Want a challenge? Try replicating the flavor and texture of shrimp with plant-based ingredients.
Not enough? OK, try getting restaurants interested in your new product in the middle of a pandemic that’s crushing the foodservice industry.
That’s what faced Michelle Wolf and the other founders of New Wave Foods as they developed and brought to market their analogue shrimp, based on seaweed and mung beans. The product is now rolling out to restaurants after being in development for five years.
New Wave is up to 15 full-time employees. It started national distribution earlier this year through foodservice supplier Dot Foods, after raising $18 million in Series A funding.
“New Wave was founded with this idea that we wanted to create something better for our oceans,” Wolf says. “In 2015 we worked on a few initial concepts and quickly found that shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States,” with annual per-capita consumption of 4.4 lbs. Shrimp also presents some problematic issues, both environmentally and in terms of the labor used to catch and process it.
Wolf’s own background is in engineering; she has a master’s degree in medical bioengineering from Carnegie Mellon University. Using IndieBio, a website run by venture capital firm SOSV, she teamed up with Dominique Barnes, an oceanographer who was passionate about the abuses of commercial fishing, to found New Wave Foods in 2015.
They found a master chef named Brad Barnes (no relation to Dominique) at the Culinary Institute of America. He bought ocean shrimp from around the world to determine the best kind to replicate. They then assembled a team composed of product developers, food scientists and academics who worked on the actual formulation – which took five years and $8 million in seed money to develop.
“We were able to recreate that balance, that snappiness, that shrimp have, then we combined that with mung bean protein for the protein content and some mouthfeel, and then rounded that out with things like sunflower oil and natural flavors to create the full shrimp experience,” Wolf says.
The formulation was ready for scaleup in the summer of 2020, and pilot runs took the rest of the year. The product was rolled out at the beginning of 2021.
Finding contract manufacturers had certain challenges, as it often does for a unique product. Wolf says it took two years to find the right partner. In some ways, contract manufacturers required almost the same persuasion as investors.
“You have to find someone who’s going to be interested in, first of all, the potential of your business, and also has the adaptability to do a little bit of R&D with you and be with you through some piloting,” she says.
Another challenge was maintaining the formulation’s secrecy. That was partly the motivation to have preliminary ingredient mixing done at one location, with the mixed ingredients shipped to another for final processing.
“Food is interesting because you have an ingredient label, so everyone can see, for good reason, what’s in the product. So we have to be a little creative on how we protect our [intellectual property],” she says.
Being committed to shrimp and other shellfish helped New Wave stand out among the many alternative protein startups clamoring for investors, Wolf says. The pandemic curtailed face-to-face meetings, forcing New Wave to make pitches over Zoom and send samples to people’s houses.
The pandemic may have created barriers to the product’s rollout to restaurants, but Wolf and the others at New Wave tried to take the long view.
“The foodservice industry wasn’t going to go anywhere,” she says. “Although they were inside, people want to go back to eating out.”
Shrimp is currently New Wave’s only product, but lobster and crab are possibilities for future products. Retail is another possibility, although “it’s a very expensive channel to get into,” Wolf says. One possibility is supplying analogue shrimp to processors as a component for frozen dinners or other products.