Cultivated seafood start-up targets ‘fleshy’ tilapia species for mass disruption: ‘Our cell-based fish will be better than the original’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

E-FISHient plans to develop, manufacture, and market cultivated tilapia meat based on non-animal serum to 'change the future'. GettyImages/paulrdunn
E-FISHient plans to develop, manufacture, and market cultivated tilapia meat based on non-animal serum to 'change the future'. GettyImages/paulrdunn

Related tags Seafood tilapia cultivated seafood

E-FISHient Protein is developing raw material for fish cutlets, fish fingers, and fish balls, with plans to do the same for fish fillet, the start-up’s CEO Dana Levin tells FoodNavigator.

The cultivated seafood sector is growing with the addition of E-FISHient Protein, a joint venture born out of collaboration between BioMeat Foodtech and the Volcani Institute in Israel.

BioMeat, which invests in meat substitute and alternative protein R&D, takes the role of controlling partner in the new start-up with a 76% share of E-FISHient’s capital. The investment firm will be responsible for the start-up’s business development and operational funding in the coming years.

The Volcani Institute, which focuses on agricultural research, is the largest of its kind in Israel. Owning 10% of E-FISHient’s share capital, the Institute will provide the company with use of its facilities and development team.

The C-suite is made up of E-FISHient CEO Dana Levin, BioMeat CEO Gilles Gamon, and product development lead Dr Jakob (Kobi) Biran, who heads up the research lab at Volcani.

Dr Biran specialises in genome editing and neuroendocrine regulation of stress and metabolism in food fish, with an emphasis on E-FISHient’s species of choice: tilapia.

Why disrupt the tilapia industry?

Tilapia is the common name for hundreds of fish species with the Cichlid family. For the most part a freshwater fish, tilapia dwells in shallow streams, ponds, rivers, and lakes.

While native to Africa and the Middle East, its omnivorous diet and adaptability to a wide variety of conditions has seen species be introduced to other parts of the world.

Today, tilapia is one of the most consumed fish globally, E-FISHient CEO Levin explained. “Tilapia comprises over 10.3% of total finfish production, more than double that of salmon, which accounts for ‘only’ 4.5% of the market.”

According to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030, tilapia production is expected to increase more than any other species in the next decade with a CAGR of 3.2% and a total increase of 36.9%.

E-FISHient is targeting Nile tilapia, considered the most abundant and consumed fish globally with 7,000 MT produced per year.

“It is very popular with consumers owing to its flavour, texture and nutritional value. It is the fifth most consumed fish in the US, widely consumed all over China, and is forecast it increase its market share in developing and developed countries alike,” ​said Levin.

tilapia Thirawatana Phaisalratana
Nile tilapia is the most abundant and consumed fish globally, the majority of which are processed and consumed in Asia Pacific. GettyImages/Thirawatana Phaisalratana

However, Nile tilapia fishing poses ‘significant’ ecological issues. These include habitat degradation and loss, disruption of native flora and fauna, reduction or eradication of native species, competition for food and breeding sites with endemic species, hybridisation with native species, and finally, it is ‘almost impossible’ to guarantee the safe confinement an introduced species, we were told.

In China, which is the leading Nile tilapia producer in the world, research conducted by sustainable seafood advisory group Seafood Watch revealed evidence of chemical contamination.

“In the US, the FDA associates the aquaculture of tilapia with parasites, chemical and disease hazards, and highlights the [aforementioned] environmental, ecological and sustainability issues,” ​the CEO continued.

R&D targets cultivation and non-animal serum

E-FISHient intends to undertake development, manufacture, and marketing of cultivated tilapia meat based on non-animal serum to ‘change the future’.

“The huge ecological damage from the fishing industry, together with the expected growth in world population, call for an urgent solution that will supply clean, healthful, nutritious, ecologically sound, high-quality fish meat for us and for the sake of the planet,” ​said Levin.

R&D at the start-up will focus on developing a ‘technological knowledge base’ around the isolation of cells that have potential for differentiation into muscle cells, as well as around their long-term storage.

E-FISHient then intends to complete its characterisation of the differentiation process of tilapia cells taken from a culture and sort it into mature muscle fibre.

Dr Biran has ‘years’ of experiencing researching Nile tilapia in his lab, including ‘extensive’ studies of several tilapia species, Levin told this publication.

“This prior comprehensive research will enable the company to conduct R&D more efficiently and launch earlier than other cultivated seafood companies currently in the R&D stage.”

WhatsApp Image 2022-07-25 at 12.41.29 (1)
Dr Jakob (Kobi) Biran is head of the Volcani Institute research lab. Image supplied.

E-FISHient wants its cultivated fish product to grow on non-animal serum only. The serum itself is an additional product, and according to the start-up a ‘significant one’, intended to serve the general lab-grown meat industry as well.

“We’re currently trying to achieve a sustainable solution that can be scaled for commercial production, first for the cultivated fish industry and later for the entire global cultivated meat industry,” ​we were told

Mimicking ‘fleshy’ fish meat

Nile tilapia, a white fish, is considered ‘very fleshy’ in texture. E-FISHient’s cultivated alternative will maintain the ‘same’ texture, flavour, and nutritional value as the tilapia fish, we were told, yet, without the pesticides, antibiotics and ecological damage ‘related to fish farming’.

“We are producing only fish muscle, so the result is a clean fish fillet meat without the other parts of the fish.”

Nile tilapia is naturally low in omega-3 – and indeed, even lower when farmed – however E-FISHient plans to increase the levels of fatty acids to produce an ‘even healthier’ protein source.

“Not only is Nile tilapia an excellent choice for the processed fish industry, it also serves as a great product for plant-based fish companies which struggle to simulate the flavour of fish.

“The dominant flavour of our Nile tilapia will solve this issue for them.”

From a formulation perspective, E-FISHient’s product can be used as a raw material for fish cutlets, fish fingers, and fish balls. At a later stage, it could even be used as a fillet, depending on its customers’ demands.

From a formulation perspective, the start-up's product can be used as a raw material for fish products, and at a later stage, could be used to create a fillet. Image source: E-FISHient

The start-up also plans to sell its cultivated fish products into food retailers, so as to “continue feeding [their] consumers with similar known and loved products using clean meat that did not harm the rivers and oceans of our planet and is healthier as it does not contain microplastic, antibiotics or pesticides”.

Commercialisation strategy

E-FISHient is predominantly focused on the Asia Pacific market, since that is where the majority of tilapia are processed and consumed. Later on, however, the start-up plans to expand its reach into European and North American markets.

“We plan to offer the world an alternative to fishing and fish farming,” ​Levin elaborated.

“We want to offer a contaminant-free fish meat with enhanced nutritional value. We’re going to produce a fish that is better than the original – we don’t call it ‘better fish’ for nothing. For instance, while Nile tilapia in the wild doesn’t have a lot of omega-3, our tilapia will have plenty.”

It’s a ‘perfect’ fish for the processed fish industry, the CEO continued, and is going to be an ‘amazing’ replacement. Plant-based fish companies will also benefit, she reiterated, by achieving the ‘fish taste’ that hasn’t quite been achieved yet.

Concerning regulation, just one cell-based meat product​ has been approved for market entry to date. However, E-FISHient believes there is a ‘considerably’ fast-paced regulatory process in this field.

The company is keeping a ‘close watch’ on the regulatory authorities in the US, Europe and elsewhere. “Naturally, we will move forward as and when the regulations allow us.”

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