LocalCoho gets marquee investments from Rodger May, Per Heggelund

Auburn, New York, U.S.A.-based LocalCoho has received new funding from Peter Pan owner Rodger May and Per Heggelund, the former owner and operator of a land-based coho farm.

LocalCoho, formerly known as Finger Lakes Fish, is currently working in a 43,000-square-foot recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility in Auburn, New York. The company received USD 4.6 million (EUR 4.6 million) in funding in 2020 to expand its operations, with notable investors like Jim Murphy – president of indoor agriculture firm Grow Forward – and Bob Tobin, the former CEO of Ahold USA.

Since then, the company has eyed scaling up its land-based salmon RAS, and earlier this year the company named Michael Fabbro as its new CEO. It also announced that it received a USD 500,000 (EUR 506,534) grant from the state of New York to help commercialize its facilities.

Now, LocalCoho has announced that May and Heggelund have invested “significant new funding” in the form of a “multimillion-dollar strategic investment” in the company’s operations to help it increase its harvest capacity. The investment comes as online grocer FreshDirect is poised to begin selling LocalCoho salmon online in November, the company said.

Fabbro told SeafoodSource that the new funding will allow the company to initiate the final phase of its initial facility, which remains at pilot scale. In 2019, the Auburn facility became the first RAS coho salmon farm worldwide to achieve Best Aquaculture Practices certification.

“One of the things we’re going to do with this new funding from Rodger and Per, we have a capex project that we’re going to initiate now, which should be completed in the spring, which should allow us to increase our capacity at the farm,” Fabbro said. “Our future goal is to build a full-scale commercial farm, which would be a 2,000-ton capacity, site TBD.”

LocalCoho opened its first harvest at its pilot facility in 2019, and has since scaled up production. Fabbro said the full capacity of the project, when fully operational after the latest round of capex, will be 240 metric tons of head-on-gutted fish per year.

Former CEO Phil Gibson told SeafoodSource in 2020 the company was considering expanding in the U.S., with as many as 12 regional locations in mind, with the Auburn facility serving as a proof of concept.

Fabbro said the company still has expansion plans, and wants to establish farms in key regions with a focus on fresh, local salmon.

“It’s a regional growth strategy, that’s been the company plan since its founding,” he said.

Fabbro said in garnering investments from May and Heggelund, the company gained more than just money – it gained the experience of two industry veterans.

“We couldn’t have hand-picked two people with a more attractive resume and background than Roger and Per,” he said.

May, who also serves as the chief growth officer of Peter Pan Seafood in addition to his role as owner, has more than 40 years of experience in the seafood industry. May purchased Peter Pan from Maruha Nichiro in 2020, and the company currently has annual revenues of approximately USD 400 million (EUR 404 million).

May also has past experience with salmon farming. May owned American Gold – a 20-million pound salmon-farming operation now owned by Cooke Inc. May has also previously held ownership stakes in Mid-Pacific Fisheries, Smoki Foods, Northwest Fish, and Copper River Seafoods.

“Land-based aquaculture will play a major role in the future of American seafood,” May said. “LocalCoho is front and center of this emerging industry and its laser focus on quality and sustainability that is already yielding excellent results.”

Fabbro said he knew May through his previous work at New Zealand King Salmon, and after an initial conversation about a potential strategic investment, May introduced Heggelund to LocalCoho.

“I was not aware of Per’s background particularly with the coho species, so that was just an amazing find to be able to talk to him and tap into his expertise,” Fabbro said.

Heggelund is the former operator of SweetSpring, a freshwater land-based coho salmon farm in Washington state, and he pioneered the coho hatchery and breeding company AquaSeed, which is currently one of the primary egg suppliers to the U.S., Chile, and Japan.vHeeggelund has also served as a strategic advisor to the Global Seafood Alliance (GSA), and has been a presenter at GSA’s Goal Conference.

Fabbro said that the investments from two prominent seafood figures will help the company realize its expansion plans.

“Really, we couldn’t be more thrilled and excited about having Roger and Per as investors,” Fabbro said. “It’s more than just being investors, they’re really our counsel in a way. They have so much industry knowledge, so much experience, it’s really going to help us do things and be smart about how we grow.”

Fabbro acknowledged the RAS sector has been on a tumultuous ride over the past year, but the company is focused on continued growth and that the impacts have been minimal.

“It hasn’t impacted us directly. We are trying to play a different game, and one of the things that’s different about is that we have a staggered or tiered strategy, where some of the RAS players come out of the gate with really large-scale projects,” he said. “We’re trying to take a more measured approach with a tiered growth strategy, which we think kind of separates ourselves from the pack, and also has good appeal to investors.”

Fabbro said the company’s focus on coho salmon is a deliberate strategy to differentiate LocalCoho and avoid the “commodity” side of salmon farming.

“We think we can really differentiate ourselves from a marketing aspect with the cohos. They also have a great flesh color, and we’re getting great flesh color,” Fabbro said. “We really want to differentiate ourselves in a lot of different ways and not play the commodity salmon game, and one way to get out of that game is to not be with all the other Atlantic producers.”

Fabbro said he expects the Auburn, New York facility to be operating at full capacity in by spring 2023 and harvesting at full capacity by Q3 2023.  

Photos courtesy of LocalCoho

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