The Secret Sauce of Test-Tube Fish
Lab-grown meat is still weird. This tiny startup is spawning something better.
Most people who follow food are aware that scientists and tech companies are trying to grow meat in labs. When they’ll see it and what it will look and taste like — those are details mysterious even to the companies that plan to make them.
But a different kind of protein is on the way — or at least, residing in numerous test tubes. Two young biology grads are working to create in-vitro fish fillets through their startup, called Finless Foods. “We want to recapitulate every single thing on a dinner plate,” says Brian Wyrwas, 24, one of the two founders. “The sound, sizzle, smell, and consistency of a fish fillet.”
They think they can make it happen late in 2019, a large claim in a lab-grown protein field already full of big promises. But Wyrwas and Mike Selden, 26, his co-founder, have set their sights on producing the big kahuna (it’s irresistible) — bluefin tuna, one of the world’s most threatened and charismatic species, and just the kind of bait likely to draw right-minded, sushi-loving-but-guilty-about-it Bay Area VCs. So far the founders appear to have the pursuit of in-vitro fish largely to themselves, and claim a number of advantages over their meat-minded rivals.
One is lower production costs: culturing fish cells can take place at room temperature, they say, as opposed to the electricity-chomping body-heat temperature needed for culturing meat. Once they hit on the right cells to culture and the way to “brew” them, they will outsource some jobs to other startups, ones that are culturing cells for organs to transplant and using 3-D printers to do it. Wyrwas and Selden can find such startups alongside them at IndieBio, the San Francisco incubator that first provided a growth medium to a lab-grown meat startup, Memphis Meats, several years ago. When I visited IndieBio this summer, it seemed to function just as its investors intended — as a place where white-coated techs trade notes and techniques at benches beside each other.
It’s a goal Nobel-competitive molecular biologists, tech entrepreneurs, earnest vegans, environmentalists, and venture capitalists are all working toward.
IndieBio calls itself the “world’s largest biotech seed company,” and gives competitive $250,000 grants for four months of intensive work culminating in a “demo day” where investors gather to evaluate works in progress and see if they want to invest in the next stages. On September 14, Selden and Wyrwas will have their demo day.
About this time last year, Selden and Wyrwas, who had met as undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, were both in New York City, Selden working on personalized cancer treatments in a fly-genomics lab at the Icahn School of Medicine, and Wyrwas working on tumor cell culturing at Weill Cornell Medical College. They would meet regularly for drinks. They are both environmentalists and either vegan or vegetarian, and they got to talking about overfishing and the antibiotic resistance, heavy-metal content, and ocean-pollution hazards of aquaculture. Not to mention the slave labor for Thai shrimp production. So there was a market opportunity. One night at a bar they wrote a plan on the back of a napkin for how they would experiment with fish cells — which cells, which growth media — and mapped out experiments to make scalable culturing possible.
The first round of advice the pair got showed them, Wyrwas says, that the bar napkin was “mostly wrong.” Which parts? “Just, like, everything.” Lab techniques Wyrwas had learned for muscle cells didn’t work with fish as he thought they would.
So he shifted focus to stem cells responsible for muscle regeneration after injury, which can be cultured outside the fish and then “pushed” to mimic fish muscle by depriving them of nutrients. When we spoke, Wyrwas had already tried working with bass, bronzino, white carp, tilapia, and anchovy cells, and the next day would be momentous: bluefin tuna. Getting cells from various fish had been a matter, he said, of lining up secret bluefin sources, and asking the nearby San Francisco Aquarium, on Pier 39, which fish “happened to die lately.” (Cells from an animal either still alive or recently dead are both viable; the trick is putting them into a growth medium before they die.) Meat-culturing companies brag that only one duck, or lamb, must sacrifice its life for generations of ethical new-wave carnivores to satisfy their desires; Finless Foods might someday claim that a few bluefin died to save the species.
Meat grown in labs, or mocked up with vegetable proteins, has so far gotten the attention and publicity — not fish. Modern Meadow and Memphis Meats, the two leading contenders to be first on the market with lab-grown meat, have been VC-money magnets for several years. (Maybe in-vitro companies need to have “M” for “meat” in every word of a brand name.) Cargill, one of the world’s largest meat producers, recently invested in Memphis Meats, joining Bill Gates and Richard Branson, among many others. Gates has also backed Beyond Meat, which produces plant-based burgers and chicken strips that are already in mass distribution. Tyson, the chicken titan, bought five percent of the company, which in theory should be a direct competitor, and put $150 million in a venture capital fund to develop new plant-based meat alternatives.
Pretty much every Silicon Valley zillionaire wants to free the world from the mass slaughter of animals and the environmental havoc it causes. It’s a goal Nobel-competitive molecular biologists, tech entrepreneurs, earnest vegans, environmentalists, and venture capitalists are all working toward.
But growing edible, affordable meat in test tubes and scaling it to feed-the-world proportions is far from a done deal. It’s one thing to replicate a cell in a test tube. It’s another thing to grow that cell by the millions and find a way to connect the micro-thin cell layers to cells grown to mimic muscle, cartilage, bone, and skin. The framework, like lines of hydroponic seedlings, needs to be connected to a sluice that will deliver the warm bath of nutrients cells need to stay alive. If the transport system is too slow, or doesn’t reach every cell, chunks of cell-grown meat can die. Consumers will have trouble enough with the idea of in-vitro meat. They don’t want to worry about gangrene.
These are only a few of the reasons in-vitro meat is taking a very long time. It’s been four years since a group of Dutch scientists secretly funded by Sergey Brin, of Google, debuted a $330,000 in-vitro burger in London, a year since Memphis Meats fried the first lab-grown meatball. And these are stunts generally meant to impress the VC investors who fund the research, not the public, which will need to wait years for there to be sufficient supply to let them judge for themselves. Let alone to afford them: at the time of the Gates-Branson investment, Memphis Meats’ meatballs still cost $2,400 a pound to produce. Modern Meadow, seeing the complications of solving structure and texture — not to mention regulatory hurdles — decided to produce leather as the first product that could start generating revenue against its $53 million in VC funds.
Finless Foods thinks it can get around the problem that bedevils every producer of protein alternatives, whether made from soybeans, peas, or cultured animal cells.
The companies that have come to market with a new generation of meat substitutes, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, are using not cultured animal cells but deodorized pea or soybean proteins, in line with the (often muffled, for marketing purposes) vegan beliefs of their founders. They face their own challenges: texture and flavor. So far they have had limited success in mimicking the flesh, the fat, and other aspects of meat by using either simple vegetable juice (beet juice for Beyond Meat, whose burger tastes good and whose chicken strips are perfectly plausible for stir-fries and tacos) or tricky synthesized soy leghemoglobin, which Impossible Foods says is “atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat.” Its burger leaves a fatty aftertaste and is in need of the fancy sauces the restaurants now selling it slather over patties. Even those products took years, and tens of millions per round of financing, to reach the grocery store. These companies were starting almost from scratch: Tofurky tastes terrible, and though seitan, a rubbery wheat-gluten paste, has been used in mock meat in Asia for centuries, it’s not very convincing.
There is an analogous product for seafood: shrimp mocked up from plant protein and the kind of algae that shrimp eat. It’s made by a startup called New Wave Foods, which got its initial boost from — a residency at IndieBio. New Wave has begun selling its “shrimp” in California and Nevada, in food-service cafeterias and restaurants in colleges; on food trucks; and with kosher caterers. It plans to expand to retail locations in those states early next year and other states later in the year.
When it comes to recreating fish fillets, Finless Foods has a secret ally available that meat simulators haven’t had the advantage of. The extremely advanced surimi industry in Japan pulverizes neutral-flavored white fish flesh, usually Alaskan pollock, mixes it with salt, sugar, and MSG, and extrudes the resulting meal into imitation shrimp, crab, and lobster so convincing that, to take one notorious example, generations of Upper West Siders can take it for lobster in Zabar’s “lobster salad.” Wyrwas and Selden say they will use their regenerative-cell technology to make the fish base and then use the sophisticated production processes of surimi to make tasty, marketable simulacra.
“For us the structural problem is solved” by surimi techniques, Wyrwas says — the problem that bedevils every producer of protein alternatives, whether made from soybeans, peas, or cultured animal cells. That problem is why in-vitro meat makers are going, at least for now, for meatballs or, at best, chicken strips, and it’s why even plant-based meat companies are making tiny nuggets that you can bury in sauce in enchiladas or sloppy joes. Selden and Wyrwas are just going for fillets, which means fish muscle. Shellfish, crab, lobster, scallop — they’re all muscle, too, so Finless Foods’ production challenges aren’t nearly as complex as trying to mock up, say, a lamb chop or spare rib using ground meat bits.
When I ask Wyrwas whether the particular variety of fish they try to grow out first matters much to the final product, he gives me a conspiratorial nod and says: “We have very good evidence to believe that flavor won’t be that much of a problem. If the main thing is to recapitulate everything in the fillet, we’ll make sure that down the line the muscle cell, fat content, and structure on a cellular level will be exactly what you see on your dinner plate already. If they’re in place with the right ratios, there’s no reason it should be a problem. It will be the exact flavor of fish.” After muscle cells, Selden says, will come fat cells, then connective tissue, then maybe even skin: “Baby steps.”
When we met, Wyrwas, who has the red hair and gee-whiz demeanor of a character in an Archie comic, was getting ready for demo day, featuring a tasting of an “unstructured prototype,” meaning a mash of cultured cells. Neither he nor Selden was expecting to produce the sound and the sizzle of their promised fillets on the first round. But they were clearly hoping for funding for the next round of development, and Selden told me he was already looking at resumes to speed up research. And who knows? Maybe Bill Gates was sending a secret proxy to San Francisco.