e360 digest

Fish 2.0: A Contest Seeks to Foster
A More Sustainable Seafood Industry

By Lee van der Voo

25 November 2013

Think of it as a live version of Shark Tank, the U.S. primetime TV favorite in which entrepreneurs pitch their fledgling companies to investors.

Twenty pioneers in the sustainable seafood business climbed a stage at Stanford University earlier this month, and by the time they finished wooing the judges, the aptly named Fish 2.0 had schooled the audience in salmon-egg cryogenics, aquaponic gardens, and a large-scale aquaculture farm in South Dakota.

A business competition at heart, Fish 2.0 sought to combine entrepreneurs and investors from both Wall Street and philanthropic circles to spur innovation in the tradition-bound seafood industry. Investors have been wary of the often-opaque seafood business, while entrepreneurs hoping to change the way the U.S. catches, distributes, and markets fish have had difficulty accessing capital.

Fish 2.0 — the brainchild of Monica Jain, the seafood-savvy executive director of California-based Manta Consulting — was designed to bridge that capital gap, breaking down obstacles between entrepreneurs and investors who shared an eagerness for change but who lacked the necessary contacts, knowledge, or skills to alter the course of the seafood industry.

Contestants headed home with more than $75,000 in prize money. Blue Sea Labs, a San-Francisco-based company that combines e-commerce with a community-supported agriculture ethos, won the top prize of $40,000 to expand direct sales of wild fish to consumers under the brand I Love Blue Sea. But even more important than the cash prizes, Jain said, was the networking, brainstorming, and deal-making that occurred offstage.

Competitors built proposals around everything from converting waste at fish processing plants into dog treats to developing software that traces seafood from the oceans to consumers. A venture from Hawaii sought to expand its network of aquaponic growers — who raise fish and vegetables together in specially designed backyard tanks — into the developing world. Another proposal aimed to create a data system to track wild catches in real time for fisheries managers, enabling them to hold the line on harvests.

Fish 2.0 was the product of more than a year of collaboration between Jain, her colleagues at Manta, and experts from advocacy organizations, finance, and other sectors. Sponsored by 12 foundations involved in ocean conservation, the contest solicited entrants through last March. Three phases of competition whittled an original 83 contestants down to 10 finalists and 11 semi-finalists, and all entrants had the opportunity to meet with investors and professionals for advice. That boosted the number of deals investors could entertain.

David Tze, manager of the aquaculture venture capital fund, Aquacopia, and managing director of Oceanis Partners, a global private equity firm involved in seafood and aquaculture, said investing in food and agriculture is still relatively new and viewed as specialized, fish even more so. He called Fish 2.0 "an important milestone," the first event of its kind to bring the foundation world and investors together to take a productive look at seafood businesses.

Meredith Lopuch, program officer for marine conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, said that one of the organization's aims in sponsoring Fish 2.0 was to explore whether conservation goals could be furthered by an infusion of outside capital.

"We were really looking at it as an opportunity to start to bring other kinds of investors to the table to have a conversation about fisheries and oceans," said Lopuch.

Lee van der Voo is an independent journalist based in Portland, Oregon, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, High Country News, TheAtlantic.com, and Slate, among others. She is currently an Alicia Patterson fellow reporting on the economics and social inequities of modern fishing.

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