AquaBounty Technologies is a company whose very existence courts controversy. The biotechnology firm is in the business of researching and developing genetically engineered fish – notably its AquAdvantage salmon, a sterile breed Atlantic salmon embued with Chinook salmon and ocean pout genes to resist cold and grow to market twice as quickly as natural salmon. AquaBounty has been seeking FDA approval for its genetically engineered salmon for months now, but with fierce arguments on both sides a decision one way or another has been slow going. What happens to the company in the meantime? Stay up and running, ostensibly – but staying in business can be hard work when your products aren’t approved for commercial production and sale.
But for now, AquaBounty Technologies has been tossed another lifeline in the form of Georgian entrepreneur Kakha Bendukidze. The native of Georgia (the country, not the state), a former biologist and economics minister as well as current chairman of the Free University of Tbilisi, is making headlines as the largest shareholder and private backer of AquaBounty. According to reports, he doesn’t want much in return – just all of the company’s research and development secrets:
In March, AquaBounty raised $2 million, enough to keep the company in business only until around the end of the year, according to regulatory filings in London, where the company’s stock is traded. Mr. Bendukidze provided nearly half of that. In return, however, AquaBounty agreed to sell its research and development operations to him — for a mere dollar.
“It was not an appealing deal, but it was the only deal available to us,” [AquaBounty Technologies CEO Ronald L.] Stotish said.
So that’s interesting. According to the Times report, Bendukidze has contributed $8 million to the company since 2010, and currently holds a 48 percent stake in the company. It seems to be mostly a result of his interest in the technology behind it. (The entrepreneur also owns a laboratory in San Diego, where he and his staff are apparently testing genetic modifications on zebra fish that could one day be applied to more commercially viable fish like tilapia and salmon.) But the report also indicates that even he may be moving on to greener pastures if AquaBounty can’t stay afloat, despite investing so much into it already:
Mr. Bendukidze, the former economics minister of Georgia and AquaBounty’s largest shareholder, says the company can stay afloat a while longer. But he is skeptical that genetically altered salmon will be approved in the United States in an election year, given the resistance from environmental and consumer groups.
“I understand politically that it’s easier not to approve than to approve,” Mr. Bendukidze said during a recent visit to a newly acquired laboratory in San Diego, where jars of tiny zebra fish for use in genetic engineering experiments are stacked on shelves. While many people would be annoyed by the approval, he said, “There will be no one except some scientists who will be annoyed if it is not approved.”
It’s refreshing to hear an investor speak with such blunt and realistic candor about his investment. But by the end of the profile, it’s clear that – no matter how much more money is pumped into the endeavor – AquaBounty’s future is tenuous indeed regardless of government or public opinion.
[SOURCE: New York Times via CNBC]