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The fateful eight: the latest investment opportunities in aquaculture and beyond

3 December 2020, at 9:30pm

Four months after joining the world’s only aquaculture and alternative seafood accelerator programme, eight startups from Hatch’s latest cohort pitched their ideas to investors in an entertaining online event today.

1. Alternative seafood

Seven of the eight have come up with concepts directly relating to aquaculture. However, the first to pitch, The Plant Based Seafood Company, was promoting its range of – you guessed it – seafood made from plants.

Monica Talbert, CEO of the Virginia-based company, explained that the all-female family team have over 20 years’ experience in the conventional seafood business. Since the launch of their first vegan seafood product in August, Talbert said that they’ve seen a 30 percent month-on-month sales growth in its first products, which have been designed to emulate scallop and shrimp. And she mentioned plans to launch plant-based lobster and crab products in January, as well as a fish fillet later in 2021.

Talbert also pointed out that the company also has several awards under its belt, including the Most Disruptive Product of 2020 in Prepared Foods’ Spirit of Innovation awards. They have also been chosen as one of three alternative protein producers (alongside Morning Star and Beyond Meat) to be shortlisted for a PETA best new vegan meat alternative prize.

Having bootstrapped their business to date, as well as an investment from Hatch, Talbert revealed that they will be looking to raise further funding in July 2021 “to fund a larger retail roll-out, to develop our products and to increase our speed to market and further branding efforts as well”. They’re also looking to establish strategic partnerships.

2. Detecting toxins in aquafeeds

The next company, ExciPlex, has come up with a fast, simple way to detect mycotoxins in aquafeeds and the raw materials that they’re made with. It's an issue that both threatens the health of farmed animals and also causes $1 billion annual losses across the aquafeed chain.

Founder Daryl Staveness noted that “because existing mycotoxin detection technologies are largely limited to the raw materials’ stage we don’t even have the capacity to understand the extent of the impact on the farm or on farmers’ profitability. This is exactly the problem that ExciPlex was founded to solve”.

Staveness spoke of the development of “a new diagnostic technology that is going to redefine how we test for mycotoxins” using cutting-edge photochemistry to establish the levels of each toxin, using a smartphone linked to a device that enables detection of multiple mycotoxins. It's five times faster and considerably easier than existing systems. Once completed it will be possible to deploy from the feed mill right through to the livestock producer. The company was only founded two months before the accelerator programme but has made rapid progress, penning agreements with multiple feed mills for when the technology becomes available.

In terms of a timeline, Staveness revealed that the lab-based version is nearly ready, while the on-site technology for use on farms and feed mills is in development. In order to scale the business and bring the technology to the market he’s currently looking for a $500,000 investment to expand the team. He's also seeking a strategic partnership – most likely with a commercial feed producer – to help to validate the technology.

3. Algae for aquafeeds

Algae is increasingly incorporated into aquafeeds as an alternative to fish meal and fish oil for providing valuable amino acids as well as essential omega-3s such as EPA and DHA. But, while most of this is currently produced in industrial units, SuSeWi has come up with a model that produces it in open-air land-based systems that use renewable energy to pump seawater into giant algae farms in coastal deserts.

Speaking at the event, founder Keith Coleman explained that the system is 12 times more productive than existing algae production technologies. He also noted that the company is “well along the road to producing the largest algae farm on earth” using patented technology. They have a 50,000 m2 farm under development on the coast of Morocco, and plan to develop a 1,000,000 m2 farm “on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara desert”.

Coleman revealed that the company has recently secured £5 million in funding from the UK government to develop the digital side of the concept – which includes IoT monitoring, AI and robotics – which will make it “the most advanced digital aquaculture platform in the world”.

Following feed trials on salmon and trout by Plymouth University, Coleman noted that the algae produced in the system “is a viable alternative to fishmeal” in aquafeeds. He also mentioned an “offtake agreement” with a major feed manufacturer for everything they can produce from their Moroccan site and mentioned plans to produce ingredients for human consumption “within three years”. Looking ahead, he explained that he plans to raise series B funding from investors who share his vision in order “to build a production module that we will roll out globally” and promised investors healthy EBITDA margins of 60 percent.

4. Satellite monitoring of shrimp farms

According to Sea Warden’s calculations there are over 250,000 shrimp farmers in the world and the company – which uses satellite observation technology to automatically identify shrimp ponds, know when production is starting and estimate time of harvest – is determined to help the sector to become more sustainable. CEO Zack Dinh, explained how the company “uses cloud-penetrating technology to carry-out year-round monitoring at weekly intervals – observing routine farm development and best practice that reduces disease risk and detects early pond emptying, a possible indicator of disease outbreaks”.

The company plans to concentrate on monitoring the five top shrimp producing countries, starting with Vietnam and Indonesia, then expanding into India, Thailand and Ecuador. They’re currently keeping an eye on over 80,000 shrimp ponds in the Mekong Delta as they develop their technology and expect to see their first revenues coming in during Q1 2021 via a recently established partnership agreement with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) in Vietnam. They also aim to achieve similar agreements with feed and equipment providers, as well as those considering investing in the sector.

Sea Warden is currently developing an app, which is being trialled in Hawaii, that allows farmers to share information for certification audits. This could reduce costs for small producers who want to sign up to certification programmes, as well as allow them to share information on diseases and markets. With its first partnerships established and potential customers in the pipeline, Sea Warden is now looking to raise $500,000 in seed funding – enough to “scale our ability for monitoring, from thousands of ponds to millions of ponds” in Vietnam, Indonesia and beyond.

5. The acid test

pH levels are among the most important water quality parameters in aquaculture and ANB Sensors have come up with a novel, economical, patented sensor. Unlike conventional glass electrode sensors which are fragile, need to be stored wet and don’t work well in saline water, ANB’s S-Series devices are robust and never need to be manually calibrated, to ensure that farmers have 24/7 accurate measurements to hand. The company is also developing a product that can be added to the 3 million or so glass pH electrodes that are sold each year, meaning that they no longer need to be calibrated.

Following an eventful few months, the company has launched a new ocean pH sensor this week and is set to launch news sensors for deep ocean and freshwater – for a range of fields, including aquaculture – during 2021, as well as a wireless data retrieval and data management system.

ANB co-founder, Kay McGuiness, explained that they are “not short of traction” and are currently in discussion with a range of companies, including in the aquaculture field. They are even with the European Space Agency, who want to use ANB’s sensors to monitor crop growth and water purification on the International Space Station.

She added they are now “looking for partners to distribute or licence our technology and also to work with us on the data retrieval and management side to make sure we give the end users exactly what they need”.

6. A superior live feed

Copepods – a type of zooplankton – form a vital part of the diets of most juvenile marine finfish species in the wild. They have an excellent nutritional profile and don’t need to be enriched, thereby improving growth and survival rates compared to other live feeds. C-Feed has been pioneering the lab-based production of these micro-organisms, providing both live copepods and their eggs for marine finfish hatcheries. During the last four years, as their CEO, Tore Remman explained, they have undertaken 35 trials on more than 20 species. Following impressive results they are looking to raise up to €4 million, of which they have already secured €500,000, by the end of Q1 2021, in order to scale up production capacity.

The Trondheim-based company has impressive traction in Norway’s cleaner fish and cod farming sectors, but are now looking to expand further afield, having opened up new markets, in countries including Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. According to Remman, scaling up will allow them to reduce production costs by as much as 70 percent, allowing them to access new customers and crank up revenues from their current level of €1 million a year to somewhere between €8 and €10 million.

7. A low-cost sea lice sensor

Counting sea lice – both to fulfil regulatory requirements and to help establish when best to launch countermeasures against the parasites – is a time-consuming and labour-intensive process for salmon producers. If only done weekly, as currently required by regulations in countries such as Norway and Scotland, farmers may be slow to spot any sudden spikes in lice numbers.

Blue Lion Labs is in the process of developing a low-cost sensor that uses cameras and AI to automatically monitor levels of sea lice or algal blooms in aquaculture systems. And, as founder Jason Deglint explained, the company is currently trialling its first model that can detect lice in the water at the Huntsman Marine Laboratory and now aims to make further improvements on its hardware.

Looking ahead, once the system has been further developed, they aim to offer farmers contracts that include the hardware, maintenance and a software platform, that provides data visualisation and analytics via a dashboard. This will give fish farmers an early warning if sea lice or algae levels start to grow, allowing them extra time to react. Once they have fine-tuned their hardware, Deglint explained, they will start looking to test the system with strategic partners, while they will be looking for additional investment at the end of Q2 2021.

8. Keeping an eye on your oysters

Many oyster farms are scaling up dramatically, making it increasingly hard for the farmers to keep track of their produce. It was an issue that was becoming troublesome for Ewan McAsh, an Australian oyster producer, who decided to do something about it. The end result was SmartOysters, a company he founded based on an app that uses GPS maps to not only simplify farm management but also provide data-driven insights into the operations. It means farmers don’t need to rely on memory and farm managers bear less of a weight of responsibility when it comes to assessing operational priorities.

The app has proved popular, and McAsh revealed that they had $300,000 in revenues this year and have signed seven new deals in the last fortnight alone. He noted that they have also been approached by producers in other aquaculture sectors, including finfish, shellfish and seaweed, suggesting a broad appetite for the technology.

Looking ahead, McAsh revealed that the company is currently looking to raise $1.4 million in order to scale their commercial operations and ramp up their tech development. This will allow them to not only expand their market in the oyster sector, but also move into the finfish, mussel and seaweed markets – which are worth an estimated $16 billion.

Senior editor at The Fish Site

Rob Fletcher has been writing about aquaculture since 2007, as editor of Fish Farmer, Fish Farming Expert and The Fish Site. He has an MA in history from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in sustainable aquaculture from the University of St Andrews. He currently lives and works in Scotland.

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