Meet Wildtype, the startup growing ‘sushi-grade’ salmon in labs

Nov. 16, 2022, 12:25 a.m.

Students gathered Tuesday to learn about Wildtype, a company that produces sushi-grade salmon without fishing, instead growing the meat through cell cultivation. Wildtype Co-founder Aryé Elfenbein and Vice President of Marketing Jenny Berrien explained the process, which involves taking cells from salmon and growing them in simulated conditions, and addressed sustainable meat and the future of the meat industry at an event in the Larkin North lounge.

Current fishing patterns release significant carbon emissions and contribute to the loss of usable coastline, and much of the fish consumed is contaminated mercury, arsenic, microplastics, parasites and antibiotics, Elfenbein said.

Jay Gupta ’26 said he was concerned by these figures about the fishing industry. “It’s more unsustainable than I thought it would be,” Gupta said.

Elfenbein, a cardiologist, said he co-founded Wildtype in 2016 to address rising global temperatures and overfishing. “We wanted to see what we could do to create a delicious product, one that was free of all these contaminants, one that is accessible as part of our mission and just takes some of the pressure off the oceans,” Elfenbein said.

The salmon is grown using a multistep cultivation process involving cells from a single fish, large brewery tanks and complex scaffolding support, Elfenbein said. “Once you grow the cells in the brewing tanks, they don’t spontaneously know how to become sushi,” he said. “We use these plant based structures that they can grow within.”

Elfenbein said a key part of developing this process was working with food scientists and Indigenous elders, who taught them about the historic Indigenous relationship with salmon. “People who rely on fish for sustenance have been the greatest stewards of the ocean from the beginning,” Elfenbein said. “Because they know, if they take too many fish in one year, they won’t come back the next year.”

Wildtype is preparing to launch in restaurants after years of development. “Probably, in early next year, this will be in a few restaurants for the first time ever,” Elfenbein said.

But Wildtype expects some obstacles along the way, including bringing down the cost of the salmon. “When we started, if we had made a full pound, it would have cost about $400,000,” Elfenbein said.

Wildtype has since brought the cost down and hopes to make it the same price or less expensive than conventional salmon within four years. “We won’t be able to succeed long term unless we can get that cost down,” Elfenbein said.

Another challenge was branding the company amid the plant-based food trend, Berrien said. “We do consider ourselves pretty different from plant-based or vegan,” Berrien said. “Based on my own experience, the plant-based or vegan options out there are okay, but they don’t deliver on your expected salmon experience.”

Both speakers said the company will need to perfect the taste of the salmon. “To say that we could replicate all of the complexities of aroma, texture, flavor of something so amazing like salmon would be speaking, I think, with hubris and arrogance,” Elfenbein said. “I don’t think that we can do that in just a couple of years.”

Berrien offered a different opinion. “Right now, we serve it raw, and it’s typically in a sushi roll or nigiri, or in a poke bowl,” Berrien said. “And to me, in that kind of application, it’s indistinguishable.”

Despite difficulties in the plant-based food space, Wildtype has set their sights on Gen Z: “You’ve grown up with climate change kind of first and foremost in your brain and your minds,” Berrien said. “So, yeah, we think that it’s a really critical audience for us.”

Most attendees said they look forward to eventually trying the salmon. “Yes, I would eat the fish,” Carolina Carvalho ’26 said. “I think it’s bringing a great power for change in the world. So, yeah, of course I’d support this project.”

Others were more hesitant. “I am vegetarian, partly for religious reasons as well. So I think it’s a little bit difficult of a call for me to make,” Gupta said. “I think as of right now, it would be a cautious no.”

Some students fell in more of a middle ground. “I don’t like the taste of seafood, so I wouldn’t eat it regularly,” Pankhuri Dayal ’26 said.

Elfenbein said he appreciated the audience’s thoughts on their products. “Students here care about the reason why this company exists and what we’re trying to do. It would be an absolute dream for Wildtype salmon to be here at Stanford.”

Ananya Udaygiri is the Vol. 265 Video Managing Editor. A sophomore from Houston, TX, she sometimes writes for News -- and on bad days, for Humor.

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