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German biotech startup Bluu Seafood wants to bring cultivated fish sticks and sashimi to your plate

Bluu's cultivated sashimi with fish drawings
Bluu Seafood's Cultivated Sashimi (Image Credit: Bluu // Wim Jansen) Illustrations by Nate Merritt

“The current seafood production systems are destroying our marine ecosystems and directly and indirectly harming billions of animals,” biotech startup Bluu Seafood lays out on its website.

“We provide an alternative production method for real seafood without wreaking havoc on our oceans.”

For the startup, that alternative is cell culturing. With $17.5 million in Series A funding, Bluu Seafood is using its fresh capital for research work, pilot production, and to pursue regulatory approval in the United States for its debut products: fish fingers and fish balls.

The round was led by the firms Sparkfood and LBBW VC, with participation from SeaX Ventures, Manta Ray, Norrsken VC, Delivery Hero Ventures, IFB Innovationsstarter GmbH, and Be8 Ventures. To date, the startup has raised €23 million, or about $25 million.

Bluu Seafood, which emerged as Bluu Bioscience in 2020 creates fish products that are a hybrid alternative to animal products. The startup uses both cultured cells and plant-based proteins. Bluu doesn’t just make fish sticks — it’s also currently working on prototypes of higher-end fish dishes, with cultivated salmon, salmon sashimi, and rainbow trout in the works.

Bluu Seafood's cultivated fish sticks
Bluu Seafood's cultivated fish sticks (Image Courtesy of Bluu Seafood)

According to Dr. Sebastian Rakers, co-founder and CEO of the startup, "Our successful Series A demonstrates the enormous potential that lies in cultivated fish as a platform technology for sustainable animal protein and underlines the strong scientific development that we at BLUU Seafood have delivered so far.”

As the startup explained in a release announcing the round, “Cultivated fish is real animal protein directly grown from fish cells without killing the animal.”

There are a few different approaches to cultivated meat production, but most have the same core process. For Bluu specifically, they ferment a mix of natural plant ingredients with the cell line of a particular fish sort of like you would beer or yeast, harvest the cell mass and form it into whatever they want, whether it's a filet, fish sticks, or sashimi.

For all of this, a sample from a fresh source fish just needs to be garnered once. This “one-time biopsy” as the company puts it, doesn’t even kill the fish.

In addition to eyeing the States, which just saw both USDA and FDA approval for two cultivated chicken startups — Upside Foods and Eat Just’s Good Meat — it also plans to launch in Singapore in 2024, which was the first in the world to approve the sale of cultivated meat in 2020 with the approval of Good Meat’s chicken. Soon, it also plans to tackle the European Market.

Bluu_Atlantic Salmon cells are taken out of a cryotank
Bluu Atlantic Salmon cells are taken out of a cryotank (Image Credit: Bluu // Henrik Gergen)

Reportedly, Bluu’s request for approval in the U.S. marks the first of its kind from a European Company specializing in cultivated meat.

However, they aren’t the only ones replicating the ocean in the lab.

Like Bluu, FootPrint Coalition-backed and San Francisco-based Wild Type makes cultivated sushi-grade salmon and fins crossed, will soon be approved for sale. Two other startups, Steakholder Foods and Umami Meats, joined forces in May to create a hybrid fish product, but instead of mixing plant-based and cell-culturing like Bluu, the two created the “world’s first” 3-D printed cell-cultured fish, tackling grouper.

The reason these startups are creating cultivated fish is that, as FPC Robert Downey Jr. puts it, “The world’s current appetite for animal proteins is an appetite for destruction. There’s not enough fish in the ocean to sustain its ecosystem and ourselves.”

According to Bluu, over 90% of wild fisheries are classified as overfished or harvested at maximum capacity. On top of the world’s depleting fisheries, commercial fishing has a vast impact on the planet.

A 2019 study published in the journal Marine Policy revealed that 207 million tons of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere by marine fishing vessels in 2016 alone. That’s just about the amount of CO2 emitted by 51 coal-fired power plants in the same timeframe.

If that wasn’t enough, Bluu also points to the health worries associated with wild fish, saying, “The healthy attribute of fish is threatened by contamination such as heavy metals and microplastics.”

Plus, as we attempt to tackle the climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made clear that we need to slash emissions from meat, and while seafood is not as big an emitter as its beef and pork counterparts, for example, it still clearly has its emissions and environmental issues.

Bluu Seafood's dish of cultivated fish balls
Bluu Seafood's cultivated fish balls (Image Credit: Bluu // Wim Jansen)

However, plant-based alternatives, which were once seen as our best bet at getting non-animal protein, are hitting a bit of a wall, as sales from the plant-based darlings Beyond Meat and Impossible, begin to dip, along with their stock prices, and despite the clear environmental and health benefits the industry is struggling to break past a strictly vegetarian and vegan market and into the “flexitarian” or omnivore market.

As the Washington Post’s Shannon Osaka reports, the Achilles heel of plant-based meat is slowly turning out to be the attempt to make it indistinguishable from meat. “Human psychology is stubborn,” she writes.

A big reason plant-based meats aren't succeeding despite many Americans cutting meat from their diets is that they are scared by the long ingredient list, giving the impression that a plant-based burger is more processed than a beef one.

So instead, cultivated meat companies are embarking on the great experiment of seeing if the public will positively respond to the real thing, with short ingredient lists, but without animal death. With each step these companies take for regulatory approval, they are one step closer to finding out.

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