A not-insignificant portion of the salmon we eat is caught wild from the ocean. That’s very different from how we typically farm, say, a cow.
This realization inspired Tony Chen to start a business.
“It’s odd that we continue to fish wild fisheries when we don’t really go out hunting for any of the land animals that we eat,” Chen told Built In. “The oceans are a world of opportunity, and we need to be doing these practices a lot more sustainably.”
In 2018, Chen co-founded Manolin, a startup located in Denver that tracks, measures and predicts outcomes for wild fish farmers. Since launch, Chen said the aquaculture company has snagged six Norwegian farmer customers and manages roughly $200 million worth of salmon. As global demand for fish grows, and the oceans stock of wild salmon declines, Manolin aims to help wild fisheries make smarter business decisions while lessening their environmental impact.
“Aquaculture itself is a fairly old practice. But we never really figured it out in the ocean,” Chen said. “Species were hard to manage, reproduction was hard to manage and, when you deal with coastal ecosystems you get hurricanes or other increment weather, it's just a lot riskier. But that’s quickly changing.”
Since salmon farming became popularized in Norway about 40 years ago, business has boomed for these entrepreneurs, Chen said. Last year, three of the youngest billionaires in the world were heirs to Norwegian salmon fortunes. The success of the industry has led to sales fatigue among entrepreneurs.
“It’s also very hard to replace gut intuition,” Chen said.
To drive relationships, Manolin has split its five-person team between Denver and Bergen, Norway, which is one of the largest salmon distributors in the world. Its Norwegian team has camped up and down the country’s coast, Chen said, networking with local farmers, policymakers, researchers and anyone willing to talk fish.
In 2018, the company focused its initial project on alerting farmers of nearby sea lice outbreaks. Today, Manolin’s platform has expanded to consolidate and crunch data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Norwegian government, individual farmers and more to help its customers gain insights into their fish and farm health. Because data science has not been broadly applied to the ocean farm industry before, Chen said he hopes Manolin’s findings help inform broader public policy decisions around the matter.
“The more data that’s being produced and generated by these farms, the more that we add to the system, the more value we can get out of it at the end of the day,” Chen said.