Wildtype, a six-year-old San Francisco-based company developing farmed salmon from cells outside the animal, has just raised $100 million in Series B funding to make its product ubiquitous, from top restaurants to supermarkets.
Whether it can realize this plan is a question mark, but it’s easy to see what gets its new investors — L Catterton, Cargill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bezos Expeditions, Temasek and Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition (among others) — excited. made .
The broad argument for cell-grown seafood is that it can protect wild species and curb overfishing. Ostensibly, it also offers the same nutritional benefits as wild-caught fish, without the mercury, microplastics and other contaminants sometimes found in wild and farmed fish.
Even better, say Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein, the co-founders of Wildtype: Wildtype has discovered how to make “sushi-quality” salmon by growing the cells of a Pacific salmon, also known as a Coho salmon, in steel tanks that look like brewery tanks, after which the cells are placed in so-called scaffolds, which are structures made of vegetable ingredients, to guide the cells to shape each cut of fish. (Wildtype doesn’t grow fins or heads here, the founders say — just the kind of sliced salmon you might see behind the sushi bar.)
The two friends – a former business consultant and a trained cardiologist respectively – are so confident in their final product that last year they opened a tasting room just behind the tanks so chefs could try the salmon and learn more about its production. .
If all goes according to plan, those chefs will soon be showcasing Wildtype’s salmon along with their other offerings. So are the supermarkets.
It’s in sight. In December, Wildtype announced distribution agreements with Snowfox, which operates sushi bars at 1,230 supermarket locations across the country, and Pokéworks, which operates 65 fast casual restaurants, and the deals “pave the way for consumers to experience Wildtype’s farmed salmon once the production capacities of the company has reached the required scale,” the announcement read.
Getting from A to B, that’s the trick.
For one, it’s still a work in progress to get Wildtype’s salmon for the same price — or less — than traditional sushi-grade salmon, say Kolbeck and Elfenbein.
It also remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace cell-grown seafood with the same zeal as plant-based meats. It is well known that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer, while fewer people are aware of the PCBs, dioxins and mercury found in some salmon due to the food the salmon ingested. In fact, there are now strict regulations on contaminant levels in feed ingredients, which have lowered contaminant levels in these fish, making them safe to eat by federal standards.
Perhaps most notably, Wildtype is still pending FDA approval after entering into a consultation process with the agency in 2019; it cannot sell through the restaurants it expects to partner with until it receives it. (As for liability insurance, the company says it has the same liability insurance typically found with meat and seafood producers.)
Still, the company is interesting for a long list of other reasons, including the fact that one of its biggest potential threats, Impossible Foods, has said it was working on plant-based and non-cell-grown seafood, but it hasn’t got anything yet. released. †
Meanwhile, smaller venture-backed companies in the same industry seem to be focusing on other seafood products. For example, BlueNalu is trying to make cultured mahi mahi its first cultured seafood, while Gathered Foods is working on ready-to-eat bags of plant-based tuna.
Wildtype’s product can also prove to be a lot faster and more efficient to use as it only grows the edible parts of the salmon. (Theoretically, cooks would avoid the time and waste traditionally involved in butchering a fish.)
Yet another argument that Wildtype makes revolves around traceability. Elfenbein says, “It’s especially relevant in the seafood world, where people often order one and receive the other.”
Indeed, if the 35-strong company is able to scale up its salmon and sell it at a reasonable price, it’s easy to see it making a dent.
Time will tell. On the scale front, Wildtype says it can’t grow the salmon faster, a process that currently takes four to six weeks. But it can open up new locations and it can develop a fully automated production system, which it hasn’t done yet.
Meanwhile, the nutrients it feeds cells, which Elfenbein describes as “like a fancy Gatorade,” are “expensive these days because it’s not adapted for food production methods,” so Wildtype invests heavily in providing the basic nutrients that cells need to survive.”
It’s not clear that these will get any cheaper, but the team doesn’t sound discouraged by the challenges either way.
“In the end”, says Kolbeck, “we have a very affordable and accessible product. We want to turn around [the status quo] upside down, where the most nutritious foods are the most expensive.” The ultimate goal, he adds, is sushi-grade salmon that’s “cheaper than a chicken thigh,” which they consider to be “within the realm of possibility.”
Wildtype last raised funds in late 2019, closing a $12.5 million Series A round from CRV, Maven Ventures, Spark Capital and Root Ventures. The latest funding pushes total funding to just over $120 million in total.