Israeli startups tackle fish alternatives

Plant-based salmon Photo: Asaf Karela

With fish reserves depleted in the oceans, "Globes" focuses on five Israeli startups developing cultured and plant-based fish.

Five Israeli startups have been founded in the food alternatives fish market over the past year - four developing lab-grown cultured fish and one developing plant-based fish. Investment has grown tenfold over the past two years as the global fisheries market sees a major shortage in fish and huge damage to the environment by the fisheries industry.

Sea2Cell

Sea2Cell, which is developing cultured blue tuna, was founded in September 2021 in the Fresh Start food-tech incubator in Kiryat Shmona by Avishai Levy, Dr. Itai Tzchori, Pablo Resnik, Prof. Berta Sivan and Dr. Orna Harel. The company has raised NIS 3.5 million.

Prof. Sivan came to the fish alternatives sector from the fish industry itself. As a professor of biology at the Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture she set up a company for accelerating the fish farming process. She was involved in another project in Africa to advance fish farming of carp in pools. But she believes wild fish should be left alone.

She said, "Fish are the only animals that we still hunt as well as farm, We go out in boats to sea and the oceans and are creating a catastrophe. In the Mediterranean 90% of the fish have disappeared and the situation is not very encouraging in the oceans. Even those who earn their livelihood from fishing understand today that this cannot continue."

Prof. Sivan has gained major knowhow in isolating cells from living tissues of fish in order to raise them. She was approached by Dr. Orna Harel who for years had been thinking about developing cultured fish. They were joined by Dr. Itai Tzchori, an expert in fish stem cells and Pablo Resnik who has been involved in international trade in fish and seafood. They set up the start up in the Fresh Start incubator, a partnership of Tnuva, Tempo, OurCrowd and Finister.

While stem cells of mammals have been produced for many years, partly in research institutes, there are very few fish stem cells produced. Sea2Cell is first of all building a massive stem cell production capacity, which can be transferred under concessions for other companies to manufacture the products. The aim is blue tuna. "Prof. Sivan said, "Even if we prevent the killing of one tuna, we would have achieved something."

Tuna is overfished worldwide and attempts to raise them in captivity have failed.

Plantish

Plantish is developing plant-based salmon and plans launching its products in Michelin listed restaurants in the US. The company was founded in March 2021 by CEO Ofek Ron, head of R&D Dr. Hila Elimelech, CSO Dr. Ron Sicsic and CTO Dr. Ariel Szklanny. The company has raised $2 million and plans unveiling its prototype product in 2023 and selling products by the end of 2023.

Ron said, "Every activist will tell you that the sea is the biggest problem and the number of fish being killed is many times larger than cows, chickens and sheep put together. I saw that in places where good meat alternatives were available, it really does reducing eating meat and I didn't understand why there isn't fish."

When Ron delved into the matter more deeply, he found that there were fish alternative products like tuna in a can and fish schnitzels and kebabs, there are no products that imitate fish fillets and it was not easy to create similar textures and structures.

"I thought that if we can know how to make such a fillet, then the company could be the Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods of the sea"

Wanda Fish

Wanda Fish is a cellular agriculture company aimed at producing cell-based fish fillets by scientists that have moved from pharmaceuticals to food-tech. The company was founded in November 2021 by CEO Dr. Daphna Heffetz and based in the Kitchen Foodtech Hub, the company has raised NIS 3 million from the Israel Innovation Authority.

Until the past few months Dr. Heffetz was not familiar with food-tech. Over the past 20 years she had led biotech companies and her most recent company developed a treatment for epilepsy based on cannabis. She thought about resting for a while but then she received an offer from The Kitchen incubator to set up a fish alternative startup based on IP for producing meat outside of living bodies that was acquired from a known US university.

She recounted. "I began reading up on the subject and I was very enthusiastic. First I heard about the terrible state of the oceans but I wasn't aware of the scale of the problem and the potential to change things."

Wanda Fish is striving to producing authentic fish fillets after taking samples from fish and growing muscle and fat tissues and preparing a samples bank. "After wars we grow fish tissues so that the structure of a thick fillet is produced with an authentic fish taste. If it is a salmon, for example, it will be pink with white stripes."

Wanda has not yet decided what fish it will develop. What is unique about the company is that in order to grow fish cells, it does not use ingredients from the fish but from a process outside of the fish and only from plant based materials.

Forsea

Forsea's entrepreneurs plan producing cultured eels for the Japanese market where they are considered a delicacy. On the verge of extinction, prices are jumping and this provides a major business opportunity.

Forsea was founded in October 2021 in the Kitchen Foodtech Hub by CEO Roee Nir and Prof Iftach Nachman and Prof. Yaniv Alkoby. The company has raised NIS 3 million from the Israel Innovation Authority and expects its products to be on the market in 2025.

Nir said, "We wanted to be the only player in the market. When we encountered this market we were amazed because eels are considered a delicacy and a fish on the brink of extinction. Prices have jumped in recent years fivefold, and their shortage creates a very major opportunity."

The technology that ForSea has developed is the result of a collaboration between Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is suitable for all types fish and seafood. ForSea considered all types of fish from salmon and tuna to cod and even caviar but it was the high price of eel that tip the scales in its favor. A kilogram of eel in Japan sells for $60 and smoked eel or vacuum packed eel sells for €50 per kilogram in Europe.

E-Fishient

E-Fishient is developing cultured tilapia. Founded in April 2021 as a partnership between BioMeat and the Vulcani Institute, the company is managed by CEO Jill Gammon. The company has raised NIS 2 million in two rounds and has commitment for NIS 3 million more.

E-Fishient has decided to focus on tilapia, a popular fish to feed the hungry masses rather than a premium fish like salmon or tuna.

"It won't be a fillet like you imagine," warns Gammon. "And you won't see me on TV waiting for diners to see if it's similar to the fish they ate yesterday in the restaurant. We believe that you have to find a solution for the world not the premium market. With the world's population growing and fish getting scarcer, this will be a difficult problem that creates need."

Tilapia, which has replaced carp, represents 50% of the fish sold in Israel and it is a world market worth $13-15 billion annually growing at 3%-7%.

You are going for a cheaper fish, which means you'll need more efficient pricing

"Firstly at the moment that's true, although we don't know what will be in five years. Secondly, this is part of our challenge, not premium but a solution for the masses. We believe that in five years, it will be a problem to obtain protein from animals and also from plants because crops are being rapidly reduced and the price of wheat and corn is rising because they them to cows and chickens."

At this stage E-Fishient declines to give details about its technology.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 23, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Plant-based salmon Photo: Asaf Karela
Plant-based salmon Photo: Asaf Karela
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