Can plant-based seafood replace the real thing? This startup thinks so 

sushi
Plant-based “tuna” is used to make Impact Food’s sushi. Photo: Impact Food.

Recreating the deliciousness of sushi using plants is no easy task. But Impact Food’s founders think they’ve found a way to do it.

Co-founded by Kelly Pan, BS 22, Adrian Miranda, BA 21 (molecular cell biology), and double-bear Stephanie Claudino Daffara, BA 18, (computer science), MS 20, (electrical engineering & computer science) Impact Food aims to make plant-based seafood. Pan leads the team’s strategy and business development, Daffara handles market research and design, and Miranda manages product research and development. Haas News recently interviewed the team, who met last spring in a course taught by Ricardo San Martin, director of The Sutardja Center’s Alt: Meat Lab at UC Berkeley.

What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)? 

We reimagine sustainable food systems through delicious and nutritious plant-based seafood.

Where did the idea for Impact Food come from?

Pan: Our current animal-based food system is not sustainable for the environment, animals, or humans. There’s a lot of contamination in our industrial systems—heavy metals found in wild-caught fish and farm-raised fish often contain antibiotics and contaminants. Approximately 90% of fish are also at risk of becoming extinct and less than 3% of the Bluefin tuna population are left in our oceans. We realized that we had to take action to make a positive impact on our food systems. 

My team and I researched alternative meats and found a few plant-based alternatives like the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, and Just Egg, but there weren’t many options in the seafood space. So we focused our efforts on seafood. We’re currently working on our first product, a plant-based raw tuna.

We developed our first edible prototype at the end of 2020. I can’t share our secret sauce, but we’re using plant-based ingredients to create our raw tuna. Eventually, we want to develop other products like scallops and calamari.

Portraits of two women and one man.
Impact food was co-founded by Kelly Pan, BS 22 (left); Stephanie Claudino Daffara, BA 18, EECS 20 (top right); and Adrian Miranda, BA 21.

How did you know which plants worked best to replicate raw tuna?

Miranda: We’ve discovered that certain plant starches and proteins have the ability to form stable gels that can mimic the jelly-like texture of raw seafood products. 

How does Impact Food solve the problem in a new or different way?

Pan: Our team has created a new technology to make plant-based seafood, using existing food science principles in novel, innovative ways. After thoroughly studying tuna, we carefully selected plant-based ingredients to replicate the subtle ocean flavor, nutrient-rich protein, and melt-in-your-mouth sensation of fleshy tuna meat. Our technology can also be adapted to other seafood products.

What have been the biggest challenges for you so far? 

Miranda: The biggest challenge for us has been perfecting our product. Replicating the flaky and delicate texture of raw tuna as well as its aroma using plant-derived ingredients is something that has never been done before. It’s been a lot of trial and error. 

Daffara: Convincing and educating people about the health dangers of eating animal-based diets is difficult. While I don’t think everyone has to become vegan, I do believe animal consumption should be less frequent and less excessive to allow oceans to recover, forests to strengthen, and animal species to replenish.

Pan: We’re all in different geographic locations, which makes it difficult to test the product. Adrian and I are currently in southern California, while Stephanie is in San Francisco. Adrian has set up a home lab to make our plant-based tuna, but he’s the only one who’s testing the tuna. Another hurdle for us will be getting our product out to restaurants under COVID restrictions.

Miranda set up a lab in his home to create plant-based tuna.

Who’s sampled your tuna and what’s been the feedback so far?

Miranda: We’ve done pilot taste tests with friends, family, and one sushi restaurant. Many admire the appearance and mouthfeel that our tuna product has as well as its nutritional benefits like omega-3 fats and protein. Our feedback has been positive among sushi chefs and close friends, but we strive to improve our product until it’s an exact match or tastes better than animal-based tuna.

Has Haas helped with resources for your startup?

Pan:
The Haas network has been incredible. We learned about the Berkeley Haas Startup Seed Funding and competitions like the Hult Prize through the Haas network. Rhonda Shrader, who heads up Berkeley Haas’ Entrepreneurship Program, recommended that we look into Venture Well, a STEM grant program. I think just having the Berkeley email address opens doors for us because there have been so many people wanting to help us. 

Kurt Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class taught me how to run a business and Prof. Ricardo San Martin’s Alternative Meat Challenge Lab inspired all of us to create this startup. So far we’ve won the Sebastiani Food Venture award and we were granted $5,000 in seed funding from the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program; we won the People’s Choice Award at the bi-annual Collider Cup and we won UC Berkeley’s Hult Prize competition. We’ll be participating in the regional Hult Prize competition in April.

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