NewFish Ocean Mortadella
'Ocean mortadella'. Image credit: NewFish

EXCLUSIVE: Targeting protein ‘transition’ over ‘disruption,’ NewFish nets funds for algae-based products

May 15, 2022

New Zealand startup NewFish has emerged from stealth and closed NZ$1.3 million ($816,000) in funding to advance its range of “reimagined” local seafood items that incorporate both plant and animal proteins.

Investors in the pre-seed round included Outset Ventures; Tangaroa Ventures; basketball star Steven Adams; Ngāti Hineuru, a Māori iwi (first nation); Andrea Lee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong sauce brand Lee Kum Kee‘s Family Council; and PāuaCo, a company formed by fishers and processors of New Zealand’s native abalone (called pāua in the Māori language.)

The Auckland-based startup was founded in 2020 with the aim of developing a new class of food products from renewable, nutritious, and “underutilized” marine sources unique to New Zealand. Under the tagline “reimagining New Zealand seafood,” it seeks to leverage on the country’s reputation for high-quality, typically livestock-derived, produce while offering a more sustainable vision of Kiwi provenance at the same time.

Co-founder and general manager Hamish Howard tells AFN that NewFish’s approach “contrasts nicely with the standard New Zealand primary production model: which is to grow and harvest it here, and then put it in a box or can and send it overseas and let others add value to it.”

“A lot of New Zealand’s revenue today is cow-denominated; we don’t see ourselves as taking on that story, as much as complementing and building on it,” adds co-founder and director Alex Worker.

Reimagining seafood

With creative leadership provided by co-founder and acclaimed Kiwi chef Vaughan Mabee — who has previously worked at three Michelin-star Copenhagen restaurant Noma and subscribes to a whole-animal utilization philosophy — NewFish has so far designed two “reimagined” charcuterie products, made from plant and animal-derived ingredients.

The first, which is already commercially available, is a pāua saucisson containing hand-dived blackfoot abalone, kurobuta pork, kelp, and sauvignon blanc; all brought together into sausage form using natural fermentation techniques.

Its second product, due to hit shelves soon, is a completely plant-based ‘ocean mortadella’ comprising a variety of native seaweeds and microalgae.

NewFish founders
(From left to right) NewFish founders Alex Worker, Vaughan Mabee, Tom Darby, and Hamish Howard. Image credit: NewFish

The latter is what the NewFish team sees as key to its ability to ideate and manufacture a wide range of products in the years to come. The startup has partnered with the Cawthron Institute, a New Zealand scientific organization focused on marine and freshwater research, to explore its extensive collection of native microalgae varieties and understand their potential applications in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition. Eventually, it aims to turn “superior strains” of microalgae “into novel proteins and bioactives using precision fermentation.”

“What’s promising about microalgae is its GMO-free provenance – and we think that’s what people will really seek as a green and clean protein that won’t cost the Earth,” says Worker.

‘Transitional, rather than disruptive’

NewFish’s strategy of mixing animal and non-animal proteins might seem a difficult one to square, at first. But “the challenge isn’t as daunting as you might think,” Howard argues.

“The reason for that is we are creating world-first products that create interest in and of themselves. We are not looking at them to be meat analogs, or to be something they are not – they’ve very much standalone,” he says.

“We see ourselves as a manufacturer of transitional foods, rather than disruptive foods; and consequently we see ourselves appealing to a much wider audience compared to what the – by now, relatively common – plant-based alt-protein products would appeal to,” he adds, referring to the lineups offered by the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and established food producers.

“The idea is to bring a much wider audience along on the journey […] that society is going to have to take towards far more sustainable and lower-impact food systems and food products.”

NewFish Pāua Saucisson
Pāua saucisson. Image credit: NewFish

Hybrid products which combine animal-derived and animal-free protein sources have had a mixed reception so far. It may be that some consumers and investors see them as ‘neither here nor there,’ since they still rely to some extent on livestock agriculture with its environmental and ethical baggage – making them less convincing as a truly ‘alternative’ protein.

At the end of 2020, for example, US meatpacking giant Tyson dropped its hybrid Raised & Rooted Blend range — which mixed Angus beef with pea-based protein — after little over a year on the shelves due to an apparently disappointing response from customers and consumers.

More recently, however, some food industry players have returned to the idea of animal-plant blends – buoyed by the argument that they might offer a more realistic route to reducing the environmental footprint of animal agriculture in the near term, rather than expecting consumers to drop conventional meat completely.

US startup The Better Meat Co, for example, markets its mycoprotein as an ‘enhancement’ for addition to animal-derived beef, pork, and seafood products made by other companies, as well as for plant-based ones; it has partnered with Perdue Farms on its hybrid Chicken Plus range, and has also teamed up with Hormel Foods.

Blends are back

Another driver behind potential hybrid adoption is food culture. In many parts of the world, the consumption of animal products is considered to be medicinally important, or sacred; making it even less likely that consumers will willingly remove conventional meat from their diets. With commercially available cultivated meat still some way off, hybrids could be a solution.

This elevated role for animal meat is certainly the case in parts of east Asia, where NewFish sees an opportunity to build on the ‘Made in New Zealand’ reputation and make an environmental impact at the same time.

Worker reports “a lot of inbound interest” in the startup’s products from foodservice and food manufacturing businesses in cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, and Tokyo.

NewFish can use New Zealand as an “incubator,” he says – road-testing products at home before sending them out into the wider region with the help of strategic partners.

“New Zealand is known for its land plays across Asia Pacific, but really […] we hope to provide inspiration around new water models for creating greener, cleaner proteins. New Zealand can be a lighthouse for that, but we can’t do it alone.”

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