American Unagi, an aquaculture startup based in Thomaston, received a warm reception in Palo Alto this week after winning an audience-choice award at a conference focused on innovation in the seafood and aquaculture industries.
Sara Rademaker, the company’s founder, was one of 40 entrepreneurs from around the world that were selected during a competitive process to pitch at the Fish 2.0 conference, which is attended by investors who focus on the space.
The company harvests baby glass eels (known as elvers) and raises them in a custom-designed indoor aquaculture system until they’re market size. The main market for the mature eels are restaurants, and American Unagi counts notable Portland eateries Miyake, Fore Street and Hugo’s, among its customers.
Elvers are a delicacy in Asia, but are caught here in Maine. Most are shipped to Asia, where they’re raised in outdoor fish ponds until their market size. Rademaker’s goal is to keep more of that industry in Maine.
“In the elver industry, there’s a lot of uncertainty in those products that come back to the U.S., whether they’re from Maine’s fishery or some other eel fisheries around the world that are not as well managed as our own,” Rademaker tells Maine Startups Insider. “In bringing eel aquaculture to Maine, it adds value to our fishery, it brings jobs, but on the consumer end, it adds tracability to a product that doesn’t exist otherwise.”
At Fish 2.0, Rademaker did not win the top award in her track, but she did receive a large vote of confidence from attendees. The finalists who did not win one of eight major prizes were asked to pitch their businesses in 90 seconds. The audience, which consisted of about 250 investors, business leaders and government representatives, were then asked to vote for the company they most wanted to follow up with. American Unagi was the top vote-getter.
“It was great because that happened on the first day of the event,” Rademaker said. “It was great to get that exposure and that recognition early in the event.”
Rademaker, who is preparing to raise a seed round, said the caliber of the audience at Fish 2.0 was one of the driving factors for her to attend.
When asked if she felt she made good connections with potential investors, she responded with an emphatic “Yes!”
Sara has been growing her business out of the Darling Marine Center’s Aquaculture Business Incubator in Walpole. She wasn’t prepared to discuss sales or whether the company, which she founded in 2014 in her basement in Thomaston, was profitable yet. But she said American Unagi is now selling to customers throughout New England, and has received customer demand from outside the region that it can’t yet meet.
“We’ve got to expand to meet more customer needs,” she said. She declined to disclosed how much she’s looking to raise in her seed round.
American Unagi previously won the Emerging Ideas Award, and its $10,000 prize, at Gorham Savings Bank’s Launchpad startup pitch competition.