Aryé Elfenbein wants to revolutionize how we consume fish
Wildtype’s salmon sashimi, created from just a handful of salmon cells, could be groundbreaking for health-conscious, environmentally aware and kosher consumers
Aryé Elfenbein has glimpsed a brave-new-world vision of the kosher restaurant of the future: Glance down the menu past the grilled lamb chops, the Porterhouse steak and even the vegan burger, and you’ll find sustainable dishes with “wild-caught fish, farmed fish and plant-based alternatives.”
Then, if all goes as planned for the cardiologist who moonlights as a cell engineer, you’ll find “cultivated seafood” of the kind he and his partner are creating in a San Francisco lab — sashimi-grade salmon grown from just a few salmon cells.
“I’m not the first cardiologist to work on this, actually,” Elfenbein told Jewish Insider, laughing. Launched in 2016, the San Francisco-based Wildtype joined the growing ecosystem of startups seeking to create cultivated, or lab-grown, meat — and the first cultivated hamburger was completed in 2013 by a Dutch cardiologist. “It is kind of a strange coincidence there,” he said. “I don’t know of any other people from medicine [in the field].”
Wildtype, which has succeeded in its efforts to create cultivated salmon, joins the ranks of a small but growing field of companies seeking to grow animal protein almost from scratch, using just a few cells taken from a live fish. Then, through a complex scientific process, these handful of cells become a whole piece of fish — fat, muscle and all. “When we began, I think there were maybe three or four other startups in the world working on this,” Elfenbein said of he and his co-founder, Justin Kolbeck. “Now there’s, I think, more than 60.”
Along with the rise of animal protein meat substitutes, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, both businesses and consumers now have an interest in creating protein that is more sustainable and healthier.
“I imagine a future where if you go to a restaurant,” Elfenbein explained, “there would be many things on the menu, everything from wild-caught — and hopefully that would be sustainably wild-caught — fish… Then there could be farmed fish, there could be plant-based alternatives and then there could be cultivated seafood like we’re producing and maybe some totally new category.”
The growing industry has implications for people who keep kosher, too. “For the kosher consumer, [cultivated] meat — even as a potential — theoretically is very huge,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division. For kosher animals, like cows, the cells would have to come from the animal once it is slaughtered in a ritually kosher way. At that point, a mashgiach would likely have to observe the production process. But if those steps are taken, the cultivated meat would be kosher.
“You’d get a much higher yield,” Genack said, a big advantage when kashrut-observant Jews can usually only eat 20% of a cow. “It should have a significant impact for the kosher consumer and of course, it has other advantages ecologically, in terms of climate.”
And for cultivated fish, kosher certification is likely to be much easier. Fish is not slaughtered like an animal, so there does not need to be any observation when the fish is killed. And a kosher consumer can go to any grocery store or fish market and buy fish without a hechsher (kosher certification), as long as it’s “identifiable that it’s from the kosher species,” said Genack. “The OU’s position has been that salmon, since it has its own unique pink color, even though it doesn’t have a scale on it, people going to the store can identify it as salmon.” Unlike beef, the cultivation of salmon in a lab would not need to be observed the entire time by a mashgiach.
While doing his residency and fellowship at the Yale School of Medicine, Elfenbein met Kolbeck, a business student at Yale. Both developed an interest in sustainable food and cultivated meat for different reasons.
Kolbeck “had been a diplomat and worked in the U.S. Foreign Service in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, these very food insecure parts of the world, and really wanted to do something after finishing his MBA that addressed that in some way,” Elfenbein explained.
Born in Petah Tikvah, Elfenbein left Israel when he was young, and grew up mostly in Australia. After attending Brandeis University as an undergraduate, he went to Dartmouth for his Ph.D. and MD.
“Most of my work for the Ph.D. was done in Japan, around the same time and in the same place that the discovery was made that we could create stem cells from ordinary skin cells,” Elfenbein explained. “Before then, there was a moratorium on [stem-cell] research in the U.S., because the only source that was available was from embryos, and this took all of the ethical issues off the table.” These groundbreaking discoveries in stem-cell research would have implications for Wildtype many years down the road.
Several years after leaving Japan, Elfenbein was back home in Australia on a rare vacation from his medical residency. He saw that much of the rainforest near where he grew up was now used to raise livestock. “This question came to me of, ‘Do we need animals to produce meat?’ Which is a very strange question,” he acknowledged. “It just sort of stayed with me, this question of, Can there be a more efficient and a better and a more humane and more sustainable way to produce meat?”
By 2016, a handful of companies were already working on creating cultivated meat products, but no one else was really focused on seafood. For a scientist like Elfenbein, taking on an almost entirely new research area presented a thrill. But there were other concerns, too.
“There was just this emerging awareness of what was happening — what is happening — in our oceans,” Elfenbein said, referring to pollution and overfishing, “as well as the fact that from here in San Francisco to Alaska’s salmon country, and in all of the little streams that are out here, where there used to be salmon all the time, and now there are none.”
Part of the draw of working with seafood had to do with Elfenbein’s medical background. “As a cardiologist, I wanted to create something that was healthier, so we didn’t want to just make ground beef,” he noted.
Now that plant-based meat substitutes from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have gone mainstream, it’s easy to see how more sustainable alternatives to traditional meat or seafood can translate to heavy profits. Reuters reported in April that Impossible Foods was exploring the possibility of an initial public offering next year with a potential valuation at $10 billion.
But back in 2016, when Wildtype was approaching venture capitalists, Elfenbein and Kolbeck’s pitch was harder.
“It was easy to find people who found this idea absolutely fascinating and could see the vision, and could recognize the problems in our food system and could very easily understand how this could be one solution,” said Elfenbein. “That said, the economics of producing this type of food in the way that we were describing was very, very difficult for people to think to embrace in an investment sense.”
He and Kolbeck had no prototype when they approached investors, and they also had no idea how long it would take to create the product they were after.
“No, we didn’t know,” Elfenbein said, when asked if he and his team were certain, at the time they launched, that they would successfully achieve their goal. Then he revised his answer: “I think we knew, but what was really unclear was, on what timeline? And in particular, would it be possible on the kinds of timelines that early-stage investors would expect?”
It took just a year and a half to create a prototype, though it was primitive. Now, after honing the product, they have created salmon sashimi: An Axios writer who tasted it gave the Wildtype salmon a B+ grade, “much better than your average weekday takeout restaurant.”
Wildtype is building a production facility in San Francisco that will also hold a tasting room, where consumers can buy the fish after it gains approval from the Food and Drug Administration. “Our conversations with them have been extremely productive, very transparent [and] helpful,” Elfenbein said. But as Wildtype looks to gain regulatory approval, Elfenbein has looked to his home country for inspiration.
“Israel really is on the forefront of this field, not just in terms of the startups that have emerged there, but I think also in terms of the government’s willingness to engage in terms of constructing a regulatory framework,” Elfenbein pointed out. “As a very generally progressive society, it’s one that has embraced technologies such as these.”
For now, don’t expect to see Wildtype’s salmon at the local fish counter. Even when it first launches, the fish for an eight-piece sushi roll will cost somewhere between $50 and $100.