Upstream foods: Seafood without a catch!

If meat can be cultivated, then so can fish. That was the idea behind the founding of the start-up Upstream foods. Kianti Figler and her two co-founders aim to contribute to the transition towards sustainable food production. Figler: ‘We believe that cell-based is the future. Hence, we are working on a product that tastes like fish without the disadvantages of fish. Seafood without a catch!’. Figler discusses the launch of their business and why they chose to settle on Wageningen Campus.

What is it that Upstream does precisely, and for whom?

Upstream foods develops cultivated so-called cell-based fish. This means we produce fish by multiplying a single stem cell. It all starts with a biopsy of the fish. We then use these cells to produce many stem cells, followed by fat cells. Thus, a single fish can feed many. We combine the fat cells with plant-based proteins. A fish contains both fatty tissue and muscle tissue. The plant-based proteins combined with the cultivated fat cells give our fish the same mouth feel and flavour as real fish. For this reason, our slogan is ‘Seafood without a catch’. Sustainable fish, without the drawbacks of regular fish, be it wild or farmed. And it is healthy because this fish contains no microplastics, heavy metals or antibiotics. In short: Fish with no drawbacks.

What backgrounds do your employees have?

My background is in biomedical sciences, where medicines are tested on 3D-printed tissues. After obtaining my MSc in Biofabrication in Utrecht, my co-founders and I began focusing on fish. Eugene Golov has a business background, and Kylie van Deinsen-Hesp obtained her PhD in marine cell line development here in Wageningen. We combine our knowledge of tissue engineering, entrepreneurship and marine cell lines.

From left to right: Kianti Figler, Kylie van Deinsen-Hesp, Eugene Golov
From left to right: Kianti Figler, Kylie van Deinsen-Hesp, Eugene Golov

We recently recruited an experienced cell biologist from Barbados, Afif Grazette. We are delighted that he has come from Germany to join us here in Wageningen.

Affif Grazette
Affif Grazette

What made you decide to set up shop on Wageningen Campus?

Kylie obtained her PhD in Wageningen and knew about the lab facilities on the campus. We currently rent lab space from the department of Animal Sciences in Radix. We are searching for a larger lab in the Ede-Wageningen area, which would enable us to combine food and biotech processes.

The methods we use are already applied in the pharmaceutical research industry, but only very rarely in food production. We believe that cell-based products will have an essential role in the future. We strive for a high-quality hybrid product made of fish fat cells and plant-based proteins. Thus, we contribute to sustainable food production under the slogan: ‘Better Fat, Better Food, Better Future’.

Product manufacturing is still in its infant stages and requires a lot of time, money, and research facilities. On a global scale, there are some businesses working on this technology, but cultivated fish has not yet made it onto the market. We currently collaborate with these businesses because we need each other and must pool our strengths. We need each other to form an industry in this domain, but the competition will increase over time.

And, as founders of Upstream foods, we participated in a StartLife programme. They really helped us get started and opened the door to the food industry. Because we aim to produce a food product from a biotechnological background, the food ecosystem on the campus is very valuable to us.

Do you collaborate with other (budding) businesses on campus?

We are in proximity to many large businesses, such as Unilever, Yilli and CJ Foods, and we can easily discuss things over coffee. Startlife forms a liaison, which is nice. If we tell them what we are looking for, they know the right people. Very helpful in this stage of our business.

Do you use the facilities on campus?

We do not have a permanent officer as we work from home. Very agile for a start-up, but it does mean we really value the liaison services of StartLife. Thus, we can use the existing knowledge WUR has to offer. Although we are amazed at how little research has been done on cell-based fish. There is ample knowledge of biotechnology and aquaculture. And that is useful to us too.

Is there anything you would like to see added to the campus?

In this emerging phase, we could really use some flexible office space. Not too much and not too fancy, just to test some things out in the first stages. Now, we have to search for a shared lab facility. We managed to find something at Radix, but the only alternative is renting a lab for a five-year period and having to furnish it at your own expense. For emerging start-ups, this is impossible. I think shared lab spaces for multiple start-ups would be a very valuable addition. In the future, we will also need a bioreactor to test our concept. I hope there will be one available in Wageningen.

How do you envision your future on campus?

So far, we are researching and testing on a small scale. Further along in the future, in five years or so, I hope we will be able to bring our first product to the market on a small scale. A lot depends on obtaining legal approval for our fish as a ‘food product’, and getting this approval takes a lot of time. Whether or not we will be able to remain in Wageningen depends on the availability of scale-up facilities that we will need in the future. As far as we are now able to judge, we will have to divert to Delft or Denmark. Our goal is a ‘pilot plan set up’, which we hope to achieve in five years. That will enable us to test whether we manage to start the production of our sustainable product: Fish produced on land.

Editor's note:

Shared Research Facilities

WUR’s Wageningen Campus & Facilities team works with several other partners to investigate the possibilities of adding such (shared) research facilities on campus so that innovative small businesses, including start-ups, have easier and more affordable access to the required innovation facilities.