, is a positive sign for the industry, but the company’s sights have always been set on commercial scalability.
“When I started this company, it was all about, and I'm going to go back in time, it was all about not being first to have regulatory approval, not to be first in a restaurant, but its first to be able to scale at large volume,” Cooperhouse said. “In order to do that, we asked the fundamental questions. What are the technologies required to scale? What are the partners we need to establish?”
BlueNalu’s announcement in October 2022 it had begun work on a 140,000-square-foot facility, scheduled to begin production in 2027, was a sign that the company has answered those questions, Cooperhouse said.
“We accomplished all the foundational technologies needed for scale,” Cooperhouse said.
One of BlueNalu’s goals, he said, is to establish commercial operations in a way that uses technology avoiding some of the potential obstacles to scaling up production in a profitable way. BlueNalue has established a production process that doesn’t rely on a scaffold-like substrate – something Cooperhouse said could be an obstacle to scaling production.
“What we have accomplished was something only previously accomplished with mammals,” Cooperhouse said. “Now with fish, we have cells in suspension – which means we can grow in very large volumes.”
Because the cells do not rely on a scaffold, the bioreactor that BlueNalu utilizes could end up being up to 100,000 liters in size without running into issues.
The company does not use genetic engineering or microcarriers, which means it doesn’t have to mix its tuna cells with plant cells in what he called a hybrid product.
“We are a whole-muscle product,” Cooperhouse said. “If you’ve got plant in there, it’s not the fatty bluefin tuna, right? It’s an imitation product, or some blend or hybrid, and it kind of gets into a surimi category a little bit too.”
BlueNalu has eliminated its use of other animal products, especially elements like fetal bovine serum, which is available in limited supply and which carries potential ethical questions around its use.
“[We use] no animal-based ingredients, so we have really accomplished the holy grail of technology advancements,” Cooperhouse said.
The FDA's Upside Foods decision represents another positive development for the company, according to Cooperhouse, since it appears Upside Foods uses animal ingredients.
“The exciting news is they kind of set the pace for getting the FDA greenlight – they still need USDA approval – but we don’t have any of those technologies,” Cooperhouse said.
Cooperhouse said BlueNalu is now in the position it was aiming for when he helped found the company.
“We announced this, and it’s a pretty big statement, that this combination of technology development and our focus on high-value premium seafood creates a 75 percent gross margin potential,” he said. “For those that are talking about how expensive this category is, it’s true, but when you focus it against high-value products, you can be extraordinarily profitable.”
BlueNalu is also working to burnish its the supply chain, sales team and channels, and marketing and distribution of its product. BlueNalu has begun reaching out to media, including Vox Media Staff Writer Kenny Torrella, to try its bluefin product as a means of boosting its public profile.
Looking forward, once the company establishes its supply, supply chain, and customers, bluefin tuna could be just the start. The company has “mastered” finfish, successfully producing eight different finfish species in its cell-culture process to date.
And it will soon have the capacity to do even more, Cooperhouse said.
Photo courtesy of BlueNalu