Beyond the Impossible: Kuleana Makes Plant-Based Seafood

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Plant-based tuna looks just like the real thing. (Image: Kuleana)
Plant-based tuna looks just like the real thing. (Image: Kuleana)

Get ready for the next Impossible Foods, but for raw tuna – Kuleana. Kuleana provides plant-based seafood without the environmental and ethical consequences of traditional tuna farming.
Fun fact – Kuleana is a Hawaiian term which means “responsibility” and refers to a reciprocal relationship between the person who is responsible, and the thing which they are responsible for. In the case of Kuleana the company, that means humanity’s relationship with the ocean and its inhabitants.

Before jumping into Q&A with Jacek Prus, the Founder of Kuleana, below is some context for the landscape and why this matters:

Aquaculture is the world’s fastest-growing food production system, with an average yearly growth rate of 8.3 % between 1970 and 2008.

The US seafood market size is estimated to be $159B, and the plant-based meat market is worth more than $12B. Despite the plant-based food sales increasing in the US, plant-based seafood is only a small fraction of the market.

Environmental and social risks associated with the aquaculture industry include unsustainable feedstock, saturation of nutrients in waterways from farm waste, and biodiversity loss.
Plant-based raw seafood has not yet reached its full market potential due to its delicate texture, which is extremely difficult to replicate, making Kuleana the current category leader on raw tuna.

Why did you decide to start Kuleana and tackle this challenge?

One of the main reasons my Co-Founder, Sonia Hurtado, and I chose to start working on Kuleana was because of current aquaculture practices today and their environmental impact. A couple documentaries that really put this in perspective were Cowspiracy and Earthlings. Some of these pieces include land use, water and food use, deforestation, and ocean dead zones. There has been a robust market emerging for livestock alternatives; we instead looked toward the ocean ecosystem.

Fishing is unregulated, more so as you go farther out from land. You can see entire fleets pulling apart the ocean with these massive nets in the water. This targets the main species being fished, but it also catches other species in the process. It kills everything and then they just dump anything that is not the target species back in the ocean. The equivalent would be like if you ran a net across the savanna in Africa in hopes of catching gazelle. However, in the process, you catch elephants, tigers and more, killing everything, and then dumping anything that wasn’t gazelle. I think about how people would react to that.

It’s hard to believe, but agriculture and farming are currently doing this to our oceans. I can point to the problems all day, but in the end, Kuleana is about the solutions.

When we looked at the landscape, we saw that seafood was the most glaring and optimal arena for us to engage. Companies today have mainly focused on land-animal products. Next-generation seafood is still in its early stages, relatively speaking. We want to create the next generation of seafood by focusing on plant-based solutions.

What does the ecosystem look like?

There are a decent number of companies in the alternative seafood market, but only a scant few that were attempting to tackle raw tuna. In this respect, our chief competition is fresh-caught tuna. That is what makes up almost the entire market. We’re here to edge the consumers away from that a bit and present another viable, appealing option. And we welcome innovation in the space, it’s the only way actual sea change will occur. When it comes to all the other solutions out there that use either cell-based or plant-based methods to make their product, we wish them all the best; we believe its going to require a lot of like-minded innovation to address the broader market needs.

One thing to note, is that it is possible that cell-based competitors may enter the space at a later point in time. When they do, they will be addressing different things. Cell-based protein development is unique because it involves working with actual animal cells, and that may result in replication from a taste or mouthfeel standpoint.

Meanwhile, plant-based food development is already here, and we’re able to achieve very efficient economics, without compromising the taste and texture of the protein we’re replicating. Both approaches have their advantages. The ecosystem is still young, and we embrace more players entering the space. Its a big ocean out there.

What does the policy look like to go to market?

Policy has been changing, especially with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat leading the way in their markets. As a result, it’s not as difficult for a plant-based company to enter the market. Plant-based no longer must mean “alternative” in that cliched sense.

What’s next for Kuleana?

What we have now works extremely well in poke bowls and in sushi rolls. We will beta launch in a few markets this year, followed by an expansion. We also are focused on continuous R&D, which keeps improving the knowledge in the space.

Takeaway

Jacek puts it best by saying, “Unlike meat products, tuna is caught wild with a quickly declining population due to overfishing, and they cant be farmed which creates a supply shortage and high price point. This presents a strong opportunity to enter the marketplace with worthy alternatives.” Kuleana is addressing a challenge in the current market to help the ocean ecosystem. The cause is there, the capital and scale need to follow. Luckily, brands like Impossible Foods and Nuggs have led the way for plant-based protein to enter the market. Both plant-based and cell-based seafood alternatives will scale and grow to have a positive impact on the ocean ecosystem.

About The Author

Daniel Kriozere

Daniel Kriozere

Co-Founder at The Impact

Daniel currently works at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His original assignment was to maintain and update facility safety documentation for all facilities on-site, and perform risk analysis. Over time, his role has expanded to leading continuous improvement efforts through product management.

Concurrently, Daniel volunteers with Techstars, helping organize startup weekends, and with the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, organizing events on the local and national levels of the organization. He also volunteers with One World, and previously with Powerhouse Ventures, to source and screen startups for potential investment.

Daniel holds a BS in Chemical Engineering from UC Davis, and recently completed coursework in energy innovation from Stanford. His passion is at the intersection of sustainability, innovation, and business.

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