Bluana Foods Founder Explains How He Created a Winning Vegan Fish

Coming from a family with a three-generation tradition in forest management in Bucovina, Florin Irimescu’s first career choice was a natural one. “Bukovina is the most forested region in Romania. People here have had access to the forestry school since the days of the Habsburg Empire, when Bucovina was a province,” he recalls. It was while he was in a managerial position in a forest district, managing 20,000 square meters of forest land, that he discovered the oldest trout fish farm in Romania. This was the inspiration for the next step in his career.

With the creation of VALEPUTNA, a brand of trout specialties, he embarked on a journey around food innovation. The latest milestone was the launch of a food tech startup tapping into the booming alternative protein and sushi markets. Bluana Foods manufactures vegan fish for sashimi, as an alternative to salmon or tuna, made from different protein sources including soy, pea and potato, using a molecular gastronomy approach.

Along with a unique product, Florin’s extensive entrepreneurial experience and willingness to lead the company through multiple startup programs recently earned Bluana the top Startup Investor Accelerator award from the Founder Institute in Barcelona.

In this interview, Florin shares the story of Bluana’s launch and product development, what he learned from participating in startup accelerators and competitions, and what’s next for the food tech industry. In the region.

The Recursive: Why did you decide to change your path from forest management and enter the food business as an entrepreneur?

Florin Irimescu, founder of Bluana Foods: I have always been inclined towards entrepreneurship. I was an intrapreneur at my old company, starting various projects. I had a quality system consulting company, a taxi company and a waffle company.

As the head of the trout farm, I was amazed by the craftsmanship that went into raising the trout, the purity of the water and the food. I was exposed to a fascinating world. At that time, I heard about the latest calls for European grants, one for fish farming and one for agrotourism. I seized these two opportunities.

I thought I had to bring this amazing smoked fish to market, as it was only available from local artisans. I got the opportunity from the fund, there was a possibility to make a factory to process it, let’s do it. So I started Vale Putna.

Six years after the launch, we have won six or seven international awards for taste and brand image. In the meantime, I also became a chef.

What made you want to become a chef?

I have always had a passion for experimentation and learning. I was totally involved in the development of trout products in the beginning, I worked with trout and I worked with talented people. And it felt like a natural step. So I trained as a French chef at the Escoffier gastronomic school.

What is the story and vision behind the launch of Bluana Foods?

Last year I was approached by a German company in Hamburg looking for vegan fish. I thought I could do it. Well, the product was awful at first.

Another opportunity came in the form of the Black Sea Climate Accelerator, which was looking for early-stage startups. To my amazement, I was selected in the final and then in the cohort. We also received a grant, which we had to spend in two months to make an MVP. It was my ticket. It really put me in sprint mode. After two months, we got a completely different product.

Once we cracked the code, we wanted to build a real business and scale it. To learn how to build an international business, we went through the Founder Institute accelerator.

Bluana Foods Tasting

Tell us a bit about how you improved the product.

There are different parameters and different levels. We have studied the market extensively and understood how this can be done and improved. For example, what would improve the taste, mouthfeel or appearance. The look is particularly important. We have a process when we taste something: we see it, smell it, maybe touch it, and then by the time we taste it, we already have expectations. And if they are not fulfilled, part of the experiment fails. Two days ago we had a meeting at the Founders Institute and I got some samples. People were tasting and couldn’t tell they weren’t eating real salmon.

You recently won the Startup Investor Accelerator award from the Founder Institute in Barcelona and received a prize of $125,000. What differentiated Bluana in the competition? And what are your plans with the new capital?

In one track you had 25 investors, and in the other you had startups. We started with 64 startups and after tough and knockout sessions we ended up in the final. We were the only food company there. The majority were SaaS companies, some with traction already.

I think what differentiated us was the energy. It was like a military training camp. During these three months, they challenge you to see what you are made of. It’s tiring. We had a pretty good pitch. On stage, you learn to present and pitch with energy. Then, the overall economic model, as well as the cleanliness of the table of the ceilings also made the difference.

We have finished the product, now we will go to market and scale it.

How do you intend to distribute the product?

We will discuss the packaged goods market for customers and HoReCa, for the sushi industry, which in some countries is booming, but also the poke bowl industry, which is coming to Europe. There are already vegan sushi on the market, with vegetables, but no vegan fish.

We plan to found the company in Romania. But we also have a company in Poland, through the MIT program there, for which we won an award, a grant to develop the proof of concept. This will help us complete the overall R&D. The sushi industry in Warsaw is very developed. In the future, we want to move to the West.

What have you learned through the many startup programs you have participated in?

It’s a numbers game, you have to apply and qualify. But you also have to become selective after a while, to choose those that are most relevant to you. You probably need a network and mentors, and maybe some financial incentives in the beginning. But you have to be careful with equity and valuation because it’s a long road with many milestones. In startups, it is good to aim for the break-even point or profit point as soon as possible. But until then, you have to develop the product and go to market.

What trends have you noticed while investing in the food sector?

Food technology is included in the life sciences investment line. It’s quite new in this part of Europe. In Bulgaria, there are more food tech startups, such as Brain Foods and Cupffee, and more VCs interested in food tech than in Romania. We also have a committed investor from Bulgaria who we could include in this round. We may have a branch there in the future.

In Israel, food tech is booming, they have around 400 food tech startups and 70 that specialize in the alternative protein space. They have many innovations such as 3D printing, algae cultivation and protein extraction.

Overall, interest in the sector continues to grow among venture capital funds. Value chains dedicated to proteins and other food innovations are beginning to emerge. Moreover, the new startup accelerator programs already demand an environmental and social impact. Already you cannot attend a presentation without indicating which SDGs you are tackling.

Where do you see the greatest need for investment in Romania with regard to the agri-food sector? What should we prioritize?

We are an agricultural country. We are the second largest soy producer in Europe and we do not extract soy protein. It’s a lost opportunity.

We need to start extracting protein from all we can because the meat protein alternatives industry is only going to continue to grow. Proteins can be extracted from soybeans, but also from sunflowers and even potatoes.

We can also be interested in microalgae and macroalgae. We envision this area, you can develop it in the lab, but the technology at this point is not very scalable.

We can do more than sell grains and other products to other countries so they can extract protein. We can do it here.

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