A faux-shrimp po boy, using New Wave Foods’ first commercial product. NEW WAVE FOODS
When Carnegie Mellon engineering graduate Michelle Wolf decided in 2015 to start a company to commercialize shrimpless shrimp made from seaweed, venture-backed alternative meat brands were barely selling in restaurants and grocery stores.
It ended up taking six years, backing from America’s largest meatpacker, Tyson Foods, and an $18 million series A for Wolf’s startup, New Wave Foods, to develop a product ready to manufacture at scale. The startup’s first commercial-ready product is now rolling out across the nation through restaurants and other food service distribution, where 80% of all shrimp is consumed in America.
New Wave is one of the first faux-shrimp suppliers attempting to take the lead among a swell of next-generation alternative brands backed by venture capital and other private investors. There are dozens of startups tackling the development and sale of alternative seafood, including Good Catch and Omnifoods’ OmniSeafood.
About $500 million of $10 billion in total alternative protein funding since 2015 has gone towards seafood-focused startups, according to Pitchbook. So far in 2021, the vegan seafood sector has secured close to $150 million in capital, up from more than $120 million total in 2020. New Wave has nabbed close to $30 million in total funding.
But sales of alternative protein products in the U.S are still tiny overall and make up less than 1% of total meat purchases. In terms of seafood sales, it’s even less than that. Publicly traded Beyond Meat, with more than $400 million in annual sales, so far has the largest footprint and has hinted that it could acquire a plant-based seafood brand in the future. Impossible Foods has also said it is developing fish alternatives.
But recreating the snap and bite of a shrimp, fish and other shellfish is difficult to produce, especially at scale—far more than it is to create ground-beef-like crumbles with added flavors through extrusion machinery that has been used in food factories for decades. New Wave uses seaweed-derived ingredients, in addition to mung bean protein and other engineered flavors, part of a proprietary formula about which the startup doesn’t disclose much.
Wolf, who earned a spot on the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 list in food, still stands out, though there’s a lot of room for improvement. What is now hitting menus will continue to be fine-tuned back at the lab, but Wolf and the rest of the team now believe consumers are ready to taste New Wave’s creation. Says Wolf, who is now CTO: “No one was looking at seafood.”