The Chitosan Solution with Craig Kasberg, Co-Founder and CEO of Tidal Vision

Craig Kasberg began working on commercial fishing boats in Alaska at age 14, and by 19 was captaining his own fishing vessel in Southeast Alaska. Craig then started a sustainable seafood marketing business, where he began to envision the development of technology to upcycle seafood byproducts as the opportunity that could make the largest impact to the industry. Craig eventually began to focus full-time on seafood byproduct upcycling, with the goal to reduce waste and encourage sustainably managed fisheries. This led to the development of the world’s first green process of turning discarded fish skins into aquatic leathers. At the same time, Craig was working on developing extraction methods for producing chitosan from crustacean shells — which led to the co-founding of Tidal Vision in 2015 with partner Zach Wilkinson.

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THE TRANSCRIPT: BIGGER THAN US EPISODE 157

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels  00:46

Craig, thank you for joining. Craig, before we dig into the story of Tidal Vision, can you please explain to me What’s a Salmon Gillnetter?

Craig Kasberg  01:57

That is a commercial fishing vessel that uses about a one quarter mile long net to harvest salmon to feed the world in Alaska.

Host Raj Daniels  02:09

And how do those nets work?

Craig Kasberg  02:12

They are hauled in with big hydraulics and managed by the state of Alaska through a limited entry fishery, meaning it’s sustainably managed. And it’s a very interesting industry. Very, very hard work, but also very rewarding.

Host Raj Daniels  02:34

And the reason I asked that—and you mentioned history—can you share your history of how you got involved with salmon fishing?

Craig Kasberg  02:39

Yeah, that’s what I grew up doing. I started working on commercial salmon gillnetters and halibut and black cod longliners when I was 14, nearly 15 years old. And I did that through my early 20s. By the time I was 19, I was captain in my own commercial fishing vessel in Alaska. And that’s where my love of the ocean and seafood and everything started from.

Host Raj Daniels  03:07

What’s life like in a day for the fishermen?

Craig Kasberg  03:11

Very early mornings. Very long days. Some of the lessons I learned in those years of my life, though, were sometimes the biggest rewards come when you think outside the box to try fishing a new area that maybe you’re not familiar with. And it’s very rewarding work because you can look under the fish hatches, see the 1000s of pounds of fish that are harvested, and think, “Oh my goodness, I did enough work today to feed two or three, or maybe even four or five thousand people a meal.” And there’s something really tangible about that.

Host Raj Daniels  03:48

When you say early mornings, what does that look like?

Craig Kasberg  03:52

3 am.

Host Raj Daniels  03:54

What time do you hit the water?

Craig Kasberg  03:57

We would do trips for many days on end. The longest commercial fishing trip I ever did was 28 days at sea. And you would unload your fish every 24 hours into what are called tender vessels. But usually more like three to four days, but sometimes 28 days straight.

Host Raj Daniels  04:19

Can you walk us through that 28-day journey? What does it look like? What’s a tender vessel?

Craig Kasberg  04:22

Yeah, so the tender vessel is a boat contracted by the seafood processing industry to go out to all the fishermen on the fishing grounds and take their catch every day and bring it back to shore for processing whether that be filleting, freezing, flash-freezing, smoking, packaging, canning, whatever it may be. And yeah, doing that every 24 hours.

Host Raj Daniels  04:54

And I’m sure there’s some methodology. How does the 10-day vessel distinguish between the different catches from the different boats?

Craig Kasberg  05:03

Yeah, they put the fish in ice-holds with totes. And they’re able to separate them where that makes sense for their business. And they do separate them by species and sometimes down to the individual vessel. But the transaction happens when you unload from the fishing vessel to the tender vessel because the hydraulic cranes they use pull up 1000-pound bags at a time called brailer bags. And they have a scale at the end of the hydraulic crane. So you know how many pounds of fish you unloaded.

Host Raj Daniels  05:38

That is interesting, appreciate you sharing that. The transaction happens at the point at which they collect the fish.

Craig Kasberg  05:44

Yeah.

Host Raj Daniels  05:44

So like I mentioned, Tidal Vision. Can you give the audience an overview of Tidal Vision and your role at the organization?

Craig Kasberg  05:52

Yeah, absolutely. So Tidal Vision is a company that upcycles byproducts from sustainably managed wild fisheries that would otherwise be discarded. My inspiration for starting it was seeing all the waste generated by this industry that I grew up in and love. It’s a huge part of the culture and traditions in the area of Alaska I grew up in, and just seeing 30 to 40% of the biomass ground up and discarded either back into the ocean or landfills, I just thought there had to be a better way. Seemed like the opportunity to make the biggest impact on that industry. And so Tidal Vision was started as a company to develop technologies for high value uses from these byproducts, and that evolved over time. But we ended up discovering a unique way of extracting this really high-performance biopolymer called chitosan. And that’s what we make today. We extract chitosan and then we produce chitosan solutions for different industries that display synthetic chemicals. So it’s very much a green business; we’re taking an abundant problematic byproduct—crab shells, shrimp shells, any sort of crustacean shells—upcycling it. The only byproducts from our processes are fertilizer, nitrogen input, and isolating this biopolymer that our team can do amazing things with.

Host Raj Daniels  07:32

Now, I enjoyed doing research on Tidal Vision, and one of the products that intrigued me earlier in your journey was salmon skin wallets. Is that correct?

Craig Kasberg  07:43

That is correct. The first green process we developed was the first vegetable-based tanning process for making aquatic leathers. And exactly right, those aquatic leathers were produced from fish skins that would otherwise be discarded from salmon smoking lines, where they would take the fillets and remove the skins before smoking. We were able to turn that into a durable product that was turned into all sorts of goods, from handbags to belts, to wallets, as you mentioned. All sorts of different products.

Host Raj Daniels  08:21

Now, how do you eliminate—let’s say it nicely—the scent of the salmon?

Craig Kasberg  08:28

Fortunately, that’s taken care of in the tanning process. Just like cow leather doesn’t smell like a real live cow, the tanning process included degreasing, or removal, of the oils and preparing the fibers for the tanning vegetable-based oils. And so at the end, it smelled more like the tanning inputs than anything. That was a common question though.

Host Raj Daniels  08:59

Are you still providing salmon wallets?

Craig Kasberg  09:01

We are not. No, we handed that business over to a different company in Alaska that still makes some salmon leather to this day.

Host Raj Daniels  09:11

Now, earlier you mentioned the biomass. And can you give us some idea of just how much waste is available for production?

Craig Kasberg  09:20

Yeah. In Alaska alone, approximately 2 billion pounds of seafood byproducts are just discarded every year. Annually. Nationwide, we’re primarily focused on crustacean shells. There are about 800 million pounds of wild crustaceans landed annually in the US every year, according to NOAA, from all the fisheries—shrimp, crab lobster. And about 35% of that is waste.

Host Raj Daniels  09:52

And what currently happens to that waste?

Craig Kasberg  09:55

It’s currently discarded. Typically, it’s ground up and put in landfills. Crab shells, shrimp shells, lobster shells contain about 40% calcium carbonate, which is the same thing as in limestone. So it’s very slow to naturally biodegrade. So the seafood processors are no longer allowed to dump them in the ocean in front of their plants because they bio-accumulate there. And they’re concentrated. And so they either end up in landfills or incinerators.

Host Raj Daniels  10:31

So as I said, I enjoyed researching you and your company. I know you started out in your teens as a fisherman, nowhere in your bio does it say, scientist. How do you go from being a fisherman to now creating these products from chitosan?

Craig Kasberg  10:46

That is a great question. And one I often struggle to answer. But I would bring it back to my fishing roots and say one thing about being a commercial fisherman is you learn to be self-reliant. You learn how to problem-solve, and you have to. Because when you’re out on the water for, say, up to 28 days straight, if anything breaks, if anything goes wrong, it doesn’t matter if you’re a mechanic or not. You need to figure out a solution. And if you don’t have that knowledge, you need to know how to ask the right questions over the radio to get the information and be able to find a way home safely. And so I think growing up in that environment, those traits or skills come second nature to me. I like to say I’m good at connecting dots. So when we started this, I met my business partner, the other co-founder, Zack. We were introduced by a mutual friend named Johnny Fishmonger in the Alaskan seafood industry, who said, “Yeah, Craig, you have to meet Zach. Because there’s only one other person I’ve ever heard talk about chitosan, and neither one of you will shut the eff up about it.” I said, “Okay.” And Zack had a network of researchers and scientists. And he introduced me to a gentleman named Chris Griggs with a Ph.D. in chemistry. And I said, Chris, like, “I have this idea. I’ve been researching it a lot. What do you think?” He said, “I think it has merit.” And we put together a plan and approach—we have a certain process for R&D here and that we still use to this day. And we developed this extraction process, the first green method without using strong acids and bases to extract chitosan from crustacean shells. And we’ve just grown and continued to innovate since.

Host Raj Daniels  12:55

I’m gonna double down on this idea of problem-solving. I understand problem-solving when you’re out at sea. You said 28 days, your life is potentially dependent on it. Extracting chitosan from crustaceans, your life doesn’t depend on that. And you mentioned researching a lot, which is showing some drive. But what moved you so much that you decided, “You know what, I’m going to go down this path.”

Craig Kasberg  13:20

That’s a good question. The potential impact of it is what did that for me, from the seafood industry. It’s one thing to force an industry to dispose of things in a certain way. It’s another thing to say, carrot versus stick. Here’s a better way that we can turn that biomass into something useful for the world. And then what got me excited was seeing the different potential applications for chitosan. So chitosan’s a biopolymer. And there are many biopolymers. What makes chitosan unique is it’s the only one in the world with a positive or cationic charge. And that gives it all sorts of unique properties that I’m sure we’ll talk about shortly. But it’s also the second most abundant in nature, only behind cellulose, the building block of all plants. So I just saw an enormous opportunity where the scale of this biomass was available. If we could figure out a green way of extracting it, we can do all this good, create all this value, and displace all these synthetic chemicals that have a positive or cationic charge because chitosan is the only natural material with that property. So although my life didn’t depend on it, certainly, I would say I probably became what most would consider obsessed with it. And just as determined.

Host Raj Daniels  15:00

Well, you sound obsessed, which is a good thing. Can you double click on the properties and then some of the current use cases for chitosan?

Craig Kasberg  15:08

Yeah. Chitosan is 100% biodegradable, biocompatible, completely non-toxic. It’s even hypoallergenic even for people with shellfish allergens. Our company is setting some new QA, QC procedures industry-wide for testing that down to 20 parts per billion on every single batch of chitosan we produce in all of our finished goods. And having a positive or cationic charge means it binds to anything that’s non-ionic or anionic, meaning negative charge, really well. And so in commercial water treatment, for example, a lot of the pollutants that need to be removed from contaminated water, such as a lot of different heavy metals and all sorts of different pollutants, have a negative charge. So chitosan can be used to bind to them so they can be removed in the textile industry, that positive charge. And the durability of chitosan gives the material exciting fire retardant and antimicrobial properties. Most of our traction in the textile industry is on the industrial side. So fibers that end up in automobiles and mattresses and furniture and yarns for all sorts of things where we’re displacing silver and copper—these non-biodegradable, heavy metal toxins that can bioaccumulate. And some of them can be absorbed through human skin, like silver nanoparticles, and as these products are disposed leaching into our groundwater and ending up in our waterways, where they’re persistent pollutants. In the agriculture industry, chitosan can be used as a biopesticide, biofungicide, and bioinsecticide. And its use there is a little different. It’s not solely derived from having a positive charge like it is in textiles and the water treatment example I gave. In agriculture, chitosan is a plant elicitor because it doesn’t just occur in the shells of crustaceans. It also is the building block of every insect exoskeleton and the outer cell wall of fungi. So plants have receptors for the presence of chitosan that elicits this natural immune response. And it basically makes the plant think, “I’m being infested by insects or a fungal infection.” And in nature, these things happen slowly and go in cycles. But what happens in big agriculture is there are miles and miles of row crops perfectly spaced out, 18 inches, perfectly fertilized. It’s an unnatural environment where foreign insects, pests, and diseases can spread like wildfire. And then farmers have no choice because they need to feed the world, but to spray really toxic pesticides and insecticides. So in agriculture, it’s sort of a paradigm shift of what we’re trying to do, which is to get farmers to use chitosan before they have that insect outbreak, before that disease, plant disease, or fungal infection spreads, because chitosan can suppress that a lot of the time and prevent that. And it just boils down to that classic saying that to solve these big problems, we have to use a different approach or think about it differently than how we got in that situation. And that’s why I’m so obsessed with chitosan. It represents that.

Host Raj Daniels  19:00

What was the first market you chose to tackle and why?

Craig Kasberg  19:04

Yeah, our first commercial market for chitosan was water treatment. And I would say the reason why, just to be completely honest, was it was opportunistic. The state of Washington doesn’t allow stormwater treatment companies to treat stormwater and discharge it into the environment if they’re using synthetic polymers—usually metal-based, aluminum-based, and petroleum-derived polymers. So there was a really clear opportunity right in our own backyard. We’re headquartered in Bellingham, Washington, and now our stormwater treatment product line, Tidal Clear, is used to remove pollutants from stormwater everywhere from British Columbia down to Southern California, to the tune of billions of gallons annually. It was the first opportunity that we could address the quickest while we were growing.

Host Raj Daniels  20:08

Not asking you to pick favorites, but which market are you most excited about?

Craig Kasberg  20:13

That sounds like picking favorites. I am excited about all of them for different reasons. I believe, in 10 years, the biggest impact we can make is in the agriculture space by transforming that industry’s reliance on pesticides, insecticides, fungicides. All these resistant issues are growing. All these fungicides, insecticides, pesticides cause an increase in resistance. And therefore more and more have to be used over time, just like antibiotics. In chitosan, its mode of action is different, and it doesn’t cause an increase in resistance. And there’s a lot of science supporting that. So I think in 10 to 20 years, that’s going to be some of the most important work. And clean water is a fundamental need for the world. And textiles affect all of our day-to-day lives, from the clothes we wear to the carpet we walk on, to the fibers in our automobiles, to the furniture we sit on. And the impact there is enormous as well.

Host Raj Daniels  21:33

Now you mentioned sourcing the crustaceans. Your feedstock, essentially. So I’m going to assume that you are paying for this feedstock, you’re paying the fishermen for this feedstock. You mentioned that prior to that they were putting them in landfills, did you see a mind shift or a change in the fishermen that had the feedstock?

Craig Kasberg  21:54

Yeah, that whole industry. It’s so interesting. They especially, in Alaska as well as our wild fisheries here, the fishermen take so much pride in using methods to harvest sustainably and so much pride in using as much of the fish or crab as possible. It’s culturally and traditionally built in at many levels in the culture in these coastal communities that the seafood industry is a huge part of the economy. And there’s just a lot of pride in being able to say, “Okay, I fed people, and now, instead of a third of the crab being put in landfills or incinerators, it’s being turned into a biochemical solution that’s displacing millions of pounds of toxic, non-biodegradable metals.” And it’s a complicated story, but those metals being displaced in these industries prevent those metals from eventually leaching into our waterways and back into the ocean. So it’s very much a full-circle story. And I’m still very much connected to that industry that I grew up in. And there’s a lot of passion and excitement there for what we’re doing.

Host Raj Daniels  23:20

That’s great to hear. At the crux of our conversation. You mentioned your history and fishing, your love of the environment, and seeing the waste happen. What’s your why? The amount of challenges you must have gone through to launch this company—what continues to drive you and motivate you?

Craig Kasberg  23:36

The opportunity to make a systemic impact. Now, our mission statement as a company is that we want to create positive and systemic environmental impact. And we believe we have an opportunity to do that. And our strategy for doing that is by making our chitosan sand biopolymer solutions lower cost, more convenient, and as good or better-performing than the synthetic chemicals we’re displacing. I think a lot of companies, a lot of green tech companies, go into these markets pricing their solution at a higher price point. And we’re in a really exciting position on a macro level, to do the opposite. And that’s how I think we can create systemic change. It’s sort of the stick versus the carrot analogy again, right? These industries are run by real people who really care about the environment, really care about doing the best they can in their business. And the industry is—all these industries are fundamentally needed for humankind. And by just providing just as good of a product at a lower cost point, there’s real excitement there. And on a macro level, these chemicals we’re displacing. They’re derived from heavy metals that have to be mined. The cost of those isn’t going down. Your question about paying the fishermen: these seafood processors have to pay the landfills. So we just take the shells for free. And so we’re saving them costs helping increase their margin. But we have a free feedstock and a zero-waste extraction process. It’s very low cost. And we’re competing with synthetic chemicals that are more traditionally ingrained in these industries and more widely distributed today. But every time we scale to the next level, our cost structure drops. And these metals and petroleum products, their cost structures, if you looked over time, are just creeping up. And we’re already sort of at that inflection point. And I think in another five years, our solutions are going to be mainstream in these industries.

Host Raj Daniels  25:55

Craig, why is systemic impact important to you?

Craig Kasberg  26:00

I believe if you see an opportunity like that, there’s almost an obligation to try to see it through. Doing that requires collaboration with a lot of different types of people, different stakeholders, and that mission is universally motivating. And when I’m in my 80s and looking back on my life, I don’t want to ask what if. I see the writing on the wall on chitosan’s potential. I still consider us on the ground floor, even though we have facilities on both coasts now. We’re displacing 1000s of metric tons of synthetic chemicals per month. I see millions in the future per month. For me, that’s really what it boils down to.

Host Raj Daniels  26:53

I love the idea of being in your 80s. And not asking what if. Staying on that vein, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about yourself in your journey?

Craig Kasberg  27:02

Yeah. That is a good question. Lots of lessons learned. Tons of lessons learned. I would say the value and being fully transparent have opened a ton of doors for us. In the beginning, I was the typical—and still am—a very optimistic entrepreneur. But how we’ve been able to have the successes that we’ve experienced wasn’t our own doing. It was by getting key insight and support from our customers. And so going to our customers and saying, “Look, here’s where we’re at today.” Maybe we can only produce enough of this product today to displace 10% of your company’s use of these others. But if you help work with us, and help tell us what we can do to improve—I mentioned problem-solving—we’ll figure out how to get there. But you can’t do that in a black box.  So you have to be willing to show your cards. And what I’ve found is if you do that, you not only get the support and insight, you also get a big fan in the process, encouragement, and maybe doors open that you weren’t even expecting. So that’s one lesson. I’ve learned many lessons in my time here.

Host Raj Daniels  28:33

So you mentioned displacing millions. Let’s fast forward into the future. It’s 2030. If Forbes or Businessweek would write a headline about Tidal Vision, what would you like it to read?

Craig Kasberg  28:45

I would say that Tidal Vision’s vision came through. The multiple industries were transformed with Kaido San, and the transformation of key industries to being fully sustainable in their practices was achieved.

Host Raj Daniels  29:05

I love that headline. Now, you mentioned transparency. And you mentioned the role of fans or people to help you on your journey. But my last question is, and this could be professional or personal, if you could share some advice or words of wisdom with the audience, what would it be?

Craig Kasberg  29:23

Um, lots of advice. I would say, “Be willing for big problems to do the work of approaching things from a first-principles standpoint.” That’s served us well. All of our big breakthroughs have come when we’ve done that. It takes a lot of work. A lot of energy. Can’t be done in all situations. But question why things are done the way they are, and try to understand as much of that context as you can. And then I would say, professionally, in my position as a CEO of a quickly growing company right now, my most important job is to instill that big picture context into a team that is capable of executing in the domain that they run, that they make decisions in, in our business. We’re trying to innovate quicker on product development and not slower as we grow, like you see in a lot of companies where things become highly decentralized, and probably more predictable on the execution end, but innovation slows. We’re focused on the opposite. So making sure that decision-making—we call them captains at our company, of course, we kept the nautical themes. But having well-informed captains, informed with the context of the big picture, where the company’s going. They can make decisions quickly and are always actively seeking that context. If this is someone leading our textile team on the trends in that industry, same in agriculture, same in water, all the way down to our production teams. There’s always room to improve. And big, monumental, systemic changes, like we’re aiming for, are done by the accumulation of many seemingly small changes done many times over a long period of time. And so, yeah, hiring great people that you can trust and just focusing on context in the long-term would be my advice, professionally.

Host Raj Daniels  31:49

So I know I said last question, but you brought something up that I want to double-click on for a moment. You brought up first principles. For those that aren’t familiar with thinking in first principles, can you elaborate?

Craig Kasberg  32:01

Yeah, absolutely. first principles. It’s terminology, it’s a process, not one that we invented. It’s one that a lot of famous entrepreneurs and investors use. I know Elon Musk references it as a principle that they have at Tesla, in their R&D and development teams. It means starting with just what you know to be true. So oftentimes the starting place on an idea or development is derived from experience, which is often like analogous thinking, like, “I’ve seen it done this way, therefore, we should do that,” and ideas are limited at the start. I think the most crucial part of R&D and innovation is where you start. The questions you ask at the start. And asking, “Okay, it’s good to know the industry does it that way currently, but why? And why? And why?” Until you just know, what are the hard truths? And from that, how can we build from where the hard truth exists today to the vision we have in the future? It’s a very long challenging methodology for critical thinking. So it can’t be done in every situation where maybe decisions need to be made quicker, sometimes certain front-line things. But I think on big-picture approaches and new product development, I believe it’s crucial.

Host Raj Daniels  33:46

I’m going to keep going just because I’m a fan of the subject matter. You’re a CEO, you’re terribly busy. How do you carve out time for long, challenging, critical thinking?

Craig Kasberg  33:59

That is a challenge. Yeah. The biggest success was hiring really smart people that I trust to take off the day-to-day from me in the business. The first couple of years, there were so few of us, and we were all wearing so many hats, and I still work 70 to 80 hours a week, just like I did back then. But back then, so much of that 70 to 80 hours a week was putting out fires, and just dealing with things that needed responding to. And it was really hard to be intentional in those first two years about carving out that time. Now, I’m getting to a point where I would say nearly 70% of my time is spent on things that are multiple years in the future from their full purpose or execution coming to fruition, and I continue to just prioritize that. I love that. I love working on things that are not tangible today, and connecting whatever dot, solving whatever problems, whether they’re internal at our company or external that are gonna come to life in 2, 3, 4, 5 years. I get to live in the future every day. And I love it.

Host Raj Daniels  35:19

I appreciate that. And I admire that too. You said something earlier, regarding ideas being limited at the start. And I guess adjacent to your first principle comment, I learned about, you know, availability bias. Are you familiar with that?

Craig Kasberg  35:32

I’m not familiar with that term.

Host Raj Daniels  35:34

So essentially, availability bias is that the ideas that you’ve most recently been exposed to are the closest in your mind. And so when you think of a perhaps a problem, the solution that you think of first is the first thing you’ve been exposed to recently. And if you don’t go back to first principles, and continue asking why, then you’ll just, you know, stay with those first instinctive ideas, which aren’t always helpful. So I appreciate that because depending on what you’ve been reading or exposed to, perhaps through your company or the people you’re around, you’re influenced by those initial ideas. That’s why it’s called an availability bias.

Craig Kasberg  36:11

Yeah, fascinating. That makes perfect sense to me.

Host Raj Daniels  36:16

Well, Craig, I really enjoyed this conversation and I look forward to the future of Tidal Vision and catching up with you again soon.

Craig Kasberg  36:23

Awesome. Thank you, Raj, appreciate you hosting me here.

Before we go, I’m excited to share that we’ve launched the Bigger Than Us comic strip, The Adventures of Mira and Nexi.

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Raj Daniels

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