Exploring The Everyday: Better Meat For a Better Future

Exploring The Everyday is an interview series exploring interesting individuals or companies who are trying to make an impact on the lives of everyday people. 

What do you think about when you hear the words, “lab grown meat”? Are images of Frankenstein and his monster coming to mind? The reality is that it’s not that scary or crazy of a concept. Just like doctors and scientists have been attempting to grow human organs for transplants, others in the field have been trying to grow animal parts in a lab for humans to consume.

The need for an alternative to our current meat production is becoming more apparent with each passing day. Our oceans are regularly overfished, nearly90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Animal agriculture accounts for more greenhouse gas than the entire transportation industry. And food scarcity and malnourishment is on the rise again for the first time in decades.

The statistics speak for themselves. That’s why in order to reimagine the way humans consume protein, Aryé Elfenbein and Justin Kolbeck created WildType, an engineered protein company. They’ve been hard at work creating lab grown salmon for consumption. Their thesis is around creating better meat to address the most pressing challenges of our generation: climate change, food security, and health. We sat down to talk about what engineered meat means for the world and how something like this can seem crazy at first, but once you really dig into it, you realize it is actually quite genius.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity*

What was your inspiration behind starting Wild Type?

Aryé Elfenbein: My background is in science and medicine. The story began when I started to think about whether we need animals to create meat. I had been working on research that focused on regenerative medicine and also training in cardiology, and started to wonder if some of the emerging technologies of stem cell biology, tissue engineering, and our understanding of how cells become complex tissues, could be applied to fields beyond the biomedical sciences.

I continued to think about this throughout my cardiology fellowship training. Justin and I met in 2011, my first year of residency and his first year of business school. Then, I moved to San Francisco to work on cardiac regenerative medicine research.

Creating meat in this way was something that we had talked about as an idea, and wondered whether it could be a scalable technology and economically viable if it found consumer acceptance. Our dream to create better meat in this way led us to start Wild Type.

Justin Kolbeck: In terms of my background, I started my career as a diplomat. I served in Pakistan and Australia. Then, my third overseas assignment was on a provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, near the Pakistani border. And that’s really where I had my first introduction to what food scarcity actually looks like up close and personal.

I met Aryé while we were both at Yale and then worked as a strategy consultant for a few years before co-founding Wild Type with him. Over the years, as Aryé started talking to me about this technology and the impact that it could have on so many different fields including food, I started looking into data on food security. What I experienced in Afghanistan really stayed with me, and one of the things that I noted was that meat prices have been steadily climbing since about 2000.

My hypothesis is that these price increases will continue because we’ve effectively reached the limits of what we can do with technology for meat and fish production, which is now more than 50 years old. Unless there’s dramatic innovation in how we produce meat for the world as the population increases, and as all of the inputs to meat production — water, land, labor feed, etc. — become scarcer, prices will continue to rise.

That either means that we’ll have more expensive (and therefore less accessible) meat in the future, or there will be a devastating impact on the environment and meat consumption will be the least of our worries. For me, this is why I decided to dedicate my professional energy to this enterprise.

Is there a particular story or example of what you experience around food scarcity that had the biggest impact on you?

J: One that sticks out for me was from my time in Afghanistan. Afghans, like us, really enjoy meat — chicken and lamb in particular, and there just wasn’t a lot of it. It got to the point where I was hearing reports of people smuggling meat over the Pakistani border. This was never confirmed, they were just stories that I heard. But it was just very clear to me that people did not take for granted where their next meal would come from in the way that we do here in the United States. Often our biggest question is thinking about what kind of food we want to have today, which is such a privilege.

I remember I was invited to this feast with the provincial governor in Paktika. They have a tradition of slaughtering an animal for guests. And if you’re the guest of honor, they give you the head of the animal, which in this case was a goat. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t need this much food. Why are people giving me this huge, opulent feast, when I know so many people would love to have this for the next week?’ I remember feeling guilty that I, this very young representative from the United States, didn’t feel worthy of this great gift that that village put together for me.

What would you say is the biggest “cost” in our current situation? The cost doesn’t have to be monetary.

A: I think for me, the most astounding estimation of carbon emissions from livestock production is essentially, equal to or greater than, the entire transportation sector combined. That to me was something that I never appreciated in terms of the connection between livestock farming and the environment. It’s also astonishing that 1/3 of the arable land on earth is used for livestock farming.

J: If you look at beef prices since 1970, and adjust for inflation, you will see that prices have risen to the point where all of the productivity gains from the last 50 to 60 years have been erased. Prices are now, in real terms, back to where they were in the early 1970s.

And what is driving that increase?

J: Our hypothesis, and this is backed up by a U.N. report, is that it’s predominantly the inputs to meat production that are becoming more expensive.

If you think about all the things that go into meat production today: land, feed, water, labor, etc., all of these things have certainly become scarcer. There’s also an interesting hypothesis that we haven’t validated, that perhaps our choice of meat that we eat is becoming more selective. We’re going for more higher end cuts. There are only so many ribeye cuts on a cow. So, if you want to eat ribeye for every dinner you need to have a lot more cows.

Fish are a very different story. There’s a slightly different element at play there. There are two ways to get fish: farming or fishing. And the truth is that there are only so many fish in the sea. It is also true that many more fish species are now endangered and pushed to the brink of extinction than ever before. Having to go further and further down to catch new fish because we are overfishing other species is not ideal. ew technology like ground scraping nets able to grab as many fish as possible, is also having a deleterious impact on our oceans.

Fish farming doesn’t necessarily obviate the problems because you can’t farm all types of fish. Even common, large scale, farmed species, like salmon face challenges. Farming fish doesn’t solve all the problems because quite a bit of the feed that goes into aquaculture farming does come from smaller fish, like anchovies, that are caught and ground up.

Another problem, other than the food, is space. The more fish you put together the more rampant things like sea lice become. In the Puget Sound, where I live in Seattle, there was an unfortunate net break and more than 100,000 Atlantic salmon, which are not native to the Puget Sound area, escaped into the sound. As a result, there have been some heavy restrictions on Atlantic Salmon farming. And so, for all these reasons, I feel like prices will only continue to go up because I don’t think any of those driving forces are going to change directions anytime soon.

The concept of lab grown meat is not new. Can you give the 2 minute history lesson on how far we’ve come in the last 10 years or so?

A: The idea was first patented by Willem Van Eelen in the Netherlands over 50 years ago, but it was never turned into a product. In the early 2000s, there was an artist by the name of Oron Catts, who, as an art demonstration, was able to grow frog cells in serum and then presented them at a dinner. And much to his delight, four out of the eight guests spat it out.

But I believe that this field really took off when Mark Post’s first hamburgerpatty was created from cells that had been propagated from cow tissue. I think the reasons the development of this took so long is on account of 3 things: our understanding of stem cell biology and knowing which of the genes that are involved in cells becoming tissues, advances in tissue engineering, and our ability to grow cells is at much lower cost than ever before.

In terms of stem cell biology, up until the mid 2000s, there had been a moratorium on research in the United States on stem cells because the only source of some stem cells for humans were embryos. And then, in 2006, Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University discovered that we can actually reprogram ordinary cells, like skin cells, into stem cells providing us with a theoretically unlimited source, to not only study, but also to grow for other purposes.

Tissue engineering is a field that is only a couple of decades old. It’s only now reaching the point where we can start to think about what it would be like to produce the types of tissues that we would need at a scale that would be meaningful in terms of offsetting these complications and some of the deleterious effects of conventional meat production.

Stem cells are important because these are the cells that possess two really remarkable attributes. One is the ability to divide essentially faster than any other cell type in the body. And the second is their ability to become any cell in the body. If you think about it, the combination of those two things are really one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the whole field of cellular agriculture. There are obviously still roadblocks ahead that every company working in this field is trying to knock down.

J: I’d say that there are three roadblocks. One of the biggest issues right now is tissue engineering. You have to give the cells the right lattices or scaffolding on which to grow and propagate and take on much more complex textures. The second is cost. The most significant cost of the inputs is the food that the cells need. The challenge is very similar to conventional animal agriculture, where farmers often think about how much their feed costs and the conversion rate of that feed to meat. Those two variables are equally true in terms of being the most important cost drivers for our technology.

The third challenge is a two-part problem regarding scaling. Part one is just being able to grow enough cells at a scale that would make a significant dent in the huge market for meat, which is close to a three trillion-dollar market, globally. That would imply growing cells at a scale larger than anything done today. The second part of that challenge is finding a way to not have to go back to the animal for cells over and over again. When you take cells from a body, they’ll expand for a little while and then they’ll stop. So, finding a way that you don’t have to constantly go back to the animal to get new tissue is a real challenge that we’ve been addressing.

Why did you choose to focus on fish protein first, considering the immediate environmental impact beef has?

A: Our initial prototypes were avian species, foie gras specifically. Cell biology is less well characterized for fish than for mammalian or avian species. The underlying physiology is quite different.

A lot of the differences we found between fish and mammalian species was quite surprising. I think that the differences in the texture, taste, appearance and so forth, really depends on the structure of cells within fish. It’s difficult to characterize all of that together and can be difficult to replicate.

For us, salmon was an interesting product to pursue for a few reasons. First of all, in terms of market, it’s the second most consumed type of fish in the United States. Pacific salmon is not easily farmed, and for sustainability purposes, it still represents a very important ecological opportunity to offset current conventional practices when it comes to efficiency.

From a health perspective as well, there are contaminants found in both farmed and wild salmon that called for an alternative. Heavy metal, plastic, and antibiotics contaminants are frequently found in a product that in many ways is one of the healthiest proteins, and yet it comes with the cost of these pervasive contaminants. The opportunity to produce salmon in a way that is free of contaminants was a very compelling reason for us.

Another reason is that from here in San Francisco, up to Alaska is salmon country. So, we feel an affinity for this this animal, and we wanted to create a food company with roots in Pacific Northwest.

J: Fish is the largest animal protein market globally. So, it made sense to start in a place where the demand is the greatest since this is a global problem. These types of fish are actually quite expensive. he wild caught salmon that you see in Whole Foods will cost somewhere between $25 to $35 a pound. And then at the lowest end, the farmed Atlantic salmon at Trader Joe’s runs about $10 a pound. Comparatively, chicken and beef costs around $3 to $5 a pound, respectively. So, if the race is to try to come up with a product that is as affordable as possible, it made sense for us to start with something that had a slightly higher price.

One advantage to choosing fish that’s worth mentioning, is that fish are cold blooded. So, when you culture mammalian cells for any purpose, they have to be grown in an oven set to 37 degrees Celsius, which is our body temperature. With fish, we can grow them at room temperature, or even colder. So, imagine some of the advantages that would provide in large scale production.

A. The cells will function and grow at a wider range of temperatures than warm blooded species. The other thing that’s interesting about fish cell biology is that many fish that have a skeleton, like salmon and tuna, will continue to grow as long as they stay alive and have a good food source. There is an intrinsic regenerative capacity that these animals have that doesn’t exist in the same way in mammalian species. That has been a fascinating aspect of the fish cell and developmental biology for us to study.

There’s a lot more that can be disrupted here other than just helping save the environment, can you walk us through what those might be?

J: We particularly get excited any time we sit down with any chefs or people who’ve spent their entire life in the business of feeding people. We always come away with some new idea about how our products might be used. That could be anything from changing the shape of a salmon fillet, so that in a round pan you can cook 5 or 6 filets versus just 1 or 2, to things as exciting as the possibility of being able to ship meat without ice.

We got some advice from a friend who runs a food business in Seattle, who said that the bulk of shipping costs from shipping meat around the country is due to ice. Since we are making meat aseptically, in theory you could potentially ship meat unrefrigerated, which changes the dynamic. One of the challenges he often has with shipping meat is that the economics just don’t work. Iceless meat shipping would fundamentally change the economic model.

What do you think is going to be the first kind of product that goes to market in a commercial way and how do you think you would do that?

J: When we thought about our product arc, it was always to start with kind of a minced type of salmon that ends up in your spicy salmon roll. In fact, our investors tried this version of our product a few weeks ago. We made a spicy salmon roll that was made with well-formed pieces of salmon.

Spicy salmon roll made with WildType salmon

The next step would be to come up with something that’s much more textured, like a piece of smoked salmon or lox that would go on a bagel. It’s highly structured but quite thin.

We can go mass market with one of these products that people are used to eating on a regular basis or we can go upmarket and start with a more gourmet product for restaurants.

Do you guys receive pushback, or threats from others in the food industry? I know there’s a lot of power in this industry and incentive to keep things status quo.

A: There’s some early resistance from conventional producers of meat. The way we see it is, we would like to be as transparent as possible about exactly how this is made what it is and give consumers the power to decide. We want to create a product that is indistinguishable from conventional meat, except with the obvious differences of not having these pervasive contaminants introduced, and being created in a more sustainable manner. We want to engage with these incumbents in discussion. There’s certainly some resistance to that, and I imagine that there will be more in the future, as Justin described in terms of the regulatory state.

J: There are a number of things that need to get done within the regulatory infrastructure in the US. And we wouldn’t want to get ahead of the regulators on that. n the same way that we count on the USDA inspectors and the FDA inspectors to certify that meat is safe to consume, we want to give consumers that same level of confidence for our products and to understand this very new form of meat and fish production. And, regulators are very quickly starting to put the pieces in place for what that inspection.

How do you plan get consumers to accept this as a common purchase and help them over this mental block of knowing this meat was never “alive”?

J: That’s something that we’ve been obsessed with since we started talking about this company. And before we started with any of the development work, we talked to some friends of ours in the food business. When I first mentioned the idea to a good friend who’s a restaurateur, his initial reaction was confusion, then it was a little bit of apprehension, and then after I explained what we were trying to do, he was excited.

The really exciting part of what we’re building, which is just starting now, is this conversation we’re having with people in the food business about consumer acceptance. And I think the way that this is done is through honest conversations with people about how we’re making our products. What are the things that we can consider in our process to make them more comfortable to serve to their customers, but also how can we use this technology to really reshape and completely improve our food system? We’re trying to build a food brand not just a technology company.

One of the key themes that we’re hearing about is a lot of pressure from consumers for sustainable protein sources. There are sustainable fisheries, and sustainable ranchers and farmers, but that supply is somewhat limited. The idea of being able to provide a product that not only is incredibly sustainable, but in some sense highly customizable and will allow for new forms of innovation is really exciting.

There’s an important number in the restaurant business called yield, which is the percent of an animal carcass that is edible. That ranges anywhere between 30% to 70% depending on which animal. All the parts that are thrown away obviously are waste, and with our products there’s no waste and you don’t have to pay somebody to butcher the animal.

In the long run, we are thinking about customizing the fat content in protein for people on specific diets. You have the ability to make the finest cuts of meat. For example, if you’ve ever had salmon cheek or belly, you know that it’s delicious, but there’s only so much of it on the fish. For us, it’s just as easy to create one or the other so the cost would be the same. Being able to produce a gourmet product for every salmon meal is really exciting to people in the food business.

What we’re doing now is taking some of that salmon we’ve produced to some of our friends in the industry to get their input and constructive criticism about things that need to get improved. We want people in the food world in the kitchen with us developing these products because I think that vastly increases our chances of creating something that people can be really excited about.