This week: we discuss lab-grown seafood and the future of fish with Wildtype Co-Founder, Aryé Elfenbein.
Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Futures Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
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Sandra Lab-grown meat has been growing in popularity over the past few years. And it's a story that we've followed closely on The Future, This Week. And when we say lab-grown meat, we're not talking about plant-based meat alternatives like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. We're talking about actual meat grown in vats, derived from animal cells.
Kai Yeah, there's been a lot of development since we last spoke about the future of food. Fake milk, the chicken of tomorrow, Beyond Meat's quest to hide the innovation. Just in the last few weeks, the Italian government has moved to ban lab-grown meat a decision that many think is misguided.
Sandra They've also banned ChatGPT, didn't they?
Kai Italy bans the future?
Sandra Yeah, maybe. But while Italy bans it, Singapore and the US FDA have declared it safe to eat. And in related news, closer to home, an Australian startup in late March created meatballs using mammoth DNA. I don't know how I feel about eating mammoth.
Kai Sounds like some big meatballs. Maybe you would only need one to, you know, feed a whole family. It does make me wonder about the ethics of eating lab-grown meat. Is it better for the environment? Also how affordable and accessible could it be? And would consumers, especially vegetarians, even want to eat it?
Sandra Well, fortunately, one of the people on our team was recently visiting the US.
Pat Norman Hi, I'm Pat Norman, and I work with Sandra and Kai on Sydney Executive Plus, a new initiative of The University of Sydney Business School.
Kai And if you think you've heard this voice before, you have every week, on the intro to this podcast.
Sandra Pat sat down for a chat with Aryé Elfenbein, Co-Founder of Wildtype, a San Francisco based startup that is creating lab-grown salmon. They talked about the sustainability of the approach and gave us an insight into just how the whole process works.
Intro From The University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, an initiative that explores the future of business. And you're listening to The Future, This Week, where Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer sit down every week to rethink trends in technology and business.
Pat Norman About 20 minutes north of downtown San Francisco is Fisherman's Wharf, a bustling hive of activity. Out over the bay, you can see the Golden Gate Bridge, street vendors sizzle sausages and beef for tacos. Seagulls wheel overhead, and sea lions relax in the sun. During the California Gold Rush, the area grew quickly with the arrival of Italian immigrant fishermen. These days, the California Gold Rush is based just south in Silicon Valley, the home of countless tech startups. And just south of downtown San Francisco, a startup called Wildtype is experimenting with a different kind of fishing. They've started with sushi-grade salmon. And today I'm having a chat with one of Wildtype's co-founders.
Aryé Elfenbein My name is Aryé Elfenbein, a co-founder of Wildtype, a company in San Francisco seeking to grow seafood directly from cells outside the animal, in a way that looks a lot like a brewery and uses a lot of the same sort of fermentative technologies, as beer brewing. So we take cells from animals such as fish, and learn what nutrients they require, how to get them to thrive in these steel tanks, then have them grow on these plant-based structures, which we call scaffolds, which are very similar to what that term means in construction. And that's where they can grow, mature, develop into the same types of structures that are, you know, in cuts of sashimi.
Pat Norman And your background is as a cardiologist, but you did a PhD in molecular biology.
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, exactly. So I did an MD and PhD and it really just used completely different parts of my brain, obviously, the clinical parts of training, how to become a physician, and actually still work in the intensive care unit once a week now.
Pat Norman Really!
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, of all types, I did like three full time jobs. But it's always felt like a real privilege to be able to work in the ICU. And Critical Care is sort of where I practice these days, particularly during the pandemic. I think that a lot of people felt unsure about what we could actually do about this. And it was pretty special to be able to go into the ICU and actually just be there. But that's one aspect. And then the whole other side of my brain is more on the scientific side. And so that was a PhD in molecular biology, most of which I did at Kyoto University before I came back to the US for residency.
Pat Norman Given that background, what inspired you to start a startup looking at, like, lab-grown fish cells?
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, well, you know, after residency, I really wanted to get at least partially involved in research. So I came to San Francisco worked at the Gladstone Institutes at UCSF, which is actually the same place where a professor who made the discovery of iPS cells, or ethically being able to grow stem cells from ordinary skin cells, had started a lab. And I was just interested in cardiac regeneration, how can we encourage the heart to regrow after an attack rather than turning into scar tissue. And actually, I was working with the same modified RNAs, which are now the vaccine. It was a very emotional experience to receive that vaccine. I never would have thought that it would have become a, you know, a viable therapeutic so quickly. Obviously, the pandemic accelerated that. But these were the same RNAs that I would make with my hands, and we'd be using them in the heart. And, you know, there's probably something about being in California around that time, that made me think about two things. One was, how can we think differently about the application of a lot of these technologies. I think a lot of people in the biomedical sciences go into research thinking, 'I'm going to be working on a cure for cancer or working on heart disease' or something like that. But there are pretty amazing tangential applications for a lot of these things. And I think being in California during a drought and sort of seeing this poor Earth suffering more and more every year made me think about whether we can apply any of this to address the issues in our food system. The moment it actually sort of came to me was years before when I was on holidays from residency and back in Australia, in Queensland, and seeing parts that used to all be rainforest, are no longer, used primarily for animal agriculture and wondering, 'Can we eat meat without eating animals?' And it was that idea that just made me think about whether we can use these technologies to address food. And at that time, there were only two places in the US where you could actually rent lab space by the hour. And so my co-founder, Justin and I, did just that. We, on nights and weekends, would have our own little lab and started by making foie gras actually, working with a duck farmer about three hours north of here who would give us these fertilised duck eggs, you know, within hours of when he would find them. And we learned how to grow these cells, just as our own weird hobby, you know.
Pat Norman Wow!
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, our friends would go to the bar and stuff on a Friday night, and we'd be going to the lab to do these cool little experiments.
Pat Norman And these foie gras cells that you're growing, it turns out, right, it works?
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, I mean, we were able to get liver cells for foie gras is we were able to grow them in these high fat environments, which mimics what happens when you have foie gras. But we realised that we would be addressing a very niche… I mean, there was a very good reason to do it. If you were to plot cost on one axis and controversy on the other, foie gras would be in the far top right for sure. But when we think about just the needs this planet has right now, I don't know if more foie gras is really high up there.
Pat Norman Well, that kind of gets to the ethical vibe that you bring to the whole thing. One of the reasons that you founded this is that we're looking for a sustainable way of producing fishery.
Aryé Elfenbein Exactly. You know, today when it comes to seafood, in particular, if we were just to describe fish generally, even though there are so many very different animals, it is one of the few species that we still hunt in some way. We're not really able to grow them in the same way that we are chickens or cows. And even when it comes to aquaculture, or fish farms, that's something that we're realising some of the upper limits of what sustainability actually means there. Not as a buzzword, but truly just being able to sustain these places where we can continue to grow relatively high densities of fish. So what we're seeing is, first of all, when we describe wild caught fish, there are just fewer and fewer fish in the sea. And it's estimated that there'll be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, that species like wild Atlantic salmon will be extinct by 2050. So that's not a great place to be thinking about keeping up with the increasing demand for seafood in the world. The second is coastal aquaculture or fish farms, and what we're seeing is two things. One is, like I was saying, the areas where this happens, because of the concentration of fish there, it will often lead to these ecologic deadzones and becomes relatively unsustainable over time. And the warming waters also mean that we can't actually keep it in the same place. And so there are fewer spaces where that happens. And so the third option, that's emerging now, is on-land facilities. And it's incredible how energy intensive these have to be, especially for a fish like salmon that spends its early days in freshwater streams, later in life in the ocean, and so you have to have fresh water you have to have saltwater, you need to cool it down to temperatures of about eight degrees, you need to oxygenate all of that, you need to filter out all of that, the fish still need to swim around for about two years before harvest. And at the end of that, typically about 40% of a fish is just discarded because we don't typically eat things like the fins and guts and stuff like that. So the efficiencies there are ones that we have yet to really realise. And that is the promise of a technology like ours, where we just grow what we eat, and do it directly from cells and minimise a lot of those inefficiencies.
Pat Norman So I think there's two things that I want to get out here. One is like the question about how you scale the technology that you've developed, but maybe first, the audience would be really helpful to know, how does it actually work? How does it work? I'm thinking when I read descriptions of it, it reminds me, I'm really interested, you mentioned mRNA earlier, the pandemic happens, and everyone becomes fascinated by the technology that's being put in our hands.
Aryé Elfenbein Right.
Pat Norman And a lot of the descriptions that I've read remind me a lot of that growing, you know, cells, in vats.
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, exactly. You know, people will ask like, okay, so you can grow fish cells in a steel tank, it looks like a beer brewing tank.
Pat Norman Yeah.
Aryé Elfenbein But those fish cells and steel tank don't know how to become sashimi.
Pat Norman Yeah, exactly.
Aryé Elfenbein It's like, what comes out? Because we imagined would be beer. So that is really the first step. The first step is choosing cells, finding them, ones that were able to regenerate over time, just kind of sustaining them with the right amount of nutrition and have them grow to densities that we can then start to use them. That is only the first step, the next part is getting them to actually integrate within the structures that we provide for them. So cells typically, especially if they're just kind of being thrown around in a, you know, steel fermenter need to take cues from the environment in terms of how to behave, if you give them a very rigid structure to grow on, they will adapt to that, if you give them a very sort of soft structure with a lot of fat, for example, they'll behave a lot more like fat cells. And so that's kind of the basis of the field of tissue engineering, generally. And for our purposes, we create these scaffolds, these structures from plant derived materials all edible, readily available, cheap, and then provide those structures for the cells to grow on. So you know, in that sense, we can actually shape it in any way that you'd want these cells to grow. And thinking about sushi as a first application, we actually create these blocks that are typically used by sushi chefs, they're called 'Saku', Japanese for block. And that's kind of the form factor we're using for this our first product. So what you see when you see a piece of Wildtype salmon is actually these different scaffold components that then, when a cell interacts with them will behave differently depending on what part of the scaffold it is. So we provide that initial, we sometimes describe it as like a paint by numbers kit, or a guide for like, if you're over here, this is sort of how to behave, and then have that complexity, be part of the overall product. It's especially important for salmon because we always eat with our eyes first. When it comes to something like salmon, it's just so visually unique. You know that that's salmon, right? Yes, it was actually one of the first big challenges before even being able to have something that tasted good to just create something that didn't just look weird.
Pat Norman Well, initially, it would have looked like an orange block or something.
Aryé Elfenbein Exactly. Yeah. You know, without giving cells that structure, they'll just sort of decide on their own. And sometimes the decisions they make are strange. And so it is important to have that structure for the cells to know what to turn into, particularly when you're making a raw product like salmon. It's different if you're making a chicken nugget, for example.
Pat Norman First thing, how long does it take for a Saku block to grow?
Aryé Elfenbein The process depends on what we're making. We've had experiments in the past that are kind of like wine caves, where we'll be like, 'Oh, here's a sample that the cells have been growing on the scaffold for four months. And here's one where they've been growing on this scaffold for two days.' You know, these are the types of fascinating tastings we do here internally, pretty regularly, to understand how we can increase the complexity, but knowing that for every extra day that these cells grow on the scaffold that adds cost, and in the end, we're competing with a commodity product. So typically, these days, the short answer is four to six weeks from start to finish.
Pat Norman That's really fast.
Aryé Elfenbein It's especially fast when you think about the comparator, which is aquaculture where typically, salmon will swim around for two years before harvest.
Pat Norman And one of the other things that occurs to me is like, because this salmon's not out in the wild, does that mean that there's a lower risk of bacterial problems?
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, absolutely. Everybody knows that there are heavy metal contaminants in all seafood, that there are increasingly human pharmaceutical agents that are like antidepressants and birth control hormones that are being found in our wild fish and even in farmed fish as well, there's bioaccumulation of a lot of these toxins, microplastics, and so forth. And that is an opportunity, I think, for people to actually be selfish in choosing a product that is as pristine as what we create here. So anytime we've sent out salmon from the supermarket here in San Francisco, it's always had some amount of arsenic, some amount of mercury. And that's largely because, you know, humans have just polluted the oceans over time, and it accumulates in these animals. And so forgetting all of the bacterial aspects, just those contaminants, which are pervasive, are not found in our product. And then there is the question of some of the more kind of gross aspects. There's a reason why in California and New York and most states in the US, I'm actually not sure about Australia, but it's mandated that salmon be frozen to minus 65, before being served as raw. The reason for that is that it's assumed that there'll be some amount of parasites in there, and this will kill the parasites. It won't remove them, but it's better to eat them dead than eat them alive. I know that's disgusting. But that is the reality. And so all of this, I think, is part of why this is such a compelling way to think about a clean, new sustainable source of seafood.
Pat Norman What you've described, being able to grow these blocks in about two weeks, it's pretty amazing. What's your sort of vision for how scalable it is?
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, you know, I'll start with the, depending on how you look at it, either depressing or inspirational. We did some very rough calculations a while ago, and figured that, in order to create just 1%, of all of the seafood that's produced and consumed in the world - just 1% - we would need all of the steel tanks in the world. What that says to me is that there are just incredible opportunities to rethink, first of all the materials we use, the way that we create these fermenters, there's just so much that has yet to be imagined in terms of how we can do this. But that first of all, shows just how enormous the global seafood market is, how many humans depend on it for sustenance. But it's also a huge challenge for us, we're not going to be able to feed the world with a small brewery that we've turned into a pilot plant here in San Francisco. We're in the design phase of a next manufacturing facility, which is not going to be here in the Bay Area. We're looking for places with renewable energy, that are not as drought prone as San Francisco is. But even so, scaling, I think, is just an enormous challenge. It starts with just the same lessons that we've learned from both the pharmaceutical industry and from classic fermentation. And I think that to get from that level to one that truly makes an enormous environmental impact is actually going to take some new dimensions of engineering,
Pat Norman There's also the regulatory question as well. So I think the FDA said lab-grown meat is fit for human consumption. That's fairly recent.
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah.
Pat Norman And Wildtype is really close to getting the green light?
Aryé Elfenbein We hope so. You know, it's been about a four-and-a-half-year conversation. And while it certainly hasn't been fast, it's actually been quite wonderful, in terms of both sides learning. I naively thought that when we had our first call with FDA, they would show up and we would say, like, hey, so where's the form for us to fill out? So here it is. And we just kind of go down the checklist, and that'd be it. Of course it is nothing like that. It started with them saying, 'So ah, what brings you here today?' And, you know, I sort of like describing this. And it really was a conversation on both sides. I'll say that every question that has been posed by the FDA has been a very thoughtful science-first type of question that we've learned from as well. The main thing that I've learned from it is actually that this technology is far less controversial than most people think. And the reason for that is the main ingredient is something that's been around forever, which is fish cells, we eat them every time we have fish. And then everything else has regulatory precedent as some plant-based ingredient. And when you put those together, it's pretty hard to argue, what is it about this that is causing concern? And it really becomes a much more boring question of just standard food safety.
Pat Norman Yeah.
Aryé Elfenbein Where are the critical control points? What does the manufacturing plant look like? What are the kinds of testing do we routinely do? And what does the recall plan look like? And it's just very, very similar to, you know, most types of food and most sort of food safety plans. The difference obviously, is that what we're creating and the way we're doing, it just hasn't existed previously. In the US, on the food side, it's not sort of FDA approval, the way that it is for drugs. It's getting FDA to the point that they just don't have any further questions. And then that is a green light to be able to sell in the US.
Pat Norman How are consumers sort of reacting to this, is there like massive interest?
Aryé Elfenbein I love that question. Because as you can imagine, it's all over the place. The best and most meaningful discussions we've had around any type of cultivated seafood have always started when we begin with the product. So we have a tasting room that we've built here in San Francisco. And we have these enormous glass panels so that people are able to see exactly how it's made, who's making it.
Pat Norman Oh, wow.
Aryé Elfenbein And you know, this is the type of thing that when students from high school will come and visit will often say, you know, this is something you'd never see at a slaughterhouse, right? We have a little tasting room, like, here's a hamburger and like, look over here, like, here's the magic of how it happens, right? Like, I think it begins with that level of transparency for people to understand exactly what this is. And when the conversations have started with the products, people will say exactly what you just did, which was like, 'Hey, how did these white bands come from? Like, what is that? And also, what makes salmon orange usually? That's not the same colour as like other animals, right?' It's actually these beta carotene derivatives that are part of their normal diet, it's not the same red as what's in cow meat, for example. So these are the types of things that when people sort of see it as a food product first, rather than this abstraction of like, okay, go to the steel tank somewhere in San Francisco, and I have no idea how that actually turns into sashimi. And what is this? And I think a lot of lessons we've learned from going back to the mRNA vaccine, where there was an incredible technology that had the potential to absolutely just squash a global pandemic very quickly. And there was all over the world such different degrees of scepticism and mistrust of science. And I often wonder what could we have done differently in terms of communicating the actual process of what this is, that the technology has actually existed? What we know and what we don't know, just being completely, you know, honest about that. And I think that's the only way an industry like ours is going to succeed, is just bringing people along for that journey and having people understand exactly what this is, what it isn't, how it's different from conventional seafood and what promise it offers.
Pat Norman Wouldn't it be a really curious thing if more and more people learn to trust mRNA vaccines by eating fish from Wildtype?
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah, I mean, just, you know, generally, I think that it's an interesting age we live in, where what we understand about the world is just so much more detailed now. So much richer, our general fund of knowledge is so much greater. And yet, despite that, there is, I think, just more and more of an increasing mistrust of that information. But I think that the way through this is really just starting with what you see in front of you. And that's kind of the best way to communicate about any of this.
Pat Norman You've alluded to that process of taste testing all the way through.
Aryé Elfenbein Yeah.
Pat Norman How did it start tasting, and where has it landed now?
Aryé Elfenbein You know, one of the most disappointing days of my life was probably about two years in, when we'd finally grown enough cells to actually just kind of pull them together and give them a taste. And these were just the cells that we had grown. So we hadn't provided the structure for them, really, we hadn't given them the same sort of nutrients that they would have experienced if they had grown inside of a fish, for example. And it really just tasted like nothing.
Pat Norman Did you feel any trepidation, going, I'm gonna eat these cells that I've grown right now?
Aryé Elfenbein For sure. I think that seeing how they're growing, we already had in our minds that this was only going to be just the beginning, that just like understanding, you know how to grow cells was truly just the first step in this enormous journey. But that was a disappointing day. But at the same time, it just made me appreciate even more of what goes into the complexities of a product like raw salmon, for example, and made us really work harder to understand what comprises these complexities. We were described fats, which are very important. In fact, when people talk about omega threes, those are not produced by fish, they're actually accumulated by them. And it's algae in the ocean that make them, and so we looked at algae derived fats for their high omega three, omega six content, found that a lot of the flavours are also similar from those oceanic sort of algal flavours, found that other sugars that terrestrial animals use are not the same as the ones that fish cells using, you know, slowly started to piece together the culinary aspect with the cell biology. And that's now brought us to where we are today where we've been, you know, tasting with chefs, not just in the US but in other places and have been learning from the feedback we've been getting about what kind of environments we can provide for these cells, how we can sort of create this in a way that just more and more closely represents what these chefs are used to when it comes to conventional seafood. So today, I'd say the single most common feedback we get is that the flavour is somewhat mild, but it still has that sort of clean, oceanic flavour. That's something we're looking to address. Actually, part of it is I think, especially in the US, people are used to fish that is maybe a little bit more aged, a little less fresh. So the oxidation of the fats are a big part of that. Another part of it is some of the bacteria that are natural that are, you know, just they're typically in conventional seafood when you just pull a fish out of the water, that aren't there for us when we grow them in these very hyper clean environments. And I think understanding those are actually just part of the fascination we all have here in terms of just getting closer to that gold standard of what an incredible cut of raw salmon taste like.
Pat Norman Aryé, thank you for your time on The Future, This Week.
Aryé Elfenbein It was my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Outro You've been listening to The Future, This Week from The University of Sydney Business School. Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights, and Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation. Connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and WeChat, and follow, like, or leave us a rating wherever you get your podcasts. If you have any weird or wonderful topics for us to discuss, send them to email@example.com.