Chicago’s Aqua Cultured Foods has developed the first whole-muscle cut sushi-quality seafood through microbial fermentation. The young company, founded only in 2020, closed an oversubscribed round in October in the largest ever pre-seed round in alt-seafood, and one of the largest ever in fermented proteins.
Bob Schultz is the company’s new lead scientist. Schultz comes to Aqua Cultured Foods from SIMULATE, an early-stage biotechnology company, where he was lead food engineer and product lead for the NUGGS plant-based chicken nugget, the fastest-growing alternative chicken nugget on the planet.
It was time to catch up with Bob and get his insights into the wonderful world of fermentation.
Congratulations on joining Aqua Cultured! What made you want to be part of this team and bring this product to life?
I’ve always been enamored with fermentation and its ability to create interesting flavors and textures. Additionally, the rise of alternative proteins has been solely focused on beef, then chicken, with all seafood left on the backburner. Joining Aqua Cultured allowed me to use my interests and skill set to bring about meaningful change to our oceans and eating habits.
“I’ve always been enamored with fermentation and its ability to create interesting flavors and textures”
What’s a regular day in the lab for you? What sorts of things are you working on?
My day-to-day is centered around optimizing our fermentation to increase the growth rate of our protein. That ends up centering around trying different types and concentrations of nutrients to make our microbes healthy and grow. I’m also taking experiments that have worked and scaling them up to see if there is a noticeable difference in texture and growth rate at a larger size. Thankfully, after a few hundred experiments we’re getting some positive results.
How is Aqua different from other alt-seafood products?
Most alternatives have been taking the approach of using commodity plant protein isolates and making them into fish sticks. There’s a space for this, of course, but this isn’t moving the needle in offsetting how most people enjoy eating seafood – filets, sushi, seafood stews, etc. What excites me about Aqua’s product platform is that it’s a fermentation-derived product that can replicate many of these with different culture media or processing techniques.
Why have you focused on fermentation in your education and career?
Fermentation has felt like this undiscussed part of many facets of modern life. Detergents, flavors, colors, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, gut health products and so much more is derived from fermentation. I don’t think I’ve focused on it because there are so many different ways to enter into fermentation, I dove into the food niche that’s getting more attention recently. I think that using biological processes to solve large systematic issues in climate change, pollution and hunger is going to be paramount.
How has your approach to product development changed from plant-based products to fermentation?
SIMULATE set a high bar for success in product development, and that was useful in making NUGGS successful. My team and I ran initial experiments to get an idea of what aspects might make the texture or flavor better. We would then use experimental design to deduce what factors were most important and continue to iterate until we could make a product excellent on the bench that scaled to manufacturing. This is the same approach I’m taking in growing our product at Aqua: casting a wide net of nutrients and then analyzing which ones are making the largest impact.
Other than Aqua, what else excites you right now in food science? What technologies or companies do you think will be big successes?
There are many companies I keep track of that are doing something interesting. I like the non-alcoholic space and small producers like Unified Ferments, Muri Drinks and Ama Brewery are taking flavor-forward approaches that are fascinating. I also find Chunk Foods, Better Meat Co., Meati and Atlast are upcoming juggernauts in the alt-protein space that are using fermentation in interesting ways.
What inspired you to study and get involved in food tech?
I initially wanted to study medicine because I was interested to learn how we could live healthier lives. However, while I was cooking in my own kitchen and started to learn more about nutrition, I realized that what you eat and what’s available for someone to eat has drastic impacts on having a healthier life. I wanted to study food science to be able to make products that people can enjoy and give them the possibility of living healthier lives. Not everyone has the luxury of time to cook or access whole food ingredients, and many people only eat consumer packaged foods, so how could I make the future of these products better? This was my inspiration and is still what motivates me in the work that I do.
“I wanted to study food science to be able to make products that people can enjoy and give them the possibility of living healthier lives”
What advice do you have for young food scientists, or for those interested in getting into this particular industry?
I would tell young food scientists to get lost in cuisine first, not just the science. Chefs and cooks are the cutting edge of cuisine, so pick up a cookbook and don’t worry about the scale or the chemical and physical phenomena happening. Food is as much a social, cultural and psychological experiment as it is a scientific one. From there, you can start harnessing it into the scientific method and breaking it down, but don’t lose the human aspect of the products you’re creating.
Where do you see the alt-protein space going over the next 10 years?
I’m curious to see how the cell-based companies start to develop once they’re given the green light in regulation. From there, I’m curious about how consumers start to interact with these products, because I think that will unlock the possibility of blending the three separate pillars of alt-protein: plant-based, fermentation, and cell-based. There have been plant-based and fermentation products for a long time and recently we, as an industry, have seen an explosion of data as to what consumers like and dislike.
Consumers’ experience with fermentation is allowing Aqua to create novel products that may not have been accepted 10 years ago. The industry has changed suddenly to the extent that we can’t develop products fast enough. Cell-based is still a big unknown, though that might allow for a new paradigm in food products that I’m excited to see unfold.