It is still several years off before consumers will find San Diego-based BlueNalu’s cell-cultured seafood products in stores and restaurants, according to CEO Lou Cooperhouse. But the company he founded in 2018 has been busy positioning itself to be the new industry’s leader by signing partnership deals around the globe, raising capital and building out a new 40,000-square-foot facility in Sorrento Valley that will serve as the company’s innovation hub.
BlueNalu has already moved into half of the space and plans to move into the remaining 20,000 square feet in the next couple of years. The company is also ramping up hiring, adding 12 new employees in the last 12 months.
“This innovation center we’re creating is the proving ground for commercialization of cell-cultured seafood and gives us the confidence in increasing scale up activities to build out our first factory,” Cooperhouse said.
New Tech, New Food Source
Cooperhouse has been at the forefront of food innovations for nearly 40 years, having worked to develop plant-based substitutes for dairy and meat products.
Before founding BlueNalu, he ran an incubator in New Jersey that attracted clients like Impossible Foods.
The first cell-cultured burger was made by Mark Post in 2013. Cooperhouse knew cell-culture technology could be an even better protein source than meat substitutes because it is essentially real meat.
“We were seeing, category by category, plant-based solutions occurring, but those are frankly artificial products that arguably may have ingredients maybe considered highly processed,” he said.
Cooperhouse also saw the biggest opportunity for the technology was in seafood.
In 2017, he spoke to a gathering of entrepreneurs in Hawaii about the many advantages of cell-cultured seafood – that it would be a more dependable supply than wild-caught and more sustainable and safer than food raised in oceans contaminated with mercury and micro-plastics.
“I was there pitching to entrepreneurs, but ended up pitching to myself,” he said.
BlueNalu – ‘nalu’ is the Hawaiian word for ‘wave’ – was born from that gathering and in just one year raised the largest seed round of capital of any cell-cultured protein company in the world.
Cooperhouse located to San Diego because of the region’s workforce and talent, but also because of its heritage in the seafood sector, citing Bumblebee Tuna and other major seafood companies.
“We’re the most capitalized cell-culture seafood company in the world and we’re right here in San Diego – a kind of 2.0 bringing tuna back to San Diego, but in a cell-cultured way,” he said.
To date, BlueNalu has attracted over $84.5 million in investment capital. And in addition to expanding financial resources, the company has also been inking strategic partnership agreements. In 2022 alone, the company signed partnership agreements with Nomad Foods, a leading frozen-food company in Europe and Food & Life Companies which operates over 1,000 sushi restaurants across Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Mainland China.
BlueNalu has also signed agreements with Thai Union (Thailand), Mitsubishi Corporation (Japan), Pulmuone (South Korea) and Sumitomo Corporation (Japan).
International partners are key to BlueNalu in helping obtain regulatory approval, navigate the supply chain and give market insights.
“BlueNalu can conceivably make any seafood product in any form, but that’s the challenge of seafood, because it is supply driven,” Cooperhouse said. “Unlike chicken breasts, which are consistent around the world, consumers eat the seafoods that are local to them. Mahi Mahi we all love here in San Diego, but people in Asia or Europe may have never heard of it.”
One such person giving market insights to BlueNalu is celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi who is an investor in the company and serves on its advisory board.
“As a chef and restaurateur, I see tremendous opportunity for BlueNalu to provide seafood that is 100% yield with consistent, year-round supply, and has the potential to advance the industry into one that can impact more sustainable change, especially in Asian cuisine where seafood plays such an integral role,” Yamaguchi said. “I’ll be excited to watch BlueNalu’s cell-cultured seafood enter Asian cuisine, providing valuable benefits to both chefs and consumers in countries where seafood plays a key role in culinary culture.”
Before cell-cultured seafood can offer its health and sustainability benefits to the market, it will need regulatory approval, both at home and abroad. To date, only Singapore has approved a cell-cultured protein product – a chicken nugget.
“It’s very difficult for an American company to understand and navigate the marketplace in Japan, for example, or Thailand or Singapore. But now we have friends who already understand those regulatory landscapes,” Cooperhouse said.
In the U.S., cell-cultured seafood will need approval from the FDA which regulates both seafood and cell-cultured products.
In addition to testing to make sure the products are safe, the FDA also regulates their nomenclature.
“The FDA identifies them as a third type of fish. It’s not wild or farmed, but what do we call it?” Cooperhouse said, adding that BlueNalu used third-party research in a peer-reviewed study to determine that ‘cell-cultured’ is the “most appropriate name.”
Regulatory approval in the U.S. is in its “advanced stages,” Cooperhouse said, and there is also “significant activity for approval” throughout Asia and the European Union.
When BlueNalu is given the green light to begin marketing and selling its cell-cultured seafood, Cooperhouse said the company will start financing to build factories around the world in appropriate markets.
“Our goal is to break ground on our first factory sometime in the latter half of this decade,” he added.
CEO: Lou Cooperhouse
Headquarters: Sorrento Valley
Financing: $84.5 million
Notable: Google co-founder Sergey Brin sparked the cell-cultured protein industry by offering a grant to the first lab that could make a hamburger patty.