Passion, love, interest… these are three words that slip into the conversation when you ask Thue Holm why aquaculture. But, let’s be honest, these are not words that are alien to us when we ask other people in the industry the same question. However, when he tells it, an idea of a perfect recipe forms in our minds, a sort of master formula, the kind that makes three good ingredients become something much better, nearly irresistible.
Passion for fish, love for food, and interest in business are the three main ingredients that Thue has been able to simmer throughout his career, but they are not the only ones. Sustainability, innovation and technology are also important elements of a recipe that is seasoned by continuous learning, travel – especially if there was a fish farm to visit along the way – and a liking of teamwork. He may still be checking the seasoning of that recipe, but when Atlantic Sapphire‘s CTO and co-founder hits the right spot, he’s sure to keep on cooking. He knows he has time, and Thue Holm doesn’t seem to be the type to settle for just one dish on the menu.
You already studied it at university, but why aquaculture?
Why aquaculture? It’s basically because I’ve always been involved from the early life with fish. I have always had aquariums as a kid, I was fishing, and so on. So, I had a passion for fish, and I don’t know where that came from, as long as I can remember. And then, I always liked cooking, I always liked food. Food has always interested me a lot, I had ducks and chickens in the garden and stuff like that. So, food and fish were always very interesting. And, when I started working besides school and so on, I really got interested in business, how people do a business. So, I was always interested to be in the business side of the world but going to business. Therefore, it was natural for me to go into aquaculture because that’s a big business where you work with the things I really like.
And so, when I had to choose a university, it was natural for me to pick Roskilde University, in Denmark. They don’t have an aquaculture line, but they have a different university type, where you half of the time write projects – every semester you do a bachelor’s project -, and then half the time you have classes. So, you kind of do bachelor’s degrees every semester, but you do it in groups, and I always like to work with people, so I thought that was very intriguing and would be able to work with other people, and then, of course, I tried to convince people to do projects on aquaculture to start with that.
The first semester we didn’t choose our own groups, but after that, I found a couple of guys that are also in aquaculture today, and then we started working on aquaculture projects and we worked with everything from the structure of the business to… We went to Indonesia, Bali, and looked at aquaculture parks and shrimp farming. We did it on shrimp farming. We did it on a couple of parts, so we worked on a lot of different things. And I was an exchange student in Peru when I was 15, so I speak Spanish, and then a job opportunity for Billund Aquaculture in Chile came up and I took that after my bachelor’s. That’s why I never went on to read to take my master’s. I got it by the business.
On the Atlantic Sapphire website, you speak about “feeding the future”, “seafood that’s safe for our seas” or “protein that’s better for our planet”. All these statements are related to sustainability, is this the way you understood the aquaculture industry?
Yes. The reason I wanted to do the land-based, was because I saw some of the problems in the sea, in Chile, that led up to the disease crisis. And this crisis was just a small drop in the ocean of what were the fundamental problems of farming in cages in Chile. So yes, for me, it’s about sustainability and economics. In many sustainability things, economics actually goes hand in hand with sustainability, because using less resources is sustainable. And if you do something with less resources, you’re also doing something that makes it economically sense. So, I think it goes very much in hand in relation with being efficient, because we need to be efficient to feed the world.
Of course, we are still learning in land-based and it still has hiccups. We’re still learning and improving. We had a lot of issues over the years, but I also think that one of the things we’re talking a lot about is the early stages, where the net cage farming was in the 90s, we have 30 years of catching up to do. And we are only a few players, and more and more coming into the space, and it’s probably also going to be very few players coming in now because of the economical crisis and everything that’s going on in the world right now. But that’s the swings and turns of the economical world and the business.
But you also see in the media that the mortalities in the sea in Norway are as high as they’ve ever been, and they keep struggling with the fundamental problems they have in the sea. And, I think we have a good answer to that. We just need to get there.
Also, when you see protein that’s better for the planet, it has do to with the high quality of Bluehouse Salmon (their brand). We don’t need to use antibiotics or any medicines since our fish are not exposed to any diseases that are present in the wild. Our water source from the Floridan aquifers ensures that.
You also say that “blue is the new green”. What is behind the ‘Bluehouse concept’ you work within your farms?
We call it a Bluehouse because it’s easy to communicate. When we come to talk about this, all the people know which is a greenhouse. If you grow tomatoes, throw them on an open field, but in some places, you grow tomatoes in a greenhouse to be able to grow all year round. So basically, we are just explaining the technology and saying, what we are enabling here is that we are doing the same thing as a greenhouse does. It’s just a contained environment for fish, and what goes into it are many things. It’s the ‘Bluehouse system’, which is the RAS system, but it’s also the technologies, it’s the know-how, it’s all of this. We just use it as a general concept for what we are doing, and it is just a word that does very easy to explain to people what we do. So, it’s just a play of words on greenhouse compared to Bluehouse, because then it leads to people thinking down the right alley of what is it we actually do.
In this concept, salmon welfare is a key point. Animal welfare is at the center of the aquaculture debate. How important is it and how do you see it evolving in the future?
I think animal welfare is very important, already now and even more in the future. People don’t like to see animals suffer in any shape or form. And we are even seeing people stopping eating meat, both from sustainable and from animal welfare, because they don’t want to have to deal with animals that have been bred in masses and have been treated terribly.
We see tendencies in the food market, of people here in Denmark, for example, where I’m right now, you see chickens that they’re not marketed on sustainability or anything else, they’re just marked they are slow growers, so they don’t get the problems with their legs and all of those things. And there’s a market for that, right? It has a marginal more cost, but people are ready to pay it because they know that then it’s not deformed animals that it’s just used to be grown as fast as possible.
So, when we look at that and the less suffering, and when we don’t have the parasites, and all of these things, such as viruses either, we, of course, have to focus on fast growth and efficiency. But it has to not come at the expense of the animal that’s for sure. And that’s of course bred into our company’s DNA.
Sustainability, innovation, technology… all are essential for the way you understand this business. However, some time ago you said that the biggest challenge for the seafood industry will be not just to find “talent and a skilled workforce”, but to attract them. Are we attractive yet?
I think there are two parts in that question. The one thing is that last point, “are we attractive yet now?”. I think that the traditional, or we also, industry, is very long working hours. You can’t count on some days. It’s live animals, it’s farming, and some people just can’t deal with that if you want a family, and you want these things. So, what we will need to do with time is, of course, try to get into a place where it’s more predictable, where it’s more interesting, and where it’s more to the modern life, but we are not there yet, it’s still very much a farming environment. Of course, we don’t have storms and all of these kinds of things, but there’s a lot in the RAS systems, how to build data, all kinds of things can happen, and, of course, we will have need people that will be on guard, but the general should be that people can work their normal hours, they can do all of this.
And the interesting thing about talent is that in the traditional workplace, you work with, let’s say an R&D team, or you do something like that. Where I think we can learn a lot – we are doing this very much in Atlantic Sapphire, also – for instance, we can learn a lot from Tesla, which doesn’t have an R&D team, everybody is, always innovating – suggesting ideas. You are always welcome to come with suggestions, execute projects, and if you want to put the hard hours to come and bring innovation forward, you’re more than welcome to. But it has to be your passion, it has to be your DNA to do it. And we encouraged it and, we need to have platforms and ways of communicating and working those good ideas can come, and passion can come from people, everywhere in the company. This innovation is so many things. It can be somebody in finance that sees ‘”why is going up this cost?” and going to some of the operators, discussing with them, trying to do something about it, and bring it to their managers and say ‘”hey, we found this way where we can save 10 cents per kilo”. It has to come from many places in the organization. And if you succeed to make a culture of innovation where it’s welcome from everybody, not just from the R&D department, you will have a much faster-moving company and a much more innovative company.
From your point of view, nowadays, what are the biggest challenges the industry will face in the coming years? Still people or something else?
If you talk about the industry as aquaculture, generally it’s, of course, the resources. Especially with the crisis we see now, the feed, it is the resources that we need to fund the fish, and that goes for the whole, so we need to be more efficient with the resources.
On our technology, we need to work on a lot of things. If you follow my LinkedIn, you can see that I’ve been talking a little bit about AI, for example, we can become more efficient with AI. I think we have a bridge towards avoiding diseases and all these kinds of things, and on land-based, we can do a lot.
Scale is a really big thing, the advantage for the big players in our space. We need to get to the sizable scale to get some of the cost advantages that they have. And that goes for all RAS farmers because they are all small within the industry, now.
And then, of course, we need to become much more efficient at building; average variable construction costs of these projects is going up and up and up and up everywhere around the world. And it’s also because people are learning, we’re learning, some things need to be done in another way, and so on.
We are in a kind of curve that goes like this [Thue points with his finger to an upward curved line and stops at the high point], and then, when we have found the model, we can start fine-tuning it downwards. And that’s really the point we are in now, that we’re seeing what we need to do and find to the systems, and now we can really start optimizing towards much lower investments per kilo produced per year. That’s the biggest challenge we have in going forward and that we can do a lot ourselves.
And what about your own future? What personal goals do you still have to achieve?
For me, it’s every day thinking about what we can do better and what are the things that we need to do to stay competitive and to become a really viable industry. And I think we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, we have so many things to do.
As we said at the beginning, Thue Holm is not going to be satisfied with just one dish on the menu. He’s going to keep tasting, seasoning, and adding salt to taste. Not for nothing, Atlantic Sapphire’s goal is not only to find seafood that’s safe for our seas or protein that’s better for our planet, but its ultimate ambition is “feeding the future” and for that, this fish, food, and business lover still has a lot of cooking to do.
About Atlantic Sapphire
Atlantic Sapphire is a pioneering land-raised salmon farming with a strong focus on R&D and innovation. They have been operating its innovation center in Denmark for ten years, from 2011 until the fire that harmed it in September 2021. In the United States’ facility at Homestead, Florida, they have completed Phase 1 construction, and they are currently constructing their Phase 2 expansion. Its trademark Bluehouse enables the Company to commercially scale up production in end markets close to the consumer. Their brand is Bluehouse Salmon.