Wildtype cultivates cells in a nutritious solution in steel vessels similar to the fermentation tanks used by breweries. A plant-based mesh known as a “scaffold” is used to help the cells form fibrous or fat-like tissue.
Kolbeck says the idea is to go beyond creating the kind of processed-fish alternative that can already be made with plant protein. “You can use plants to make minced [style] products pretty easily, but it’s really hard to get a whole-cut type of product, like you’d find in a sushi restaurant,” says Kolbeck. “So that was the challenge we put out for ourselves.”
A drop in the ocean
The popularity of salmon makes it a compelling 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 really 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 innovation opportunities. In the long term, it’s not known how cultivated fish products will compete with farmed fish on price, Kaplan says — but he anticipates the cost of cultivated fish falling as companies scale.
Kolbeck says he has been working with the FDA for the past 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 that it will be a decade before companies like his reach industrial-scale production — and he emphasizes that it’s not an end-all solution to overfishing.
A targeted roll-out
Kate Krueger, a cell biologist and founder and CEO of Helikon Consulting, an advisory firm for innovative food products, says the market for cultivated proteins has expanded rapidly in the past five years. Brands like Impossible Foods — which specializes in plant-based burgers and sausages that look, taste and feel like real meat — have paved the way for consumer acceptance of novel products, she says.
Impossible’s targeted rollout, beginning in exclusive high-end restaurants before expanding to global burger chains, and then supermarkets, is a model that cultivated fish products could follow, Krueger adds.
But Wildtype’s “structured” sushi-grade fish fillet will have a much higher bar for acceptance than an “unstructured” minced product like a burger, says Krueger. “People may expect extreme precision from these products,” she says. “Structured products are the holy grail in this space.”
Kaplan expects composite products — a mix of plant-based and cell-cultured proteins — to be the first to hit the market, as they reduce costs while introducing the taste and texture to consumers.
While Wildtype is eager to make its product the first cultivated seafood 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 might pass a point of no return for a lot of these fish species,” says Kolbeck. “I have a couple of small kids and I don’t want to hand off a world that is less biodiverse and less rich than the one that we inherited — especially when we have tools at our disposal to do something about it.”