Aqua Cultured Foods is some years away from a full commercial launch of its fermentation-derived seafood as the start-up sinks investor cash into a pilot programme.

After setting up the Chicago-based business around three years ago, and with $7.6m of seed investment in hand, co-founder and CEO Anne Palermo said Aqua Cultured Foods is first trying to “identify any potential bottlenecks”.

The company secured $5.5m in top-up seed funds in April to help finance a pilot facility in Chicago and has some Illinois restaurants lined up for its whole fish alternatives, minced shrimp and scallops.

“We are estimating to be able to produce about 5,000 pounds a month. It’s going to take us some time in order to get to that point. Then once we’re able to achieve that at pilot scale that will trigger a green light for us to go commercial,” Palermo told Just Food.

When it comes to the expected timescale for a full commercial rollout, she added: “I don’t know if I’m in a position to really say today because that is something we’re working towards. The whole purpose of our pilot facility is to help us get more and more learning so that we know what’s the proper path.

“Are we going to build our own facility? Are we going to work with a contract manufacturer? Does it make sense to have a joint venture?”

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Palermo said Aqua Cultured Foods, which employs about ten people along with five advisers, has faced a “couple of delays” in its initial launch and has also been focused on getting the Chicago pilot plant ready.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to start producing a market-ready sellable product in the coming months ahead,” she said. “We’re probably only going to start our initial launch with a few restaurants to make sure we could fully support them.

“Then, as we do that, we’re going to look into ways to go more commercial scale more quickly but the commercial scale will probably be a couple of years out.”

Indicative of the challenges in scaling technology-enabled alternative foods and getting products to market – cell-cultured meat being a case in point – Aqua Cultured Foods is facing some obstacles in its in-house R&D.

Its fish, shrimp and scallops, produced through microbial fermentation, are only suitable for chilled, raw applications, not frying. The company is targeting sushi or ceviche, for example, or for use in dumplings and egg rolls.

Palermo explained: “For these first iterations, they’re optimised to be consumed in their raw form – future iterations are going to be ones that can be cooked on a dry heat.

“When I say raw, that’s a bit of a misnomer. The products can be cooked or heated through as long as it’s ‘wet heat’ like steam or boiled in a soup or cooked in a curry or a broth. Or if it’s inside of a dumpling or battered and fried before – it just has to have some kind of barrier between the heat and the protein to protect it.”

She said frying “changes the texture” but Aqua Cultured Foods is working on a “few things that we’re doing in-house” as a solution.

“I would say in the whole-cut fermentation-enabled seafood space we’re the clear pioneer,” Palermo claims.

“The products are really good, they’re really clean label, better-for-you products that don’t have a laundry list of ingredients. The consumer is giving a lot of push-back on highly processed foods. I think the fact that ours are very minimally processed, very pure products, is giving us a market advantage.”