Why manufacture a plant-based salmon fillet? Ofek Ron, CEO of Israeli startup Plantish, has a simple answer.
"It is a market worth $50 billion (€44.3 billion) globally, so it's the product most desired by everyone," Ron told IntraFish.
"When someone sees salmon they get hungry. It is like the burger of the fish world."
Though Plantish is not the first company to develop plant-based salmon offerings, its prototype salmon fillet struck a chord when it was announced. Media coverage around the world has given it publicity other plant-based producers would salivate over.
Ron, the former head of a vegan advocacy group, launched the company less than a year ago together with Hila Elimelech, the head of R&D; Chief Scientific Officer Ariel Szklanny; and Eyal Briller, a former director of product management at plant-based giant Impossible Foods.
Despite the fanfare, its salmon fillet, made mostly from legumes, algae oil extract and several secret "novel" ingredients, is still a work in progress.
"What we're doing is not just mixing ingredients. It is a new product, a new process, a new machine," said Ron.
The formulation also needs some work, he admitted, noting that initial feedback on the company's prototype gave high marks for flavor, but said it needed a more fibrous texture.
"It tastes 100 percent like a fish, but we now need to 'salmonize' the product," he said. "It will take a lot more time, but the product will be very impressive when it's out."
Ron estimates a commercial launch around the end of 2023.
Setting sail for the United States
When it does launch, the US market will be the first point of sale, with the product priced to compete directly with salmon.
Aimed at both foodservice and retail, the company will begin production on a machine capable of producing 20 kilos an hour, followed by a second machine that will produce 500 kilos an hour.
"The future of the seafood industry is a sustainable future when you don't have to get salmon out of the sea in Norway and put it on a plane to the US," Ron told IntraFish.
"It is a future where your salmon is made in a factory next door to the supermarket you shop in."
Despite Ron's inflexible take on what "sustainable seafood" means, he says Plantish is talking with several seafood distributors and manufacturers and has been shocked by the positive industry reaction.
"I was surprised and happy to see how the seafood industry looks to a sustainable future. They are the first to jump in," he said.
"It's the kind of cooperation that the plant-based meat sector has never received from the meat industry."
Salmon does pose challenges for plant-based entrants. Of all the animal proteins, farmed salmon is one of the most sustainable, according to recent protein ranking by investor network Coller FAIRR, with a much lower production footprint than beef or poultry.
In addition, aquaculture, including salmon farming, is viewed by many as a solution to a projected protein shortfall in the coming decades.
Ron's concern, however, lies with aquaculture feed and its fishmeal and oil usage.
"When I first when diving the sea used to be full of fish. Now there are none. It is devastating," said Ron.
"We should have started doing this 70 years ago, but we are starting now because consumers are now accepting of meat alternatives."
Unlike executives at other plant-based startups, Ron refuses to be diplomatic about plant-based fish being a complimentary alternative to real seafood.
"We are working towards a future where there is no seafood at all," he said. "People would never eat a dog, so why would you eat a fish? What's the difference?"