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BlueNalu, a US firm developing cell-based seafood, has secured fresh funding – with one of the world’s largest seafood groups among the backers.

Thai Union Group, owner of brands including Chicken of the Sea and John West, is among a number of investors to have taken part in a round of debt financing at BlueNalu, the fledgling California-based firm that is looking to launch its first product later this year.

BlueNalu said it had raised US$60m in debt financing, based on convertible notes. Venture-capital firm Rage Capital – which has also invested in animal-free egg ingredient business Clara Foods – led the financing. Privately-owned US food giant Rich Products Corp., which invested in BlueNalu last year, also took part.

Among the investors also listed as backers in the round was Thai Union, the Thailand-based seafood major that is one of the world’s largest processors of conventional seafood.

Thiraphong Chansiri, Thai Union’s president and CEO, said, “Thai Union is an industry leader in innovation and sustainability, and cell-based seafood perfectly aligns with both of these goals. BlueNalu and its experienced team is at the forefront of cell-based seafood technology, with strong process capabilities to scale-up seafood in a sustainable manner. We are excited to work with them and look forward to exploring collaboration opportunities.”

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BlueNalu, which has raised more than $24m across seed and Series A financing, said the fresh investment would be used to help the company complete its pilot production facility and secure regulatory approval to launch its first product on a test basis in US foodservice establishments. The company is aiming to get a mahi mahi product on menus later this year.

CEO and co-founder Lou Cooperhouse said he was “thrilled” BlueNalu was “the first investment that Thai Union has made in the cell-based foods sector”, adding: “We look forward to exploring various ways in which we will complement Thai Union’s position as one of the largest seafood operators globally.”

Speaking to just-food, Cooperhouse said BlueNalu expected to get regulatory clearance in the US this year. “We’re both learning from each other. The FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] is learning about how this gets done too, as are we. It’s a highly iterative approach … that we knew from the very beginning would probably take 12, 18 months and we’re in the last third of that process.”

Cooperhouse said BlueNalu would launch "limited-time offerings" at US establishments in order to learn which products fared best.

"What we're doing here is a bit like an incubator," he said. "Our facility will try this out in different kinds of foodservice establishments, in LTOs as I call them – limited-time offerings. We'll launch for three months at this restaurant, three months at that one and really test it out in fast-casual, white-tablecloth, quick-service, East Coast, West Coast, at more of an iconic seafood restaurant, more of a high-end, more of a casual restaurant.

"It's all about getting some great experiences, understanding how well does mahi mahi sell. Then, when we launch bluefin tuna, learning about how this could be best positioned, as an appetiser, or an entree? How do you identify the early adopter; would they most likely try this at lunch or dinner? In what form of the product?

"We're extraordinarily confident we will have great interest and we've already seen that from the research we've done –we feel we can be building factories in a matter of years here – so we're really using this new facility to give us that market insight, so we can be as smart as possible and identify the right customers and how people think about one species with another when it comes to cell-based. This is a brand new world here and it's all about quick learning."

BlueNalu's previous funding rounds have also included Japan-based Sumitomo, the owner of global fresh-produce supplier Fyffes, the South Korean tofu maker Pulmuone Co., US ingredients major Griffith Foods and Netherlands-based animal nutrition business Nutreco.

just-food interview, June 2020 – A bigger fish? BlueNalu CEO Lou Cooperhouse on the prospects for cell-based seafood