Lobster in Wisconsin? Cultured Decadence brings cell-based seafood to the Heartland

Published on
April 21, 2021

A Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.-based cell-based seafood start-up is seeking to grow lobster in America’s Heartland.

Cultured Decadence won’t be growing lobsters in one of Wisconsin’s many lakes, but rather will rely on the state’s deep talent pool to commercialize a recently popularized scientific technique that involves growing muscle cells taken from popular seafood species inside of a laboratory.

The company, founded in 2020 by John Pattison and Ian Johnson, both veterans of the budding lab-grown meat sector in California, received USD 1.6 million (EUR 1.3 million) in pre-seed financing on 9 April from a group of investors that includes Bluestein Ventures, Joyance Partners, Revolution's Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, gener8tor, GlassWall Syndicate, Bascom Ventures, and China-based Dao Foods. The company also received non-dilutive funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

"John and Ian are visionary founders, and we've been impressed with the team's skill-set and scientific integrity. We're excited to join the pre-seed round for Cultured Decadence and for the potential of their technology to transform the market for seafood,” Bluestein Ventures Senior Principal Ashley Hartman said in a press release. “We look forward to supporting their vision to create animal-free shellfish."

The financing will allow Cultured Decadence to continue its progress developing novel lobster cell lines and the reduction of cell-culture media costs. The company will use the funds to expand its team and continue development of cell-cultured lobster meat prototypes in preparation for a commercial launch, Pattison told SeafoodSource.

“In terms of commercialization, we’re still a few years away,” he said. “Right now, we’re really building this technology out at the benchtop level. Next year, we’ll be looking for ways of funding our scale-up and, ultimately, our commercialization effort. We’ve done a little bit of internal prototyping and will continue to do that over next 12 months, but right now, we’re focused on building up our infrastructure.”

Cultured Decadence hopes to replicate the success of other self-described “cellular aquaculture” companies, which include San Diego, California, U.S.A.-based BlueNalu, Emeryville, California-based Finless Foods, and San Francisco, California-based Wild Type. While still in their early stages of commercialization, each has attracted significant interest from investors who see a market opportunity for seafood products that aren’t caught in the wild or farmed.

Pattison, who is Cultured Decadence’s CEO (Johnson is its chief scientific officer), said the market opportunity for his company is built around marketing sustainable seafood products that have a lower environmental impact and equivalent or higher nutritional quality at a lower price-point than wild-caught lobster. Pattison cited the threat of global warming and ocean acidification to the U.S. harvest of North American lobster (Homarus americanus) in making his case for his product, saying that long-term trends indicate the U.S. catch is likely to decline.

“We see the East Coast’s fishery moving further north and out to deeper waters as the ocean temperature is warming and there’s increasing acidification. It’s having a real effect on this fishery,” he said. “For the American lobster, there’s no way yet discovered to grow them through aquaculture, so what we’re pulling out of these wild fisheries is what we have on the supply side. At the same time, demand is rising both domestically and globally, and we think we can help fulfill that demand long-term.”

Eventually, it’s possible that Cultured Decadence could use its technology to expand into culturing cells of other shellfish, including crab, shrimp, and scallops, which combined with lobster constitute a USD 160 billion (EUR 133 billion) global market. But the company decided to pursue lobster first because of three major factors: price, technology, and environmental concerns.

“We wanted to go after species that had a really premium price point and a little less complex tissue structure we were trying to replicate, and also where there were some significant environmental considerations,” Pattison said.

Pattison said he’s excited by the flexibility of formatting Cultured Decadence’s fabrication process allows – he said the company will be able to easily produce various forms of lobster meat, including knuckle, leg, claw, and tail meat. He has also discussed value-added products, such as infusing butter flavors into his cultured lobster meat.

“In the short-term, obviously something that is less structured is easier to do, but that doesn’t mean producing highly structured products is not attainable long-term. That’s a downstream process and problem we’ll certainly look at and solve for,” he said. “I think we want to see what the market is interested in. If a tail is what the consumer wants, we’ll do that. But what’s really cool is we can do medallions, or strips, or other different types of cuts or shapes that have not been seen or are not typical for [lobster],” he said. “Before we get too far down that road, we want to have a really strong understanding of what customers want. But we’re excited thinking about how can we not only provide what customers know currently, but actually enhance that experience.”

While Pattison said traditional seafood industry veterans might look at that idea as an anathema, he said it might be better understood through the prism of an existing seafood product: surimi.

“The success of surimi speaks to a consumer appetite for products made in a different way, but trying to give you that same end-consumer experience. We’re looking at that closely,” he said. “It’s just like surimi is feeding you fish that’s intended to mimic crab or lobster, but we’ll give you the real thing but in a way that’s arguably better for environment and that tastes exactly like what you expect it to.”

Cultured Decadence produced its first edible biomass last summer – one-half gram of meat – and Pattison said the first bite of his product tasted “like success.”

“It tasted pretty good – like lobster, which is what we’re aiming for. There were no plant-based fillers in there. We were excited it had nice browning reaction as well – we’re really excited about that," he said.

Pattison acknowledged cell-based seafood is currently only a profitable proposition right now for premium species.

“We do think our product will be viable at what lobster selling at currently, and even if those prices were to dip, which you see with certain seasonality,” he said. “But across a variety of different types of seafood, and especially when you compare it to terrestrial protein, lobster was the most attractive option for us. When shelled and packaged, lobster is attracting double-digits on price, and that’s far above anything on terrestrial side.”

As for how the company ended up in Wisconsin, it’s where Pattison grew up, and Madison, a college town, is home to a “deep talent pool of cell-culture people,” he said.

“Madison has a lot of phenomenal talent out of the University of Wisconsin – a  lot of [principal investigators] and researchers, and a lot of existing industries in biotech and the food space,” Pattison said. “This is going to be a lot longer ramp-up than if we were doing some kind of plant-based product or other type of food tech, and we wanted to be in an area that was not only representative of our end-use customers, but that was in a space where we could scale effectively and not have to relocate once that time came.”

Cultured Decadence recently emerged from a business accelerator program and continues to share lab space and equipment with other start-ups to save on expense. The company now has five employees, but is looking to make another handful of hires of people with food science and marine protein research backgrounds.

“The seafood industry isn’t normally something people think about in the Midwest, but for what we’re doing, it offers amazing opportunities, whether it’s on the retail side, food manufacturing, or on the [consumer packaged goods] side – even foodservice could be meaningful way to increase access to seafood and also expose a whole subset of the U.S. market that doesn’t have lobster routinely to our product,” Pattison said.

Despite his company’s unavoidable status as a market disruptor, Pattison said he still hopes to maintain a positive relationship with the traditional lobster industry.

“The first thing Ian and I did when we started the company was take a trip to Maine and meet with lobster fishermen, lobster researchers at the University of Maine, and some large lobster processors and distributors based in Maine. We really wanted to understand those pain points they have and potential opportunities to collaborate and work together,” he said. “[Lobster] appears to be constrained on the supply side. There are just certain natural factors in play that cause limitations to those stakeholders. As we go about building Cultured Decadence, we not only want help develop alternative methods for producing lobster meat, but also help create a better understanding of the biology of those animals so we can offer useful insights to scientists and to the industry, which we hope ultimately will improve the status of lobster populations in the future.”

Pattison said throughout their trip to Maine and since, he and Johnson “haven’t had any negative pushback from anyone in the existing industry.”

“We’re very focused and engaged with talking to anybody in the space who wants to talk. For many, this is the first time they’re hearing about this type of technology, and we want to really talk through what the implications are for everybody involved in the market,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Cultured Decadence

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