Upstream Foods is developing a novel ingredient to uplevel seafood alternatives. The start-up based in Wageningen, the Netherlands, is using cell-culture methods, to make the absolute tastiest fats that provide all the complex flavors, oily mouthfeel, and health benefits that people love about traditional seafood. We had a chat with Kianti Figler, CEO of Upstream Foods, to get more acquainted with the company’s mission and what she expects from being part of BII’s Venture Lab program.
What is the history behind the company?
I have a personal background in tissue engineering, using 3D-printing technology to create functional human tissues and organs for medical purposes. Even though it was exciting to work with this technology, I felt a strong need to address the climate crisis the world is currently facing. That is why I started thinking of ways to apply my technical knowledge to a sustainable application, which quickly led to cultured meat. While teaching a course at the university, I met one of my co-founders Eugene who shared my excitement for cultured meat. We started to explore and familiarize ourselves with the industry by talking to as many people as we could. One of those people was Kylie, our third co-founder, who already founded the company JellaTech and has a Ph.D. in marine cell line development. Her profile matched perfectly well with the company’s vision.
We could see that people in the industry started to realize that the actual taste of animal protein comes from the fat and there were a couple of start-ups focusing on meat and developing the fat for meat alternatives, but we didn’t see something similar in the seafood industry. Thus, we decided to embark on a journey to redefine seafood by farming cells rather than live animals.
What is the existing challenge that Upstream Foods is trying to solve?
In the seafood industry, you can identify two alarming trends. Firstly, we observe an increase in the world’s population and an increasing demand for seafood. Secondly, we have stagnating or even decreasing fishing yields and fish populations. Those two trends tell us that we urgently need to reduce our intake of seafood collectively. In order to entice consumers to do so, we need to provide people with a good alternative that does not compromise on taste, health benefits, texture, or sustainability. And that is why Upstream is providing consumers with seafood without a catch.
How do you differentiate from your competitors?
The global market is so big and diversified that there will be space for a variety of different solutions. There is room for plant-based alternatives, cell-based alternatives, fermentation-based and hybrid products. I think the uniqueness of our approach, using cell-based fats as a stepping stone towards a cell-based future, will allow us to reach scale a lot faster. We are using a small number of cells that have a big impact on the quality of the product. The faster we can reach scale, the faster we can make a serious impact!
How do you expect to benefit from the Venture Lab program?
I think BII’s Venture Lab program is unique due to its strong focus on mental health and team development. This will add a lot of value to Upstream Foods, and I think it is great that BII facilitates some safe spaces where you can discuss those things that are difficult and spark worries. Furthermore, BII is part of a great ecosystem and they ensure that we are surrounded by some of the best advisors to guide us on our entrepreneurial journey.
Where do you hope to be when finishing the program?
Our core focus right now is to develop our cell line since that is the basis of being able to scale our solution. After the Venture Lab program, that fundamental piece of the puzzle should be in place, on which we can then build. So, having a solid cell line is our way of de-risking our company.
How has the transition been from working in academia to being a CEO in an early-stage startup?
It’s a night and day difference. In academia, I always felt very far away from societal issues. In the start-up environment, you are constantly asking yourself how you can apply technologies or research directly in society. Being able to develop something concrete that is measurable and can create a real impact is something I truly treasure. The start-up life is also much more fast-paced and things move forward a lot quicker than in academia, which I also enjoy.
But at the same time, it can be challenging to be responsible for your team, and company strategy as well as raise sufficient funds, but you must learn on the job and grow together with the company.