We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Selden, co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods. Mike has a background in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and has worked on the evolutionary biomechanics of mantis shrimp and the epigenetics of fusarium oxysporum, in addition to having worked on high-throughput cancer screening. He also spent time working as a high school chemistry teacher in Taichung, Taiwan. Mike then moved on to help coordinate scientific research at New Harvest and create a global network of scientists, compiling research to unpack and understand serum-free culture media.
We’ve featured a few highlights from the interview below. You can read the interview in its entirety here.
What are your reasons for focusing on developing seafood alternatives?
The reasons are manifold. To start, the oceans are in gigantic trouble—we’ve fished them entirely to depletion, and there’s no way to increase production of wild caught fish. Aquaculture has helped us make large steps in moving away from wild caught fish, but it creates its own set of problems—especially in terms of things that ACE is interested in. It’s a disaster for animal welfare, cramming these fish into tiny cages where they live their entire lives in horrible conditions, often covered in their own feces. Aquaculture also uses a lot of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, which seep out and speed up the proliferation of ocean dead zones around the aquaculture facilities.
The social science that I had seen about clean meat revolved around health-related issues—people don’t really seem to have as much affinity for animal welfare or for the environment, but they do care about their own health. Fish are the area in which there is the largest difference between conventional and clean, because consuming wild fish is massively bad for our health. The FDA has recommended that women of childbearing age (which they deem to be 16–49) shouldn’t be eating high mercury fish like tuna, which is crazy—that’s a huge section of the population that’s being denied a healthy food because of rising pollutants in the ocean due to climate change. Not to mention that Bluefin tuna are on and off the threatened species list.
There’s also the issue of plastic—we haven’t even studied the effects of plastic on human physiology, but we have studied its effects on fish physiology, and it’s not great. It’s everything from altered biochemistry to altered social patterns, to cancer, to changed growth rates and altered metabolism. So if it’s this bad in fish and we’re eating a lot of fish…we definitely need more research to actually see how much the bioaccumulated plastic affects us as humans.
In addition to all of the above, it seemed like nobody else was working on [seafood alternatives]. And beyond that, I do think that some of it also just came from my own affinity for the ocean. I grew up in Boston, and have felt very tied to the ocean ever since I was growing up. All of these reasons together inspired me to start Finless Foods.
Why is Finless Foods developing cellular agriculture fish and other seafood rather than plant-based fish and other seafood?
We think that a diversity of tactics is really important. The oceans are dying now, so we need to try every strategy we can in order to shift people away from eating food that’s based off of ocean animals, and onto something else. While we love the idea of plant-based fish and think that more people should be working on it, I personally worry that not everybody will be willing to switch to a plant-based substitute—I’m concerned that they’ll require the psychological element of knowing it is “real” fish meat that they’re eating. On top of that, while we face many challenges with regards to biochemistry and cellular biology, these are challenges that are easily scopeable—food science may seem simple at first, but the possibilities are wide and it seems uncertain which direction we should move in when trying to recreate something as structurally complex as fish meat. Finless has chosen to tackle cellular agriculture, but we believe that everyone should be embracing all options and seeing what works.
Other than technical/scientific challenges, what obstacles have you overcome to get Finless Foods up and running?
Creating something this interdisciplinary has all sorts of problems associated with it, and so we really needed to create a team that’s extremely capable of working together—everyone on our team comes from different backgrounds. One of the differences between this and plant-based foods is that the plant-based food arena is really like two fields: it’s food science and material science. Whereas for this, you have all sorts of science going on here: you have cellular biology, molecular biology, tissue engineering, food science, and materials science—so it was really essential to find people who were capable of trusting each other’s expertise. It’s been an interesting exercise in management, especially because we (the co-founders) don’t have business backgrounds, we have science backgrounds. So this whole thing has been a learning experience in how to get a whole team to work together across disciplines.
What strategies or messaging do you think will be effective at promoting the consumption of cultured fish and other seafood?
In terms of messaging, I really think it’s important when you’re creating this food technology to focus on the benefit to the person who’s eating it. A lot of food technology in the past has focused on benefits in terms of efficiency and environmental factors—essentially, things that farmers care about: water use, reducing pesticide use, reducing land use, better soil remediation, etc. But the person who’s eating the product doesn’t really notice any of those things, so they are less likely to be compelled by such benefits. We need to really focus on why people should want this product, not why it’s better for the environment, per se—it just doesn’t seem like that type of messaging is very effective.
I also think it’s exceptionally important that the entire industry works together in our messaging and sticks to one line. This technology is confusing enough as it is—we need to have our messaging coordinated so that no matter what source people go to, they get the same information. There’s a whole debate in the industry about whether we should be using “clean,” “craft,” “cultured,” “cellular agriculture,” etc. Our position is that we don’t care—as long as everybody uses the same term.
I agree that consistency is key, but I’m surprised to hear that you don’t have a strong preference with regard to the particular language. Do you mean to say that—while there may be terms that are objectively better or worse—finding the best one is just not as important as everyone being on the same page? Or is it that you think all of the terms will ultimately be equally valid, because the consumer will adjust to whatever is chosen?
There are terms that I prefer over other terms, but I really just think that the most important thing is that we’re being consistent with each other. So, publicly, I’m going to use whatever term everybody is using—even if I don’t personally like that term.
Is Finless Foods concerned about the possibility that cultured animal products will not reach cost competitiveness?
Depends on how you define “concerned.” Obviously, nothing is guaranteed. But part of this whole endeavor is just basic physics—conservation of energy. This process already happens inside an animal, and there’s no physical or biological reason it can’t happen outside of an animal in a more efficient manner—so we feel that we have a very solid road map to bringing our prices down to be cost-competitive. It won’t be easy, but we never said it would be!
Are there specific roles for which Finless Foods and similar companies have the most difficulty finding good candidates? What specific skills or experiences should someone looking to work for such companies develop or seek out?
There’s a big demand for people who know how to work in specific cell systems that haven’t been used before. Anybody who can get knowledge on a specific type of cell culture will be one of the only people on earth who knows how to do that in any specific fish. We’ve been very lucky in that we’ve found people who are very motivated by what we’re doing, and so we haven’t had trouble finding dedicated people, which is really excellent. But more research needs to be done on tissue engineering, so we need more tissue engineers. We also need more cell biologists who are used to working in novel systems—those are the two main things.
What is your vision for where Finless Foods will be five years from now?
Our vision is that we’ll be on the market and creating something people will be excited to eat. Five years from now we’re looking to have thick-tissue sashimi on the market, and to have people working this into their diet. We’re really aiming to expand as fast as we can to bring this to people as fast as we can. So, in five years my hope is that we’ll be taking strain off of the ocean and taking strain off of animals, and becoming more and more popular. I think at that point it’ll still be more of a luxury item, but that’s important for messaging—we want people to understand that this is a high-quality food that we’re creating. But hopefully in five years we will have at least begun the process of moving past being a luxury good and moving towards something that’s more of a commodity good.