Raleigh-based Pearlita Foods Innovating Alternative Seafood
As a girl growing up on the coasts of Denmark and Sweden, Nikita Michelsen treasured delicious seafood dishes made in her grandmother’s kitchen. Today, however, many of those ocean delicacies are becoming scarce due to overfishing, habitat loss, pollution, disease, acidification, and climate change.
“The state of the ocean has just kind of dwindled, and it’s quite contaminated these days,” Michelsen says. “Access to fresh and affordable seafood is difficult.”
The 30-year-old entrepreneur is on a mission to replicate saltwater treasures through her new alternative seafood company, Pearlita Foods.
The Raleigh-based company, founded in 2022, is developing sustainable, plant-based versions of seafood with plans to incorporate cell culture technology for enhanced taste and nutrition.
“We’re starting with shellfish,” says Michelsen, Pearlita’s founder and chief executive officer. “They’re probably the most threatened species.”
They are also the most lucrative. Shellfish fetch a much higher price by weight than beef, chicken, pork, and most other seafood.
The global market for shellfish was over $51 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach nearly $66 billion by 2030, according to a report by Verified Market Research, a global market intelligence consulting company. Fishing and farming meet only about 25% of the growing demand for shellfish, Michelsen says.
Five products ready for market
Pearlita has spent “months and months” experimenting with shellfish alternatives in its leased commercial kitchen at the Piedmont Food Processing Center in Hillsborough. Using seaweed, mushrooms, and natural flavorings, the company has developed five market-ready products: crab, shellfish pieces, shucked oysters, ceviche, and clam chowder.
The foods imitate the ocean taste and texture of shellfish but are gluten-free and pose no danger of shellfish allergies or illnesses such as vibriosis, an intestinal ailment caused by bacteria.
“There isn’t a lot of great tasting vegan or plant-based seafood on the market that doesn’t have sort of an off flavor,” Michelsen says. “Ours has no off flavor.”
Pearlita’s products also appeal to health-conscious consumers who read food labels.
“Our ingredients are very clean,” she says. “People don’t want lots of overly processed ingredients. We have a very clean label.”
Pearlita has been gathering feedback on its alternative seafood from chefs and diners at restaurant tastings on the east and west coasts.
“People are very eager to try it, which is very nice,” Michelsen says. “Everyone who tries it wants to purchase it.”
Pearlita has a wait list of about 500 chefs, restaurants, and diners wanting to sample or buy its products. In April the company had its first restaurant launch of oysters on the half shell ─ served in recycled, sterilized oyster shells ─ at Fern, a vegan restaurant in Charlotte.
Pearlita’s goal is to be supplying products to 10 restaurants in the state by the end of this year, Michelsen says.
Cell culture on the horizon
Eventually, Pearlita plans to incorporate cell culture, or cell agriculture, into its foods, starting with oysters. Each year Americans eat about 2 billion oysters, but wild oyster reefs have declined 85% globally and farmed oysters can’t keep pace with demand.
Cell-cultured oyster meat would introduce a new, sustainable supply of alternative seafood that also would help the 28% of vegans who struggle with nutrient deficiencies, Michelsen says. Cell culture would boost the protein and omega 3 fatty acid content of Pearlita’s oysters.
“We are having conversations with companies that can help us with that,” Michelsen says. The goal is to improve nutritional content to “exactly the same or better” than traditional seafood.
“We really want to utilize cells as a way to improve our products,” she says. “We see cells as the blueprint for nutrition and flavor.”
While several other companies throughout the world are developing cell cultured seafoods, as well as livestock meats, Pearlita is the first to apply the technology to oysters.
“We are new and kind of pioneering within this field,” Michelsen says.
The company has isolated novel and proprietary cells from seven oyster tissues, but “it takes a lot of time to scale up cells,” she says.
Leading that effort in the lab is Pearlita’s co-founder and head of science, Kassondra Hickey, who has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and nearly a decade of experience in cell-based therapies across the academic, clinical, and pharmaceutical sectors.
Michelsen, who was born in Denmark and also lived in Sweden, came to the United States for college and earned an undergraduate degree in communication from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2016. She returned to Denmark for a master’s degree in information science.
Before founding Pearlita Foods, she worked in communications and marketing roles at SynBioBeta, a California-based company that connects biological engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs, and investors involved in synthetic biology applications.
Her first foray as an entrepreneur has turned heads. Enterprising Women, a Cary-based national magazine for women business owners, will honor Michelsen with its 2023 Enterprising Women Innovator of the Year Award, to be presented at the Enterprising Women conference in Clearwater Beach, Fla., in late May.
Bullish on North Carolina
Michelsen chose Raleigh as the site for Pearlita for a litany of reasons.
“There’s a lot of focus on food here,” she says. “I really think it is the hub for alternative protein and for biotech and for new food innovation.”
The Research Triangle area also has major universities and a robust network of entrepreneurial support organizations.
“There are so many organizations that support young founders and smaller startups, and really want them to succeed,” she says. “That’s something we are extremely grateful for.”
Among them are the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, which provided Pearlita a business intern last year through its Industrial Internship Program.
Also, hiring talent and renting facilities in North Carolina is easier and more affordable than in California’s Bay Area, Michelsen says.
Finally, two of her siblings were living in Raleigh and highly recommended it. The green landscape and mild climate reminded them of Denmark.
Her brother, Kristoffer Michelsen, is a software developer at Google and part of the company’s cloud team. Her sister, Stephanie Michelsen, is the founder and chief executive officer of JellaTech, a Raleigh-based company that is developing non-animal-sourced collagen ─ an ingredient in many foods, beverages, medicines, and other products ─ using cell agriculture. Stephanie serves on Pearlita’s advisory board.
Seeking funds to scale up
Pearlita has raised about $400,000 to date from investors CULT Food Science, Big Idea Ventures, and Sustainable Food Ventures, as well as angel investors including East Carolina Angels.
The company also won a $5,000 cash award in a grant competition sponsored by xElle Ventures, a company that provides loans to women-led start-up companies.
Pearlita is seeking to raise $600,000 more in grants and investments. It will use that money to scale up production for more restaurants, develop new alternatives for scallops and octopus, accelerate its cell culture technology, and build a team to accomplish this work.
“We have a lot of demand, but we need to get to the next step in the process,” Michelsen says. “There are lots of long hours now.”