Plant-based seafood startup Legendary Vish is commercializing 3D printed vegan salmon filets with the goal of providing a healthier and tastier alternative to existing fish substitutes. The company will be teaming up with Dutch 3D printer manufacturer FELIXprinters to produce the complex appearance, texture, and color distribution that are characteristic of salmon fillets. This could be a big step forward for such a niche segment, especially at a time when many of the world’s fisheries are operating at unsustainable levels as they struggle to keep up with the increase of seafood consumption.
The launch of the 3D printed salmon was announced just months after Legendary Vish was founded by students that met while working together on a European Union (EU)-led project. In 2017, co-founders Robin Simsa, Theresa Rothenbücher, and Hakan Gürbüz were selected as Marie Curie Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) for the international consortium project Training4CRM , which seeks to develop cell-based regenerative medicine for neurodegenerative disorders using 3D printing technology. While exploring cell-based treatments, the team realized that similar techniques could be applied to 3D printed plant-based proteins. They then identified a gap in the seafood sector for more structured vegan-friendly fish-based products and began developing a plant-based alternative.
Simsa, the CEO of Legendary Vish, told 3DPrint.com that “the best way to have a meaningful impact with alternative proteins is if they can also recreate the culinary experience of high-value animal products, like steak or fish fillet. 3D printing methods are the most promising technologies to create this new generation of high-value alternative protein products, a market we believe will massively grow in the future. Our plan is to scale-up our production facility and sell our products via partner restaurants in different European cities first. To that end, we are developing a large part of the 3D printing technology ourselves, and the upscaling largely depends on the modular system which we are using.”
In addition to providing the nutrients required by vegetarians, Legendary Vish’s 3D printed fish doesn’t rely on traditional fishing methods and can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ocean depletion, and toxic water conditions, mainly from the use of antibiotics, a common necessity to aquaculture salmon in fish farms. In an attempt to tackle these environmental challenges, the co-founders of the Vienna-based startup were driven to create a new product that could replace fish using the extrusion-based 3D printing technique developed as part of the Training4CRM project.
As one of the three commercial partners of the consortium, FELIXprinters was tasked with developing and supplying a 3D printing platform that would be capable of creating the necessary cell arrays for regenerative medicine treatments. Originally designed by Gürbüz and launched in May 2020, the novel hybrid 3D bioprinter is capable of working for all types of bioprinting research as well as printing complex binders and proteins into plant-based fish alternatives. According to Legendary Vish, it was impossible to create seafood products with complex structures using traditional techniques, so they decided to rely on a technology they already knew had worked in the past.
FELIXprinters has established itself as a key player in the supply of mid-priced industrial additive manufacturing (AM) machines that are used throughout an array of industry sectors for challenging AM production applications. Still, the company decided to take on the challenge of developing its first bioprinter . The device was built upon the chassis of the FELIXprinters product line, which has been serving manufacturers for nine years and has a modular design which means it can be converted into a 3D printer very fast.
“The FELIX BIOprinter is appropriate for all types of bioprinting research and is equipped with strong motors that can extrude a range of different viscosity of materials which was invaluable when being used to simulate the look and feel of salmon,” said Wilgo Feliksdal, co-Founder of FELIXprinters. “The BIOprinter consists of an adaptable and flexible ecosystem to ensure that it can meet a wide range of researchers’ needs without generating unnecessary costs, and we are delighted that it has been at the core of the work undertaken at Legendary Vish.”
Bioprinting a fish filet that mimics all the qualities of real fish meat can be done thanks to the BIOprinter’s AM process, which allows the extrusion of a range of plant-based bioinks using different print heads. This helps reproduce the appearance of salmon filets, especially the distribution of orange and red meat tissue, as well as the white connective tissue and muscle fiber density.
“Imitating the flavor and aromas of fish were qualities already optimized by us (testers could not tell the difference in flavors in blind tests), but we knew that the next step had to deal with the texturization technology. Food 3D printing is a relatively new field, and a lot of the available components/modules of 3D printers were originally produced for classical polymer printing,” Simsa told 3DPrint.com. “Since there are different design requirements for food 3D printing, we needed to innovate and create new components that served our needs for plant protein texturization. This is an ongoing process, and we are collaborating with different academic and industrial partners to perfect our product. Right now, we are investigating different machine learning strategies in order to increase the reliability and efficacy of our production process.”
Simsa and his co-founders consider that the market for alternative proteins will continue to be a leading trend in the food sector for the next decades, and will gain a large part of the market share that currently animal products have. Although Legendary Vish’s marketing strategy currently focuses on environmental and health benefits, the next step will also include a price benefit. As plant-based meats evolve to become indistinguishable from animal meats, cheaper prices will drive the demand.
Even though we are unaware of how many years it could take for food trends to completely shift towards substitute fish products, Simsa said that the ongoing pandemic reminded people of the fragility of the food production system, particularly the susceptibility of the supply chain. He believes that localized, regional production methods will become more important in the future, and in that sense, 3D printing will enable shorter supply chains.
Leading environmental expert Jane Goodall has recently stressed that “if we carry on with business as usual , we’re going to destroy ourselves.” Her message comes amid a global health crisis which many scientists have linked to a blatant disregard and destruction of the environment, particularly the way we currently produce and consume food. Even global health organizations have called for governments to act urgently to change how food is produced to protect the planet. As companies begin to respond to the need for drastic changes in the food supply chain, 3D printed substitute meats and fish could become a model for many startups, leading to a scalable, competitive market that will someday completely disrupt the way we eat.