Dominique Barnes and Michelle Wolf co-founded New Wave Foods, a food technology company in Silicon Valley, with the mission to create sustainable, healthy, and delicious seafood. They create seafood that does not have to be taken from the ocean or imported from overseas farms known to use slave labor. Their first product is a popcorn shrimp made entirely from plants.
The Good Food Institute’s Milena Esherick spoke with Dominique to find out what it takes to drive positive change in the seafood industry.
M: You hold a master’s in marine biodiversity and conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. How did your degree prepare you for your role as CEO of New Wave Foods?
D: My education helped me understand things from a holistic perspective, and it opened my eyes to the idea of using business as an opportunity for making positive change. In the past, I thought business was only for making money. But you can make a business that is profitable and benefits the planet.
M: Did you have an aha moment in graduate school that sparked your interest in becoming an entrepreneur for social good?
D: I was taking a class on algae, and at the same time the business school at UC San Diego ran a challenge on social entrepreneurship. I came up with the idea to teach schoolchildren about the wonders of algae through hands-on science and art. I didn’t win, but I got my feet wet, and I was able to take it to the next level and build a business aimed at inspiring a new generation of marine biologists.
M: What does your day-to-day work look like as CEO of New Wave Foods?
D: I juggle many things: business and brand development, marketing, identifying distributors and retailers, scaling production to meet demand, fundraising… My key focus is on getting our product to market.
M: What is the role of your co-founder, Michelle Wolf, in the company?
D: Michelle is the chief science officer. She focuses on product formulation and development. Her background is in materials science and engineering—understanding properties of different materials and how they interact. Michelle has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She understands the functional properties of plant ingredients, such as how certain foods combine at different temperatures.
M: How do you make shrimp from plants?
D: We use all plant-based ingredients to mimic the taste, texture, color, and nutritional profile of shrimp. We use soy for protein and red algae for flavor. Red algae are what shrimp eat in the wild, so they contribute to the flavor profile. We’re creating food out of food and using science to bring ingredients together.
M: How close are you to a finished product and wide distribution?
D: We are really close to a final product, and we’re collaborating with a number of food experts. We’ve created the perfect shrimp in the lab, but now we have to scale it for greater production. We are going to market first with popcorn shrimp. It’s pretty perfect, and popcorn shrimp is about one-third of the shrimp market. It looks really familiar to people. Our goal is to launch this product in six to 12 months. We’ll do a soft launch in California first. We’re also working on a cocktail shrimp.
M: How much will New Wave Foods' shrimp cost?
D: We will be competitive with other vegetarian seafood companies. Our goal is to be cheaper than seafood from the ocean.
M: Google currently buys your product and serves it in Google cafes for employees. What has been the reception?
D: It’s going very well! We’ve received great feedback. They’re really excited about the product and want to support it.
M: Why is Google interested in your product?
D: They care about sustainability and are actively trying to reduce the shrimp they serve because of the environmental issues and concerns about human slavery. They wanted a plant-based shrimp, but they couldn’t find a good product until they found New Wave Foods. More and more companies are concerned about the food they serve.
M: Can you say more about the issue of human slavery in shrimp farming?
D: The United States imports about 90 percent of shrimp from farms in Asia where people are forced into slavery. They work 14-hour days and have no money or resources to be able to leave. President Obama passed a ban on companies importing from farms that are known to use human slaves, but all shrimp from one bag of shrimp are not from the same farm. It’s very difficult to trace the origins of shrimp.
M: What are the environmental consequences of taking shrimp from the ocean?
D: The rate of seafood consumption is far more than the ocean can supply. This is why we are seeing an increase in fish farming. We can’t pull out of the ocean what we need. We are exploiting and depleting the world’s oceans.
To learn about early-stage food technology companies like New Wave Foods or to start your own good food company, visit GFI’s website for information and resources.