Chris Wallard, chief marketing officer for genetics services provider Xelect: "We can’t wait to get back out to visit our customers again." Photo: Chris Wallard.

Looking back, thinking ahead: Chris Wallard

Fish Farming Expert has asked individuals connected to the salmon farming industry about their year, and what they hope for in 2021.We continue the series today with Chris Wallard, chief marketing officer for St Andrews-based genetics services provider Xelect.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has made 2020 a difficult year for many businesses and organisations. How has it affected yours?

Against all the odds we’re coming out of 2020 much stronger than we started it. We support breeding programmes all over the globe, from New Zealand to Canada, so the lack of travel was probably our biggest worry. However we’ve adapted our processes and it’s worked remarkably well. It certainly helps to break up the pattern of homeworking when you get a virtual tour of a shrimp hatchery in Ohio, or a mega-farm in the Middle East!

The widespread use of video conferencing means we’ve actually had more meetings with producers around the world than ever before, bringing in new customers and adding five new members of staff to the team.

Some of our new ways of working definitely make us more efficient, so we’ll stick with them. However we can’t wait to get back out to visit our customers again.

What other factors have had a bearing on your business/work?

The biggest change for us was that we’d always planned this would be a pivotal year for Xelect, launching a number of new services. We’re best known for our breeding programmes, but we’ve now launched a range of new consultancy services, ranging from genetic due diligence for mergers and acquisitions to advisory roles – for example developing tilapia farming in parts of Africa.

It’s been a big change for us, as we’re now just as likely to be producing reports for investment specialists or management consultants as for fish farmers. It’s opened our eyes to a whole new side of aquaculture, and is the start of a new chapter for us.

What was the most significant event of 2020 for your company/organisation?

Let’s take Covid-19 as a given!

However in the long term we think it will actually be the launch of our new “smart” genomics techniques. A big part of our mission as a company is to give everyone in aquaculture access to the latest technologies, not just those with deep pockets. Genomic selection has always been the gold standard for breeding programmes, but it’s just not appropriate for the majority of producers. Recent breakthroughs in computing power and the costs of genetics mean we’ve been able to combine big data bioinformatics analysis with cost effective sequencing to give almost all the benefits of genomic selection for a fraction of the cost. That took a big step forward in 2020 as we successfully rolled it out to some of our key customers. It's early days, but we believe we will come to look back at it as a real game changer.

What would you like to see happen in 2021 to help the fish farming industry thrive?    

It’s tempting to say that in 2021 we’d like to see almost NOTHING major happen, so that producers who have suffered from so much disruption can steady the ship and grow their businesses! We are of course hoping for a successful rollout of vaccines against Covid-19 and the return to something approaching normality, particularly the easing of international travel restrictions!