November 20, 2019|By Will Allen| Food and Farms

Four Things I Learned at Fish 2.0 Global Innovators Forum

Through a series of panels and rapid-fire investor pitches (think Shark Tank), the Fish 2.0 Global Innovators Forum provides a fascinating glimpse into the future of the seafood industry and its efforts to scale while becoming more sustainable. The Conservation Fund continues to serve as one of the sponsors of this event.

 11 20 19 Fish 2.0 signageThe 2019 Fish 2.0 Global Innovators Forum. Photo courtesy Fish 2.0.

As an ‘ambassador’ for the Fund’s Freshwater Institute during the conference, I focused on discerning where our mission work in land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) research and technology currently fits into the ever-changing aquaculture investment landscape. Although this conference covered the full gamut of wild caught, ocean net pen, fish farm and land-based aquaculture systems, the overall goal of sustainable seafood production to help feed 9 billion people was a clear point of emphasis. Below are a few things I learned during the two-day gathering:

1. Innovation and Efficiency

Monica Jain, co-founder and Executive Director of Fish 2.0, kickstarted the conference with an overview of products and services that are fundamentally changing the aquaculture industry, including a David Letterman-style Top Ten List. In 2013, there were fewer than 10 ‘deal closings’ (i.e. equity and debt project finance) within the aquaculture space. In 2018, there were more than 60 deals across the full supply chain. All indications are that this will continue to accelerate.

11 20 19 MonicaOpeningRemarks2 copyMonica Jain, co-founder and Executive Director of Fish 2.0. Photo courtesy Fish 2.0.

There is an increasing number of early stage investments focused on ‘Innovation Subsectors,’ from preproduction (seed, eggs) to aquaculture production systems to precision agriculture applications to wild capture innovation. These have the potential to both provide markets for new products and to dramatically improve the production efficiency of existing products.

One of my favorite examples of new markets is an effort to harvest and produce products from the Pez Diablo, an invasive fish in Mexico that has been known to date as a ‘trash fish.’ An efficiency example is the production of a ‘fish drone’ using artificial intelligence (AI) technology that swims in open net pens and is able to monitor food intake, disease and other factors that could impact yields and quality.

11 20 19 Aquaai and reviewers copyLiane Thompson, CEO and Founder ofaquaai, presented her company’sFaaS™ Fish-as-a-Service robotic fish drone, which services sustainable fish farms. Photo courtesy Fish 2.0.

2. Cradle to Cradle Solutions

Over 220 entrepreneurs have now worked with Fish 2.0 to accelerate their businesses and connect to capital across the supply chain. The scope of the investor pitches ranged from 1) a system to “count shrimp” that helps optimize feed and harvest while minimizing disease to 2) new packaging solutions to existing Styrofoam and other existing cooling/preservation technologies to 3) smart trading platforms that use blockchain technology for traceability. 

In the context of this year’s investor pitches, land-based recirculating aquaculture systems are a relatively mature product thanks in part to the 30 years of research and technology development by the Freshwater Institute with support from the USDA Agricultural Research Service. But the Freshwater Institute, along with commercial RAS operators, have an opportunity to benefit if some of these early stage companies that provide solutions along the supply chain become successful.

3. The Road to Growth Equity Investment

The aquaculture industry, including RAS, remains a relatively risky investment space to equity investors since there are still few examples of commercial success at scale. At the Freshwater Institute’s most recent Aquaculture Innovation Workshop in December 2018, we had the opportunity to tour Atlantic Sapphire’s large-scale salmon RAS facility under construction in south Florida. Once this facility, along with similar facilities under construction in Maine, comes online, it will provide insights on the viability of RAS facilities at scale in the US.

A Fish 2.0 panel on the future of the seafood industry included a combination of early stage, accelerator and growth equity investors. Just the presence of having a growth equity investor on the panel, whose minimum investment is usually in the $40 million range, speaks to the potential expansion of available capital since the start of Fish 2.0 forums in 2013. Although the growth equity investor said they were still a few years away from investing, they are starting to actively track companies. For now, aquaculture investment remains at the project equity level, and the Freshwater Institute has provided design and engineering services to several of these efforts.

11 20 19 FreshwaterInstitute March 2019 Shepherdstown WV 065 Sam LevitanFor nearly three decades, the Freshwater Institute has specialized in the research and design of aquaculture systems technology, as well as solutions to the water quality constraints and impacts presented by our farms and communities. Photo by Sam Levitan.

4. Unintended Consequences

Many of the investor pitches involved efficiencies or solutions that also could provide a net environmental benefit over existing production approaches. Examples include ocean net pens that allow ‘free range’ stocking densities, co-location of aquaculture facilities at landfills and agricultural sites to take advantage of methane and carbon dioxide ‘waste energy’ for production, and an ‘underwater bait setter’ that minimizes ocean birds getting caught in fishing lines.

Many of these ideas were very promising, but others I saw still seemed likely to have unintended consequences, where they might solve one problem but create another one in the process. This was most prevalent in ‘innovations’ in wild caught technologies and harvesting invasive species. There is still not an easy way to evaluate the net environmental benefits of these ideas, and I hope the aquaculture industry will one day be able to come up with an evaluation framework to understand the various tradeoffs of production technologies.

Written By

Will Allen

Will Allen is the Senior Vice President of Strategic Giving & Conservation Services at The Conservation Fund in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. With the Fund more than 20 years, Will oversees the divisions of Marketing & Communications, Development, Freshwater Institute, Resourceful Communities and the Conservation Leadership Network. He is the co-author, with Dr. Kent Messer, of the Cambridge University Press book entitled The Science of Strategic Conservation: Protecting More with Less. He served as co-editor-in-chief and managing editor of the Journal of Conservation Planning and has published in peer reviewed journals, trade publications, and blogs for the Fund, Jobs for the Future and The Nature of Cities. Will holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Stanford University and a Masters in Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.