By Monica Jain
As most TriplePundit readers know, our oceans and the people who depend on them are in trouble. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or collapsing under the pressure of a $390 billion global seafood market. Yet analysts expect seafood demand to double by 2050, and island and coastal communities around the world depend on seafood for both sustenance and economic health.
The Fish 2.0 business competition aims to accelerate solutions to this huge challenge by connecting sustainable fishing and aquaculture ventures with investors who could help them thrive. The value of making those connections was clear from last week’s 2015 Fish 2.0 Competition Finals & Sustainable Seafood Innovation Forum at Stanford University, where 37 entrepreneurs took the stage to pitch their businesses to investors. This talented group—which rose to the top in a four-phase process that initially involved 170 entrants—reflects a surge in entrepreneurial activity in the seafood sector worldwide. It also demonstrates the diversity and creativity of responses to seafood’s social and environmental challenges.
Aquaculture businesses had a particularly strong presence in the Fish 2.0 competition. Two of the six cash-prize winners are in the fish farming field: Kampachi Farms Mexico, an open-ocean aquaculture business focused on growing sashimi-grade fish, and Nova Scotia–based SabrTech, whose RiverBox system provides algae-based aquaculture feed using waste streams from fish farms. These businesses and others in the competition seek to serve rising consumer demand for seafood while taking pressure off wild fish stocks, reducing aquaculture’s environmental impact and extending community benefits.
Land-based aquaculture is one of the most promising solutions. This category includes self-contained recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which can operate almost anywhere in the world, including urban and even desert environments. Several of the entrepreneurs we heard from are bringing land-based systems to markets that do not traditionally have access to fresh local seafood, such as Switzerland (Swiss Alpine Fish) and the states of New Mexico (New Mexico Shrimp Co.) and Missouri (Quixotic Farming). This enables efficient location next to markets and distribution centers, as well as greater access to fresh seafood for underserved populations.
A related trend is the increasing use of aquaponics, which combines fish farming with growing plants in water (hydroponics). The concept is not new—people have been practicing aquaponics for centuries, in the Aztecs’ floating crop islands, the rice paddies of Asia and elsewhere. What’s different now is that entrepreneurs are developing technologies and business models for commercial-scale aquaponics farms. London-based GrowUp Urban Farms, a Fish 2.0 audience favorite among the runners-up, is a great example. The company delivers fresh food to restaurants and hotels and employs local youths with a commercial-scale aquaponics farm that has a very small footprint.
A few other trends stood out for me during the finals event:
Investor interest in seafood is strong and growing. It was exciting to see that investors are interested in playing a part by investing in compelling companies as well as by offering their expertise and guidance on strategies to make growth possible.
Technologies are developing quickly. Many of the businesses that presented have a strong technology component, usually aimed at reducing risk or gaining efficiency in aquaculture production or seafood supply chains. (Traceability is a particularly active area for innovation.)
Women and millennials are stepping up. Seafood is often perceived as a stodgy industry, so the number of businesses led by women and millennials—and the number of female investors—at the competition was notable. These entrepreneurs and investors are coming at seafood’s problems from fresh perspectives.
B2B relationships are as important as investor relationships. Fish 2.0 competitors tended to come into the finals event thinking it was all about meeting investors. But by the time the event was over, they were just as excited about the connections they made with potential customers and partners among their fellow competitors. The benefit was particularly clear for the sizeable contingent from the Pacific Islands, who have limited exposure to the latest seafood technologies and few opportunities to meet seafood partners in other regions.
The demand for mentoring and connection is huge. This year’s Fish 2.0 competition drew more than twice as many entries and investors as the inaugural 2013 competition—and I’m confident we could double participation again. We’re just getting started.
More and more people are recognizing the need for innovation in the sustainable seafood field, and the tremendous opportunities for markets and impacts in the industry. As the Fish 2.0 network grows, so does the number of investors and businesses that want to collaborate to advance sustainable seafood. That’s good for the oceans and for all of us who depend on or benefit from them.
Monica Jain is the founder and executive director of Fish 2.0 and Manta Consulting Inc. She has worked for over 20 years in the private sector and philanthropy, and specializes in creating innovative financing strategies and structures for impact investors, foundations and private sector–nonprofit partnerships. Follow her @fish20org.