Wildtype founders: Cellular aquaculture will play complementary role in seafood industry

Published on
October 4, 2021
Two pieces of Nigiri sushi, made using Wildtype's cell-based salmon

With the doors to its pilot production facility in San Francisco, California, U.S.A. now open, Wildtype has edged another important step closer to not only introducing sushi-grade coho salmon grown from living cells to the market but to making the entire process commercially viable. In an interview with SeafoodSource, Wildtype Co-Founders Justin Kolbeck (a former diplomat) and Aryé Elfenbein (a practicing cardiologist) said the seafood establishment is largely onboard with the five-year-old cellular aquaculture company’s ambitions to make a meaningful contribution to the overall supply.

SeafoodSource: First and foremost, your plan is to see your cell-based salmon feature in U.S. restaurants, but what led you to embark on such a project in the first place?

Kolbeck: For me, one of the big motivators was the big question about what can be done about the extra three billion people that are soon going to be our friends, family, and neighbors on this planet, and also, given that we know unequivocally that on a per capita basis, people are eating a lot more meat and seafood. Where’s that all going to come from? I think this question is interesting for land-based animals, but it’s really pertinent for seafood. Seafood is the last thing that we hunt as a species, and everybody agrees that there’s a hard cap on how much we can pull from the seas, rivers, and streams on a wild-catch basis. Aquaculture also has some limitations. In the case of salmon, for example, there are only so many coastlines that are suitable for production.

We see Wildtype as an opportunity to create a new source of supply – to bolster and support existing supplies, both on the aquaculture and wild-catch sides. And if we can successfully take some of the pressure off of these stocks of fish that have been in a lot of cases overfished, we might be able to allow folks that are engaged in fishing to charge a higher price – reflecting the real costs of those products. That’s really our view on this. We definitely do not see it like we want Wildtype to succeed and existing fishing and aquaculture to disappear. That’s not the reality that we want, nor is it one we see as a realistic outcome here. It’s really all about introducing new sources of supply.

Elfenbein: Initially, my motivations were a little bit different. Coming from a background in medicine, I feel that much of our seafood is one of the healthiest sources of animal protein that we have. Factoring in all of the current perils and difficulties that the planet is facing, we just want to ensure this supply of absolutely healthy, pristine seafood. This is another way to create the same fish, but just to grow it outside of the animal.

SeafoodSource: Cellular aquaculture is a very new arrival in the seafood space. What lessons have you learned on your journey so far?

Kolbeck: As we come to the back end of year five of Wildtype, Aryé and I have been in quite a reflective mode. I think one of the biggest lessons that we’ve learned, having met with a lot of people in the seafood industry, is that if you’re looking at it from the outside and also reading lots of industry press reports, one might get the feeling that people in aquaculture or fishing don’t care about the environment, or biodiversity, or sustainability, and that is absolutely not the case. To the person, every single interaction we have had with folks in the conventional fishing and aquaculture industries has been extremely focused on trying to create a more sustainable way to provide healthy seafood to people. We’ve also been so pleasantly happy to see so much interest in helping us from the conventional seafood space, whether that’s partnerships, investments, or potential co-branded products, which we are just getting started on.

SeafoodSource: What brought you to coho salmon as a product?

Kolbeck: Today, seafood is an area where you don’t see many alternative products on the market. We’ve got really amazing alternatives for hamburgers, pretty great options for chicken nuggets, and good options for sausage, but when it comes to seafood, all around the world there just aren’t many options. Nobody has made an Impossible Burger (meatless burger) for seafood yet. And so, it felt like a real opportunity to create that third option – whether that’s plant-based or cell-cultivated. We eventually landed on salmon because it’s such a large market here in the United States. In many ways, it’s America’s fish; the only seafood that we eat more of is shrimp. The added advantage of salmon is that it is incredibly versatile – you can eat it in a variety of ways, and coho is also our local fish.

Elfenbein: It would have been a lot easier to make chicken, that’s for sure. There are existing cell lines; a lot more is known about cultivating those types of cells. However, seafood presents us with a really wide-open sea of discovery. This is firstly because seafood cells are not studied for biomedical purposes; and secondly, because there’s an astounding amount of variety in the types of seafood that we eat – there’s literally hundreds of things to eat versus a chicken. And yes, while there are certainly different sub-breeds of chicken; it’s still chicken.

SeafoodSource: So now that Wildtype is in its fifth year, where is it in terms of getting product to market?

Kolbeck: I would say that we are close. One of the big challenges of building a company that makes physical things in 2021 is that it takes a really long time. While that’s been an unexpected challenge, things are now lining up nicely and we should be able to launch fairly soon. We’ve had really transparent and open conversations with the [U.S. Food & Drug Administration] going back two years now. And I believe those are starting to get to a place where everybody is a lot more comfortable with what this is going to look like when it is commercialized. For example, the kinds of things that we are talking about now are not so much about what inputs are used to make this, instead it’s related to how we’re applying conventional food safety paradigms to the production of these products. In other words, what does Wildtype’s food safety plan look like – which, by the way, isn’t all that different from any other seafood or fish processing facility. I would say that’s an important part of getting ready to go to market. But while we are trying our hardest to be able to launch as soon as possible, we really do want to give those conversations ample time to play out, certainly in the U.S. where a lot of people look to the FDA as a really important gatekeeper – making sure that anything that gets put into the American food supply is very safe. We think that’s a huge part of consumer acceptance and so we want to give it the time that it needs.

Elfenbein: In the meantime, there’s been this long process of first of all understanding all of the amazing complexities and intricacies of food like salmon, and then also understanding how cells create that. We have learned a lot along the way and we are still learning how to make it even better in terms of nutrition. Currently, the product is very similar to wild in terms of the healthier aspects, in particular the omega-3 fats, but it’s still something that we are working to improve and refine. It’s just such an incredible fish as an animal, but as a food product it’s astoundingly complex.

SeafoodSource: How important was it to open the doors of your pilot plant and to let people see and try your salmon?

Kolbeck: Rather than have a very large facility that we could walk into, turn on a switch, and immediately start operating at capacity, we wanted to build in some flexibility to help us test out and work through some of the technical challenges – adjusting the processes and making it all more efficient. We started operating out of there a couple of months ago, and will be adding more capacity on a rolling basis over the next couple of years.

Something that we didn’t appreciate upfront that we do now is that while the process of growing cells for different purposes is actually pretty similar, it’s what happens after that which has never really been sorted out before, so there’s been the really important task of figuring out what that second downstream stuff looks like. Essentially, we designed the plant to give us the flexibility to iterate very quickly and to develop the technology as fast as possible, and we’ve been doing that. That will inform the development of a much larger scale site where we will be able to produce a fairly meaningful amount of supply. And that’s what’s coming next.

Also, the incorporation of a tasting room was very important to us as it gives people the opportunity to see how all this works. People rightly have hundreds of really great questions and it’s on us to explain and to get them excited to try the salmon. We feel the best way to do that is to start with the finished product – let people take a bite out of some Wildtype nigiri and show them through a glass door where it can from and explain how it all works. There’s a powerful education element that can come from seeing this; in being in the same building as where your fish came from.

SeafoodSource: What can you tell us about the technologies that you’ve utilized at the facility?

Elfenbein: This is a really interesting field as it had to bring together groups of people who had never worked together before. It’s required the coming together of lots of individual parts, including cell biologists, marine biologists, people who have expertise in fermentation, as well as mechanical engineers to think about what it’s like to grow something like this at scale. We understood how cells grow and what nutrients are needed to feed them; and we understood what would be needed to grow them to a large scale. But then we needed to find if all these elements could come together to create something like this, and then grow it at the scale we need, and then have it so that it’s price-competitive. Those were the big unknowns and the questions that we are, with every day that goes by, getting more and more confident in answering.

In the early days, particularly when we approached investors, invariably people thought that this was a really cool idea, but may have questioned whether or not this was a feasible one, and if it could actually be grounded in reality, rather than an abstraction. Now though, more and more, we are seeing the pieces come together.

SeafoodSource: How long does it take to produce a piece of Wildtype salmon that’s ready for a sushi house?

Elfenbein: That really depends, and it’s something that we are constantly refining, but it’s in the order of weeks or a couple of months – start to finish. Essentially the way that it works is we have cells and then we have a plant-based “scaffold,” which is the structure for these cells to grow within so that they know where to align, mature, and speak to each other so that they can organize. Also, if we grow in a higher-fat environment, that can take a little bit longer and may influence the production in one direction. Similarly, if we want it to become more fibrous like some cuts of salmon are, more lean, more muscular, then that’s something that can also take longer and in a different direction.

SeafoodSource: Are you seeing the economics move in the right direction?

Kolbeck: Yes, we are. As I said, our scientific job would be a lot easier if we were making chicken, for example. However, the commercialization job is actually much easier with seafood, just because the natural price differentials are so much larger. And one of the nice things is that there’s such a huge market for salmon sushi in the United States, which is ideal for our initial launch. I think that we definitely have our eye on the prize, where we can start to sell these kinds of products and create a viable business out of it in the not-too-distant future.

There have been incredible advances. The pace with which our field has moved over the last five years has been astounding – I didn’t really have full appreciation for the pace of scientific discovery until co-founding this company with Aryé. But there’s still so much to do. The types of scales that we need to be operating at – to be able to make the tiniest contribution in terms of adding a meaningful supply – are huge. Nobody has really done this at that level of scale before. But the good news is, yes, in the not-too-distant future, we believe we will be able to make and sell something for less than it costs us to make it.

SeafoodSource: Looking ahead, where do you anticipate cellular production going – for Wildtype and also for the broader seafood category?

Kolbeck: I think that in the near-term it will be about fairly limited releases in a few restaurants around the world. Not just for us, but everybody in our space, because like a lot of other alternative protein companies, we have to build capacity from scratch. That takes time, and we obviously also have to prove along the way that people are excited and want our products.

What comes after that starts to look a lot more exciting. Hopefully, we will get to the point where we’re building much larger scale in places where we can make much larger volumes of product – you will then perhaps start to see our products in the sushi kiosks and grocery stores, which is a nice way to make these products more accessible.

Also, on the topic of accessibility, while we are starting in sushi restaurants, which isn’t necessarily the most-affordable place, our goal is to make a Wildtype salmon meal that’s maybe as affordable as a Big Mac one day, where perhaps seafood can be accessible in a way that it isn’t today.

Now that’s much further down the track and I think to get there we will need partnerships with people who have been providing seafood for a long time. It’ll be about having really good collaboration partnerships with people who have been in the industry and who can help guide us along the way, because we are newcomers to seafood sales and distribution.

I think that’s what we’re looking at – more availability, ideally much more accessible prices and lots of partnerships with folks in the industry. And it’s important to highlight that those conventional players are interested in this and us because their customers are telling them that they want alternative products. So there’s definitely a market there and it’s growing fast. Similarly, we’ve spoken with fishermen who also get what we’re doing as they’ve seen some stocks decline in the last decade. So, across the board, there are these clues bubbling up both in terms of the commercial opportunity and the environmental imperative of doing something different.

Photo courtesy of Wildtype

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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