On a Monday afternoon in March, Mike Selden, the CEO and co-founder of Finless Foods, has just returned from Oslo, Norway, to the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite the 5,000-mile flight and eight-time-zone shift, Selden is feeling energized by what he learned at a conference there, the North Atlantic Seafood Forum, the largest annual gathering of the seafood industry.
"I knew the oceans were in bad shape," he says. "But, man, it's way worse than I thought."
To Selden, 27, this is energizing, if not quite welcome, because it suggests that he and the rest of his seven-person team are on the right track, developing a product that could go a long way toward solving one looming global crisis and maybe help ameliorate a few more. That product is edible fish, grown as cells in a lab vat rather than as a creature in a sea, lake, or aquaculture pond.
Founded in 2017 and based in Emeryville, California, Finless Foods is one of a number of startups using so-called cellular agriculture to replace age-old methods of food production: farming, animal husbandry, and, in this case, fishing. Animal cells are cultured from stem cells and incubated in a "bioreactor" into tissue that can be "harvested" and formed into familiar foods like meatballs, patties, and fish sticks.
Finless Foods emerged from the same biotech accelerator, IndieBio, as Memphis Meats, the subject of Inc.'s November 2017 cover story. Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti, a former cardiologist, is using cellular agriculture to produce chicken, duck, and beef that he believes will be healthier to eat and better for the environment than conventional meat, all without the slaughter of animals.
The eating of fish presents a different set of ethical, environmental, and health issues. Foremost among them is overfishing. In its most recent report on the state of global fisheries, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization warned that 90 percent of the world's fish stocks are fully or overfished, and increasing production to meet the world's growing demand for animal protein can't be done in a sustainable manner.
Meanwhile, the concentration of mercury and other pollutants in fish like tuna and swordfish remains a health hazard, while farmed fish are subject to parasites, pesticide runoff, and other contaminants.
Selden and his co-founder, Brian Wyrwas, knew some but not all of this when they started talking about the idea a few years ago while living in New York. Both had studied biochemistry at their alma mater, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Selden, who had also studied marine biology and fungal genomics, was doing cancer research in flies at Mt. Sinai medical school. Wyrwas, 25, was working with tumors at Weill-Cornell Medical School, a few dozen blocks away.
"We used to meet up for beers between the two hospitals," says Selden. In those conversations, they hatched the idea of using their scientific training and Selden's marine biology expertise to grow fish in the lab. "I can remember being pretty drunk and being like, 'We should do this!'"
So they did. Enrolling in IndieBio required a move across the country. "We dropped everything, quit our jobs, left our girlfriends -- we thought temporarily but it turned out permanently," Selden says. They found an apartment together in San Francisco and liked living together so much, they chose to share a house when they later moved across the Bay to Oakland. They share a car as well, and have a music room for their impromptu jams. "It's very cute," Selden says.
At IndieBio, they found the perfect mentor in then-executive director Ryan Bethencourt, who was so keen on the idea of using cellular agriculture to improve the global food system, he recently left the accelerator to launch his own startup, Wild Earth, which is turning fungus into clean dog food. Bethencourt got reinvolved with Finless as an investor in its $3 million seed round last fall. "Clean fish is a hugely important innovation for our planet," he says. "The only chance we have of preventing the extinction of fish species like bluefin tuna is making an alternative clean/cultured fish meat like Finless Foods available."
Currently, Finless has an initial prototype product consisting of individual fish cells bonded together by a food paste enzyme. It can be served in forms like the carp croquettes the company served at its first private tasting last September. As the company refines it processes, Selden expects the price of its product to reach parity with bluefin tuna by the end of next year, at which point he hopes to be offering it in restaurants, likely in a presentation resembling a spicy tuna sushi roll.
Looking further out, Finless is concentrating its R&D efforts on tissue engineering that will allow them to culture not just disconnected cells but "solid chunks of things that are a facsimile of fish flesh"--basically fish fillets. Like Memphis Meats, which counts meat-processing giants Tyson and Cargill among its investors, Finless is hopeful that major industry players will welcome a more reliable alternative to the vagaries of fishing. That was the vibe Selden got in Oslo. "The people who are catching fish are not excited about this, but the people who have brands and supply chains in place, they're interested," he says.