Smoked, poached, grilled, pan-fried and even raw: salmon is as versatile as it is popular – and has become the world’s largest fish product by value.
But that popularity has come at a cost, and the population of wild North Atlantic salmon halved between 1983 and 2016. This is a symptom of a larger problem: nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are depleted, overexploited or fully exploited, according to United Nations Research.
Wildtype is a company trying to produce fish in a more sustainable way. The Californian startup creates sushi-grade salmon by cultivating cells extracted from salmon eggs.
It raised $100 million in February 2022, which included backing from actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeff Bezos’ investment firm Bezos Expeditions. Today, the company hopes to scale up and be one of the first to market with a lab-grown fish product, says Wildtype co-founder Justin Kolbeck.
Wildtype grows cells in nutrient solution in steel vessels similar to fermentation tanks used by breweries. A plant-based mesh called a “scaffold” is used to help cells form fibrous or fatty tissue.
Kolbeck says the idea is to go beyond creating the kind of alternative to processed fish that can already be made with plant-based protein. “You can use plants to make mince [style] products quite easily, but it’s really hard to get a whole type of product, like you’d find in a sushi restaurant,” says Kolbeck. “So that was the challenge we set ourselves.”
Not all fish products harm wild fish stocks. Aquaculture, or farmed fish, accounted for nearly half of the world’s 179 million metric tons of fish production in 2018, but it comes with downsides. Farmed fish are often given antibiotics, which can promote antibiotic resistance, they can contain microplastics, and aquaculture waste can pollute aquatic ecosystems.
Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype and molecular biologist, says that with fish cultured in cells, “there are no antibiotics, no heavy metals, no microplastics”. There’s no waste, as only the edible parts of the fish are grown, and Wildtype says its product takes just four to six weeks to grow, compared to the two to three years it takes to grow a mature salmon in aquaculture. .
Salmon’s popularity makes it a go-to product to find alternatives for, says David Kaplan, a biomedical engineer at Tufts University in Boston, who is not affiliated with Wildtype. “It’s a very good target because we know consumers love salmon,” he says, adding that the potential range of products, from fish cakes to salmon fillets, offers a variety of opportunities for innovation. Over the long term, it’s unclear how cultured fish products will compete with farmed fish on price, Kaplan says – but he predicts the cost of cultured fish will come down as companies expand.
However, before companies like Wildtype can even consider pricing tiers, the industry needs regulatory approval. So far, Singapore is the only country to have approved the sale of lab-grown meat. In the United States, the FDA grants approval for products like this, and Kaplan says the first round of regulations is expected later this year.
Kolbeck says he has worked with the FDA for two years to establish best practices for the regulation and production of lab-grown foods.
Wildtype’s current pilot plant has only “modest” production capacity, Kolbeck says, but the company is building larger facilities in anticipation of FDA approval. Kolbeck estimates it will be a decade before companies like his reach industrial-scale production — and he stresses that it’s not a last-ditch solution to overfishing.
Wildtype isn’t the only Silicon Valley startup in this space attracting investment: BlueNalu raised $60 million last year, while Finless Foods raised $34 million in March. Both intend to produce cell-cultured bluefin tuna, a fish classified as endangered until its numbers began to increase over the past decade.
Kate Kruger, a cell biologist and founder and CEO of Helikon Consulting, an innovative food products consultancy, says the cultured protein market has grown rapidly over the past five years. Brands like Impossible Foods — which specializes in plant-based burgers and sausages that look, taste and smell like real meat — have paved the way for consumer acceptance of new products, she says. .
The targeted rollout of Impossible, which begins in exclusive high-end restaurants before expanding to global burger chains and then supermarkets, is a model cultured peach products could follow, Kruger adds.
But Wildtype’s “structured” sushi-grade fish fillet will have a much higher acceptance bar than an “unstructured” minced product like a burger, Kruger says. “People can expect pinpoint accuracy from these products,” she says. “Structured products are the holy grail in this space.”
Kaplan expects composite products – a blend of plant-based proteins and cell cultures – to be the first to hit the market, as they reduce costs while presenting taste and texture to consumers.
While Wildtype is eager to make its product the first cultured seafood product on the market, it is also focused on the long-term goal of reducing the burden on fish stocks.
“If we continue on this trajectory, by 2030 we could pass a point of no return for many of these fish species,” Kolbeck says. “I have a few small children and I don’t want to give away a less biodiverse and less rich world than the one we inherited – especially when we have tools at our disposal to fix it.”