Global demand for aquatic foods — that’s fish and seafood — is expected to double by 2050, according to estimates that base the rise mostly on population growth. And considering people are already consuming twice as much fish as they did 50 years ago, fisheries are feeling the immense strain on their finite supply of “blue food” in rivers and oceans around the world.
“Already today, less than 7% of fisheries are being fished at levels that are sustainable and if the current trend remains, aquatic ecosystems will collapse,” Roee Nir, co-founder at Israeli cultured seafood startup Forsea, tells AFN.
Saving the eel
Aware of this, and on a mission to reduce damage caused to marine life from overfishing, Forsea is developing an alternative to wild-caught eel, using advances in cell cultivation science.
Forsea claims that eels have become an endangered species, after demand for the delicacy surged in Asia and Europe in particular. Further, eel meat fetches a pretty penny in the market; the use of eel meat in Spain’s Michelin-starred restaurants, for instance, has driven prices up in the region, highlighting the low supply that’s exacerbated by eels’ inability to breed in captivity.
The company was created by The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, the Israel foodtech venture builder and incubator, from research out of Tel Aviv University that makes it the first to use “organoid technology,” in cultivated meat production, tackling “the biggest challenges facing cultivated meat,” according to Nir.
No scaffolding needed
One of these is the need for what’s called “scaffolding” to essentially bind different cell types together to form tissues and meat formats we’re used to eating. The scaffolding process has been a challenge for other cultivated meat startups in the past and is even the sole focus for others who aim to sell it to cell meat businesses.
Forsea says it can bypass the need for scaffolding because it uses pluripotent stem cells and aggregates them into a form called an organoid similar to a simple 3D version of tissues. From here it provides the cells with growth factors and nutrition that signal for them to behave like they are an embryo. This means they “autonomously grow to a hybrid mini-tissue that contains all edible cells, fat, muscle, connective tissue and so-on, says Nir.
He examples a fertilized bird’s egg that multiplies into numerous cells on its own; there’s no external signaling, “it’s just coded. So we give it the ability to grow as if it were in nature. We just give it a bit of nutrition and then it synthesizes most of the growth factors itself,” Nir adds. This provides another advantage in reducing the amount of nutrition and growth factors Forsea needs to grow eel. Growth media and their associated costs have been another key challenge for scaling cultivated meat production in the past.
Comparatively, and while there are varying versions of the process, many other cultivated meat startups are producing the different cell types separately — like fat and muscle — in multiple bioreactors, and then binding them together with scaffolding.
“We provide a process that is much simpler, because I don’t need a bioreactor for fat or a bioreactor for muscle. We only have one bioreactor with free-flowing bodies that generate the organoids. So it’s simpler and more scalable. And we’re also saving the scaffolding stage,” Nir says. “Our organoid has its own connective tissue and we use these organoids as the building block of the tissue. While others produce each one of the cells separately, we use this as a building block.”
Organoids have been used in the healthcare industry before, such as creating gut tissue to test for Chrohn’s disease, according to Nir.
Forsea’s IP is in the organoid aggregation process and then in their optimization via nutrition, timing and signalling.
With its claim of being the first to adopt this technology in cultivated meat, Nir says the startup is willing to collaborate with industry players, in a space where open-access research hasn’t been so common.
“It is a thin line between maintaining your IP and sharing with your competitors. On the other hand, we all share the same goal of how to provide nutrition to the world,” says Nir. “All these companies are really building a new future with the same task of providing nutrition and solving a lot of the environmental issues that we are currently facing. So there is no doubt that we will collaborate in different aspects of the development process.”
Financing and next milestones
Forsea is looking at setting up its first pilot plant in 2023 after securing $5.2 million in funding in October this year, in a seed round led by Berlin-based VC firm Target Global. Participating in the round were The Kitchen FoodTech Hub, PeakBridge VC, Zora Ventures, FoodHack and Israeli investment firm, Milk & Honey Ventures.
“Next year we will build our alpha production system which is a proof of concept design for the future commercial plant. Probably the full-blown manufacturing plant will be based in Asia because such a manufacturing plant is very large. So once you have such a plant, you would want to be operational and sell in the territory where it is based,” Nir says.
“So, it makes sense that the first plant that serves such a big market for eels will be based in Asia.”
Part of the financing will also go into launching the company’s first products, research and development for eel meat cultivation, as well as supporting the development process of other fish species.
Additional reporting by Louisa Burwood-Taylor