Mike Selden is co-founder and CEO of Finless Foods. He 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. Mike also spent time working as a high school chemistry teacher in Taichung, Taiwan. He 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.
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 simpler 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.
Which species of farmed fishes will be the first Finless Foods products? Why are you focusing on that/those species first?
We think that salmon is first in terms of farmed fish. Salmon is seen as extremely high quality, it’s really delicious, and it’s a massive industry that really could use some help in creating something more sustainable and better for animals. Over 50% of the salmon that we consume is produced by farming, and now farmed salmon has gotten to the point where it’s seen as higher quality than wild caught. We think focusing on salmon is a pretty good move, because there’s a lot of potential to create something that has a very wide market. The size of the industry means there’s a chance of making a large impact.
Are there technical challenges that are unique to cellular agriculture of fish and other seafood when compared with chicken/beef?
Yes, there are. Part of it is that many other species have already had cell culture research done for them—for example, there’s been research into porcine cell culture for a very long time because of its relationship with human heart problems. Fish cell biology is very understudied, so we’ve really needed to almost create the entire field of fish cellular biology underneath us as we’ve gone. It’s been a learning process, but fish cells have a lot of advantages, and there are a lot of things that are nice about working with them. We’ve really needed to figure that out entirely on our own, though, which has been a bit of an adventure at times.
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.
If we were to discover that wild fish lives are net negative, would you still pursue this career path?
I would continue doing the work as is. While [welfare] is one large motivating factor for me, there are a lot of other reasons as well. We’re completely destroying wild ecosystems, and if we end up destroying the ecosystem that is the ocean, that affects everything on land. Among other issues, it would make it extremely difficult for us to grow food. The ocean captures 50% of the carbon that’s released into the atmosphere, and without an ecosystem there that includes those fish, it can’t do that. So we would still need to move people away from that as a food source, and then on top of that we’d need some other healthy food supply. So even if one of the reasons for doing this work was eclipsed, I would still continue doing it.
Have you encountered (and/or do you expect to encounter) any regulatory issues with bringing your products to market?
The meat lobbyists have put a letter to President Trump asking forcefully that the cell culture meat industry become regulated by the USDA, rather than the FDA. The letter did not include fish, it spoke only of land-based animals—so it is my hope that the government sees what we can do in order to fulfill the charter of the FDA, which is to create a safer and more stable food supply for the American people. Ultimately, what we hope for is just a clear, thorough, and transparent regulatory process—and at the end of the day, we’re not ideological about who does that. But we do feel that the FDA is appropriately armed for the task, especially because it currently regulates all fish, and has also engaged with biotechnology.
Do you have plans to distribute your product(s) outside the U.S.? If not, why not?
Absolutely, we do—and in fact we have partners and a lot of our investors outside of the U.S. There are lots of people who eat fish all over in the world, so we think this product is suited to all sorts of countries. For example, China has made huge moves in food technology and towards sustainability and a safer food supply, and Japan is moving massively towards more indoor farming (and this is mostly indoor animal farming). Our products would help many countries fulfill their mandates for environmentally focused agriculture, and would solve a lot of the inefficiencies in their food supply chains.
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!
Sure—having an efficient process is obviously essential to the task of reaching cost competitiveness. But what about messaging? The science and technology are indisputably important, but at the end of the day if you don’t have enough consumer buy-in, you have an economics problem. So in addition to the scientific hurdles, it seems important to address the messaging ones.
Yes—they’re both really important. If people are not interested in eating the product, it’s totally worthless. If we think about what it is that we’re really trying to accomplish here, the “technology” already exists. That is to say, veganism is real and you can do it—if you want. It solves all the problems that we’re trying to solve. It creates a more equitable food supply, it eliminates all the health problems that come from plastic and mercury in our food, it doesn’t involve destroying the oceans, it doesn’t involve animal cruelty…but there’s just not enough buy-in. People just aren’t doing it. So we really want to make sure we don’t encounter the same issue. We don’t want eating cellular agriculture fish and other seafood to be considered a lifestyle, we want it to be considered normal—to be worked into everyone’s diet, regardless of their ideology or their feelings about the environment, animal cruelty, or even their own health. We want to divorce this entirely from ideology and just make something that’s delicious and cost-effective, which will be appealing to people who don’t want to think about their food as well as for people who do.
So what happens if Finless Foods fails?
At the end of the day, I think this technology is inevitable. Companies are not inevitable. That said, I have a lot of confidence in our team—they’re excellent, and that’s both the staff and our investors and partners. Sure, there’s always a real possibility that we don’t make it. But this technology is absolutely going to be the way that people eat meat in the future; I think that’s completely unavoidable. So even if Finless Foods fails, there will be others who will carry the torch. Even if it doesn’t happen right now, it’s going to be in our lifetimes.
What role have nonprofits played in supporting your work thus far? How effective has that support been? What are other ways you’d like to see nonprofits contributing to the advancement of cellular agriculture?
New Harvest really built this company in a lot of ways. I was given the opportunity to work there before I started Finless Foods and to travel around with them and meet their network and decide my strategy in starting this whole thing. They inspired me to move forward with it and have continued to be really supportive through conferences (by inviting us to various conferences and then hosting the New Harvest conference, which was an awesome set of interesting angles and a great overview of progress in the field) and introductions.
I think the Cellular Agriculture Society (CAS), which is a newer nonprofit, has a lot of potential. They’re a volunteer-based student organization with clubs at nine universities and counting. There are different ways students can get involved with CAS—they can do social science research, they can lobby their university administration to get specific classes or a curriculum that’s more focused on subjects relevant to this field (to find opportunities in labs that do research relevant to clean meat), they can put together donation drives to get a grant program going at their university, put money into New Harvest or start CAS grants on their own…there’s just so much possibility in a grassroots organization like this. I think CAS will be a big part of building the future in this arena.
Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently if you were back where you where when you started Finless Foods?
If I could go back and start things over, I would come into this with some business knowledge. I came in as a biochemist, and learned the business side of things as time went on. We raised money and then from there needed to learn how to do management and how to create a team that could work together—we’ve been doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of creating a management strategy that works for us and works with our personalities. Neither myself nor my co-founder Brian are very authoritarian people, so we cared about figuring out how to create something that’s democratically organized and horizontal, but still functional and quick-moving.
We’re also now working on the regulatory process, so we’re trying to figure out how the U.S. regulatory system works. At every step of the way we’ve had to learn things. I don’t have any regrets about decisions I made, but if I had known more I would have made different ones.
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.
Lastly, I love your company name—how did you come up with it?
We got it from a childhood friend of mine—Eric Blattberg—who is also our UX designer (he made our website). Since I’m a scientist and very much not a designer or a branding person (and neither is my co-founder), the original name we came up with was Pelagic—which is the region of the ocean in which most of the fish we eat live. It’s a terrible name. Nobody understood the meaning or knew how to spell it. So Eric came up with Finless Foods, which is much more spellable (and more friendly-sounding, we think). He also came up with our awesome logo!