TalentView: Sylvia Wulf

Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty Technologies
Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty Technologies

Talking to Sylvia Wulf, CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, about aquaculture is… 'different'. Hers is not the story of someone always interested in the sea or fish; she came to the industry after her previous job required her to select suppliers that ensured the sustainability of their seafood products. This led her to understand not only the business of aquaculture but also why it is so essential for the planet's future. "I became familiar with aquaculture, and I think it's fascinating", she explains.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines fascination as "a powerful attraction that makes something very interesting". Seen in this light, some might think Sylvia is a convert, but she is a believer. She believes "in the promise of aquaculture" and its critical role as we move forward. She is convinced that her company can do much to feed the world by transforming aquaculture with technology. She wants to achieve this by attracting the right talent, creating a career for people and ensuring animal welfare. Sylvia Wulf is not a preacher, nor does she even try to be. Her conviction and commitment are such that, inevitably, they are contagious. Listening to her is inspiring and makes us want to join her to fulfill the promise of aquaculture.

I believe that aquaculture will play a critical role in meeting protein demand globally as we move forward. In my previous position at U.S. Foods, I was responsible for seafood procurement. We were conducting vendor selection and pursuing BAP [Best Aquaculture Practices] approvals for all of our vendors. We wanted them to be four-star BAP approved because we thought that matters regarding sustainability. So that was my first experience in aquaculture: understanding what it took, why it was necessary, and why it needed to be foundational to selecting our supplier partners.

What I saw with AquaBounty is another method of farming that can play a critical role in providing a sustainable, nutritious protein to consumers. As we think about taking pressure off the oceans and some of the challenges that net-pen contributors have, including climate change, microplastics, all of that, we need another method of farming on land. We think that the combination of net-pen farming, ocean net-pen farming, and land-based farming will be able to meet the increasing demand, in our case, for salmon.

At AquaBounty Technologies, you have two business lines. You provide non-genetically engineered and genetically engineered eggs, and you have Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS) production farms. What are your prospects now that your first large-scale farm is already under construction? Will you maintain both lines?

We will maintain both lines since these two components are synergistic and create a competitive point of difference for us. We operate farms because we manage recirculating aquaculture systems well. The water quality, the biology of the fish and biofiltration are what make our farms successful.

Our deep understanding of biotechnology and information digital technology are fundamental to everything we do. It isn't just genetic engineering. We look at gene editing and selective breeding using advanced genetic tools to improve our non-transgenic and transgenic stock.

What makes your salmon different from others?

The genetic engineering on our salmon took place 30 years ago. Scientists were trying to find a way to protect the salmon from extreme climatic conditions. One Chinook gene was inserted into the Atlantic salmon's genetic structure. That gene enables the salmon to eat consistently so it grows faster during its early, vulnerable stages. It doesn't grow larger, it grows faster. Our salmon are also highly efficient in the way that they turn their feed into biomass. They consume less feed to get to the same weight, and they reach that weight faster. We are creating a healthy protein using fewer resources. Our fish are designed to thrive in a RAS farming environment.

AquaBounty Atlantic salmon viewed through grow-out tank porthole at Albany Farm. Photo: AquaBounty Technologies.
And if we talk about consumers, how is this new product being sold to them? Do they trust that it is a safe product, or does the fact that it is genetically modified make them wary?

We've done extensive consumer research, and once we share our story with consumers, they are fine with our product. They want to know if it's affordable, accessible and whether it tastes good, which we can confirm on all fronts.

Consumers are becoming more aware and accepting of genetic modification. They understand that genetic engineering is being used to solve a lot of our global hunger issues, including the need for more crop production, drought, resistance to pests to produce more food with less land and less water. We do know that there's a very vocal minority out there that is anti-GMO, but they don't understand the facts and use misinformation. Consumers are getting wise to their tactics and recognize that biotechnology does address a lot of the hunger issues that we're seeing around the world.

In previous statements, you have commented that when planning a new RAS farm, the most important thing is to choose the right site, and then the design of the facility. You have also said that your new RAS farm in Pioneer (Ohio) will serve as a model for the aquaculture industry and for your continued expansion. Why are these two points so important? And what made you choose to locate in Pioneer in particular?

We went through an extensive site selection process with several criteria critical to the success of that facility. Water quality and quantity are two important requirements along with affordable power and receptivity to renewable energy. We also need access to quality labor, which means building relationships with universities and high schools. Lastly, we look at logistics for the site. Feed and oxygen need to be delivered in a timely manner, and, we need to serve our markets quickly. We narrowed it down to five sites and found Pioneer was an optimal location.

Concerning the design, we selected RAS technology firm Innovasea to modify the design of the Ohio farm. We've been operating two farms for quite a while, and we know what works, what doesn't, and we wanted to modify the Ohio farm design for more efficiency. We wanted to design a farm where the biofiltration, fish movement and management are optimal because we want to protect the fish. Innovasea has been very collaborative in the design of the facility, taking all of the know-how that we have from Canada and Indiana and incorporating that into the design of the Ohio farm.

It is commonly accepted that aquaculture has advantages over other industries when it comes to sustainability, but, if we are talking about RAS systems, what advantages do they have over farms in the sea?

There are a couple of advantages. The first is a biosecure environment to protect the fish. We want to have a positive environmental impact and the biosecurity also protects the environment because we have a state-of-the-art water and wastewater treatment facility attached to the farm and we recirculate 99 percent of the water. This guarantees that the water entering the facility is optimal for the fish, and the water that exits is as good or better than the water we pulled out of the ground.

We also look at turning the solid waste into fertilizer or potentially using it as renewable energy. The farm is located close to consumers resulting in a lower carbon footprint than a product that must be flown in or shipped from outside the U.S. We're developing baselines on our greenhouse gases to manage and reduce them. As you can see, we're very environmentally conscious in the design and operation of the farm.

Close-up of an AquaBounty Atlantic salmon. Photo: AquaBounty Technologies.
At AquaBounty you recently announced the appointment of Dr. Chris Beattie as chief scientific officer, of whom you said: "He will bring tremendous insight into the design and construction of our farm in Pioneer, Ohio". So, we understand that attracting the talent needed to continue to build it and make it bigger is a priority at the company. As CEO, how important is the human factor in the company?

Aquaculture will continue to change and will become more technical. We need to attract the right kind of talent to address environmental challenges and ensure that we provide a safe, secure environment for the fish. We are developing training and development programs that make this a promising career for people.

We love our Indiana and Canadian farms, because we work closely with educational and academic institutions, and we think the same thing will occur in Ohio. Nobody graduates with an aquaculture degree that applies to RAS farming. It involves biology and chemistry and training to be able to recognize the behavior of the fish to ensure that the salmon are healthy and thriving.

What challenges do you think AquaBounty will face in the coming years?

There are two challenges. The first is a high capital cost to build these farms. We are always looking at different materials as well as various operational methods to continue to bring the cost down while continuing to be more competitive in terms of fostering the salmon.

The second challenge is attracting the right talent. We will do this by sharing our purpose to feed the world by transforming aquaculture with technology. We believe that's the future and we think that will attract individuals who share our commitment.

And for yourself personally? What are your challenges?

Every day is an opportunity to do what I just described. I love working with our team, I believe in the promise of aquaculture and I think it will be a critical component of feeding the world. We must continue to look for ways to make our industry more environmentally responsible. That's why I want to be part of the industry, and why I want to be part of AquaBounty.

Sylvia Wulf holding a salmon. Photo: AquaBounty.

Before we end our talk, Sylvia Wulf's final words, by way of summary, are:

"I believe in aquaculture, and I think that AquaBounty is going to be a critical part of the aquaculture community moving forward. As an industry, we need to be receptive to new methods, new technologies, and new tools. I think we're a pioneer and can positively affect the industry".

We said it at the beginning, the CEO of AquaBounty Technologies is a believer and, as such hopes for a better future. At WeAreAquaculture, we also look forward to seeing that promise fulfilled.

About AquaBounty

Experts in land-based fish farming, AquaBounty Technologies, Inc. raises Atlantic salmon and provides it to nearby markets. The company's current operating land-based RAS farms are located in Indiana, United States, and Prince Edward Island, Canada, and there is one more on the way, its first large-scale farm being built in Pioneer, Ohio, U.S. "We believe we are a leader in aquaculture, leveraging decades of technology expertise to deliver game-changing solutions that address food insecurity and climate change issues while improving efficiency, sustainability, and profitability", the company states. As a result, its salmon are free of antibiotics and other contaminants and provide a solution resulting in a reduced carbon footprint and no risk of pollution to marine ecosystems.

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