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Mote: Commercialising aquaculture

Mote Marine Laboratory, a non-profit research centre and aquarium, sold its sturgeon and caviar production operation to VC firm Southeast Venture Holdings last month. Here, Hayley Rutger, manager at Mote, talks about the commercial and investment potential in the sector.

Mote Marine Laboratory, a non-profit research centre and aquarium, sold its sturgeon and caviar production operation to venture capital firm Southeast Venture Holdings last month. Here, Hayley Rutger, manager at Mote, tells Agri Investor about the commercial and investment potential in the sector.

Was a private equity exit the original plan for the caviar business?
Yes. Our non-profit laboratory, which has invested in sustainable land-based aquaculture research and development for many years, created its sturgeon and caviar operation as a commercial demonstration programme.  This programme was designed to show how a high-value seafood item could be produced in an eco-friendly manner and be economically feasible at a commercial scale. It was designed in such a way that the commercial sector could easily adopt and carry it forward. While Mote is a non-profit, we work hard to transfer our technologies and discoveries to the commercial sector, supporting economies in Florida and beyond.

Does Mote plan to launch and sell other projects in this way?
Yes. We continually seek new ways to translate and transfer Mote science and technology to positively impact our community and provide a foundation for stimulating economic growth in Florida and beyond. This includes sustainable seafood farming operations such as our sturgeon and caviar project – the first business spin-off from Mote research – and other projects in many subject areas that have exciting potential for further development by businesses. For instance, Mote has developed many types of intellectual property, such as innovative methods for monitoring water quality and special instruments that detect harmful algae blooms like Florida red tide. As another example, we have a thriving Marine Biomedical Research Program that is uncovering potential sources of new cancer treatments from sharks, along with potential sources of new antibiotic compounds from stingrays. By sharing our discoveries and knowledge with the commercial sector, we are working to support economies while also finding new sources of funds to continue fueling the essential research at our non-profit lab.

What are the challenges of running an aquaculture project?

There are many challenges and opportunities to innovate with sustainable, recirculating aquaculture programs. For example, in creating and maintaining the sturgeon and caviar operation at Mote Aquaculture Park, we’ve had to develop excellent rearing systems that address the sturgeon’s needs and care for these fish 24-7, 365 days a year in a cost-effective and energy-efficient manner. In marketing the caviar and sturgeon, it has been important to balance ever-increasing expenses against the price point of products imported from overseas. We must manage these elements of the operation while continually pushing the envelope on sustainable technology, system design and operations. And of course, a commercial demonstration programme or business spin-off must maintain excellent customer support and strive for consistent distribution of high quality products, keeping in step with many local and national regulations and reporting requirements in this industry.

Balancing all these elements represents a challenge that Mote scientists are happy to accept as we continue to develop aquaculture operations and technology that can be adopted commercially.

Where is investment needed in the sector more widely?
Investing in sustainable aquaculture research and technology development is a key step toward enhancing seafood production in the US to meet the growing demand while reducing our dependence on imports. Investing in research on integrating aquaculture and agriculture (e.g. the fish-plant combinations in aquaponics) will diversify sustainable operations and help provide more secure revenue and consistent supplies of products for US consumers. Investment in public education and outreach can help people to learn why sustainable, domestic aquaculture is safe, secure and supportive of the natural environment.

What other food-related research projects are you involved in?
Mote is actively studying several fish species, such as the Florida pompano, to determine the potential for large-scale production of these species as food. In an exciting new development, we recently created a marine aquaponics prototype greenhouse, where we are raising red drum with sea vegetables. In this project, we are using wastewater from the red drum to raise sea purslane and saltwort, two salt-loving vegetables often found in European cuisine. The waste and used water are high in nutrients, which help fertilise the plants, while at the same time, the plants help clean the water so it can be reused.

Have you had any other dealings with private equity firms?
While the spin-off of Mote’s caviar and sturgeon operations marks the first commercialisation of Mote research and technology, we have discussed other opportunities with multiple commercial groups and investors. We continually seek new opportunities to transfer the world-class science from our 24 diverse research programs to the business community. As a non-profit dedicated to our oceans and the communities that depend on them, we value the opportunity to share what we’ve learned for the benefit of all.