Over the last few years, there’s been a mini-sector of companies that are focused on making burgers, chicken, eggs, and all kinds of animal products, without using any animals. But as far as Dominique Barnes saw, there was still a “blue ocean” opportunity in, well, the ocean. No one was making seafood without the sea creatures.
She and a friend, Michelle Wolf, came together about six months ago to start New Wave Foods. With initial funding and a workspace from the Bay Area biotech incubator IndieBio, they’re now focused on developing their first product: a plant-based shrimp that they hope will closely mimic the taste, texture, and nutritional value of the real thing.
The two, both young, have a combined background well-suited to the task. Barnes grew up taking care of sharks in the middle of the desert–she worked as a caretaker at Las Vegas’s Golden Nugget Hotel, which lures tourists with a 200,000-gallon shark tank. But she wanted to have a bigger impact on ocean life and moved to San Diego, California to study marine conservation. Wolf, a materials scientist and engineer, had been a research intern at the makeup company L’Oreal, and was also looking for something more meaningful work.
They initially focused on making faux shark fins out of collagen, since thousands of sharks are still brutally killed every year for their fins, an Asian culinary delicacy. But they realized the market–especially in the U.S.–might be too small (some conservationists also criticized the idea). They turned to shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States.
The shrimp prototype, which they plan to present at a demo day in February, is still in the works. One primary ingredient will be a strain of algae that shrimp also eat–it’s what gives them their color and flavor. They’re also screening other plant proteins to add to the mix. Pete Mattson, one of the nation’s most prolific developers of new food and beverage products, is an adviser.
While vegetarian shrimp substitutes do exist on the market today, they don’t have the same low fat and high protein as the real thing. The biggest challenge will be getting the texture right, says Barnes.
While initially they aim to win over the growing market of seafood-eaters who are concerned about sustainability and health (real shrimp often contains toxins or antibiotics), their ultimate hope would be to make a dent in overall seafood demand. They see urgency in that cause, with scientists most dire overfishing and pollution scenarios leading to a “fishless ocean” by 2050. Maine, for example, has shut down its shrimp fishery due to low population concerns.
“Our goal is to make something that tastes great–that you could put in any of your favorite shrimp dishes,” Barnes says.