Innovation and tech is still a burgeoning area in the aquaculture industry, and with the wealth of startups out there offering innovative solutions, fewer come with an outsider's perspective. But outsiders are sometimes necessary, Aquaai CEO Liane Thompson told IntraFish.

"I like to think about how the people who disrupted the taxi industry weren't taxi drivers," Thompson said.

"What’s really unique and exciting for us is while we don’t stem from the aquaculture industry, we feel like we've been embraced."

Tech startup Aquaai got its footing in the United States five years ago, with initial investments coming from growthX and Backstage Capital. Last year the company launched subsidiary Aquaai Norway, after securing an investment from Norwegian salmon farmer Kvaroy Fiskeoppdrett.

We realized if we wanted to make the leap in terms of market penetration, we needed to work with people who move fast and who are flexible

Aquaai invented a specialized "fish-like" autonomous underwater vehicle that collects and delivers data, in a way that mitigates the risk to fish stocks. The 12-sensor fish "robot" -- so to speak -- is engineered so that the maintenance cycle works around the harvest period.

"Rarely does a week go by that we don’t have a request from some farm, not all in salmon, but in different species in various regions all over the globe," Thompson said.

Traditionally, fish farms have a lot of static sensors and cameras that may not be suited for the environmental conditions that can impact a 120-meter circumference cage, she noted.

    "As aquaculture tries to be more sustainable, we need technology and systems like ours," Thompson said.

    "At the end of the day, farmers don't want to cut corners. But the demand now [is high], and they need sustainable systems to help. And we need to learn from the lessons of the systems on land."

    Aquaculture and Silicon Valley

    Raising money for new tech is never easy, especially in a burgeoning space like aquaculture that doesn't have a large investor base familiar with the sector.

    "As a young company, it was very difficult to raise money, getting investment was hard, even when we were in the middle of Silicon Valley," she said.

    "[This tech] just really works, it makes sense, and I didn't expect everyone to see it, but Kvaroy did and they embraced it."

    Kvaroy Fiskeoppdrett CEO Alf-Goran Knutsen now sits on the board of Aquaai Norway.

    According to Thompson, she and her partner Simeon Pieterkosky, a former farmer with an expertise in robotics, decided that they weren't going to target the major players in the industry after early experience trying to secure investments that were stalled by internal bureaucracy.

    "We realized if we wanted to make the leap in terms of market penetration, we needed to work with people who move fast and who are flexible," she said.

    Last year, Aquaai secured institutional investment worth $500,000 (€460,561) from Silicon Valley's Boost VC founder Adam Draper. Thompson did not disclose how much the investment from Kvaroy was worth, but specified that it was enough to establish a subsidiary company in Norway.

    According to Thompson, there was a "catch-up time" involved in getting Silicon Valley on board with aquaculture. She points out that this was also the case in agriculture, as venture capitalists and investors only took interest in drones after farmers put in money of their own.

    "I think aquaculture wasn’t really talked about before [in Silicon Valley]," Thompson said. "But like Monica Jain pointed out in Fish 2.0, it’s on the map now, it’s there."

    California-based industry connector Fish 2.0 held its final competition for sustainable seafood innovators in November 2019, marking a period of accelerated investment in the seafood sector.

    When Fish 2.0 started in 2013, there were no incubators for seafood. Now there are more than a dozen, with a growing interest among investors in the seafood space. Aquaai was given the Top Innovator award by Fish 2.0.

    "I do think that there’s more investment in aquaculture," Thompson said of Silicon Valley.

    "[But] I think that it takes those who are brave like Adam Draper to say, 'I want to be the first to lead.'"

    The hunt for support

    The company is in the middle of a capital raise to deliver on purchase orders for the year. It is also still seeking additional partners in order to scale further and expand the current team.

    "I do think that the big players should set an example," Thompson said.

    "It’s not hard to lead if you’re already in [the right] position, especially when you’re a large global company."

    Unfortunately, Thompson said, the big players have also been quick to dismiss startups on the basis of immediate revenue or marginal differences in expected valuation.

    "It takes courage to try and change an industry that’s been around for years and years and years. And I don’t mean courage we have. We don’t come from that industry, I’m talking about people like Kvaroy who [are willing to] put their name on the line," Thompson said.