Interview: cultivated salmon producer Wildtype CEO Justin Kolbeck on launching commercially and opening the world’s first cell-based fish plant

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AUTHOR: Stef Bottinelli
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Wildtype salmon nigiri. Picture: Wildtype

Founded in 2016 by Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein, a diplomat and a cardiologist respectively, Wildtype produce sushi-grade salmon cultivated from fish cells. 

The company has recently just opened the world’s first pilot production plant in San Francisco, which will enable Wildtype to produce 50,000 pounds of cultivated fish per year, and at maximum capacity it will produce a whopping 200,000. 

Being at the heart of San Francisco is important for Kolbeck and Elfenbein, because it will enable them to meet the city’s lab-grown salmon needs without having to transport their produce for miles, thus cutting down on their carbon footprint.
Respect for the environment is at the heart of Wildtype who is ‘on a mission to create the cleanest, most sustainable seafood on the planet’. 

The newly operational plant won’t just be used for the production of fish, but it also features ‘The Dock’. The converted loading dock has been re-designed by architect Shuo Zhai and will be used as a tasting room with a sushi bar where visitors can sample Wildtype’s produce. 
The plant will in fact be open to the public, who will be able to learn more about the company and see how cultivated salmon is made.

Render of Wildtype pilot plant. Picture: Wildtype

Wildtype is also planning to launch its sushi-grade salmon in US restaurants at the end of the year, as soon as regulatory discussions with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are finalised. 

I caught up with CEO and Co-Founder Justin Kolbeck to find out more about the company’s plans and when we might see their lab-grown fish in British restaurants.

At Wildtype you are planning to launch your cell-based salmon in US sushi restaurants by the end of 2021. How do you think consumers will respond to your product?

If the consumer feedback we’re already receiving from chefs and restaurant owners is any indicator, consumers will be very excited about Wildtype salmon. First-time tasters ranging from world-acclaimed chefs to everyday sushi eaters have told us that they’d have a hard time distinguishing our salmon from wild-caught or farmed salmon. Just as exciting, our salmon is some of the purest available on the planet. It’s completely free of the mercury, microplastics, antibiotics, and parasites that are sadly common in much of the seafood we eat today. We’ve developed something very special, and we’re excited to bring it to US sushi restaurants very soon.
As a point of clarification, we will be commercially ready to go to market by the end of 2021, but our actual launch date is predicated on the completion of conversations underway with FDA. We would like to give these conversations as much time as needed in the interest of a thorough review.

Cell-based fish and meat were extremely costly to produce at the beginning. Have the costs gone radically down?

Yes, and we’re just getting started. Our initial prototypes in 2017 and 2018 were so expensive that only a few people could afford to buy them if they were on sale. Today, our costs would be commensurate with what you’d find on a pricey sushi menu. As we continue to scale, those costs will fall even further. Very soon, you’ll be able to buy Wildtype salmon at costs comparable to, or even lower, than conventionally produced fish.

You’ve just opened a pilot plant in San Francisco intended for the production of fish, but you also plan to open its doors to the public, so that they can learn more about your product. What do you think the public’s opinion of cell-based fish is at this stage?

More than anything else, it’s curiosity. Most people we meet agree that we have to do something about our seafood supply. While many conventional aquaculture and fishery companies are doing their best to make production methods more sustainable, stocks of wild-caught fish continue to plummet (see figure 19 in the FAO’s recent report on the state of the world’s fisheries). Many people we meet are excited that there will soon be new options on the menu for truly sustainable seafood, and have a lot of questions about how our process works, given that there’s nothing else like it on the planet today. It’s for that reason that we designed our first “Fishery” with transparency in mind. We’d like visitors to sample our products and then, a few steps away, be able to see how it’s made through a glass door. This level of transparency and traceability in seafood production is something that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else today.

With the environment, sustainability, health and animal welfare being at the top of the agenda at the moment, do you think one day we’ll fully stop rearing and utilising animals as food in the way we do now, and progress towards consuming lab-grown fish and meat instead?

We believe there will always be a place for responsibly farmed or fished animal protein. Cultivated seafood will be another option on future menus, alongside plant-based, and traditional seafood.
Our vision is to relieve some of the pressure on wild fish stocks, protecting biodiversity in our oceans, seas, and rivers, and ultimately, allowing people in conventional animal husbandry to charge a fair price that accounts for all externalities.

Although you’ve not yet launched commercially in the US, do you envision launching Wildtype salmon globally?

While the United States is our first port of call (pardon the pun) for Wildtype salmon, there’s no question that we will be a global supplier. We’ve received countless inbound requests to expand to places all over the world, most notably in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America where supplies of high quality seafood are increasingly harder to come by. Each country will require a unique approach and we’re excited to be developing partnerships already with players all around the world.

With 80% of the US and UK population open to try cell-based fish and meat, according to a study by the Arizona State University School of Social Behavioural Sciences, and 69% of meat-eating Britons worried about the environmental impact of meat production, according to research by consumer insight company Piplsay,  cultivated fish and meat could very soon be regular dishes on our plates. 

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