Food security is one of the grand problems facing the planet this century. The UN has estimated that food supplies need to increase by 50 percent to cover the population growth expected over the coming decades, while climate change is expected to cut crop yields by a quarter. Nearly a billion people today lack sufficient food.
Those are raw statistics, but Justin Kolbeck saw them viscerally personified every day as a U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, where food security is a perennial concern. “…Things were so bad that people were smuggling meat over the Pakistan border,” he said, despite the incredible danger along that heavily guarded dividing line. Kolbeck eventually returned to the U.S., where he met Arye Elfenbein, who was studying for an MD/PhD in cardiology.
Elfenbein’s research looked at how the heart could regrow functional muscle tissue lost in a heart attack. As he worked on his residency though, he realized that some of the fields he was working on, including tissue engineering, stem cell biology, and cell development could intersect and “not just solve heart problems but could feed the world.”
Together, the two co-founded Wild Type, which netted a $3.5 million seed round led by Spark Capital, with participation from Root Ventures, Mission Bay Capital, and a group of angels. The name comes from the wild type term in biology, which means that something exists naturally, but also has the connotation of animals roaming outside.
Kolbeck and Elfenbein’s mission is to develop a platform and set of technologies that would allow any meat to be cultured in the lab using well-defined procedures. The two are stealthy around their technology, which is still in development. But the essential concept is to multiply basic animal cells in the lab and effectively culture meat. This means that the meat is fundamentally “meat,” and not a meat substitute using plant cells like Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger.
Rather than starting from scratch for every type of protein, the technology could apply across all kinds of different animal species using the evolutionary heritage common to all of them. “We didn’t want to build a tool that could just be used for beef, or a specific type of chicken, or a specific fish,” Kolbeck explained.
The synergy of different scientific disciplines has been enticing to scientists according to Elfenbein. “Scientists in general and who we spoke to about this idea were really fascinated that emerging technologies could be applied to something so different from the biomedical sciences,” he said.
Although the food is being developed in the lab, it is being tested regularly by chefs. “We wanted to make sure we were building something that people would love, so from day one we reached out to friends in the food business,” Kolbeck said. Wild Type isn’t just focused on the taste and texture of the meat, but is also investigating whether it could grow meat in a certain way that would make it easier to use in a kitchen.
Wild Type’s first meat is salmon. Phase one is to develop a minced salmon meat that could be used in say a spicy salmon sushi roll, where the meat is mixed with sauce and smaller quantities are needed. From there, the company is targeting lox for bagels, and eventually, salmon filets.
Spark Capital investor John Melas-Kyriazi led the round and will be joining the company’s board. “This is an area we have been interested in for a long time at Spark: What is the protein source that is going to feed the world over the next 50 to 100 years,” he asked. He loved Wild Type’s product focus, of “actually creating a product that people want that stands for delicious food and not for something else.” He invested after trying a helping of Wild Type’s food during due diligence.
Wild Type hopes to use the seed round to invest in scaling up its cellular growth infrastructure, lowering the cost of its meat while also increasing its manufacturing capability. The company has a team of five today.