Can $100 million get Wildtype’s cell-grown ‘sushi-grade’ salmon into the wild?

Wildtype, a six-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit that’s developing cultured salmon from cells outside the animal, just raised $100 million in Series B funding to make its product ubiquitous, from top restaurants to grocery stores.

Whether it can pull off this plan is a question mark, but it’s easy to see what has its new investors — L Catterton, Cargill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bezos Expeditions, Temasek and Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition (among others) — excited.

The broad argument for cell-cultivated seafood is that it can protect wild species and counter overfishing. Ostensibly, it also provides the same nutritional benefits as wild-caught fish, without the mercury, micro plastics and other contaminants that sometimes appear in wild and farmed fish.

Even better, say Wildtype co-founders Justin Kolbeck and Aryé Elfenbein: Wildtype has figured out how to make “sushi-grade” salmon by growing the cells of a Pacific salmon, also known as a Coho salmon, in steel tanks that look like brewery tanks, then putting the cells in so-called scaffolds, which are structures made of plant-derived ingredients, to guide the cells to shape each cut of fish. (Wildtype isn’t growing fins or heads here, say the founders — only the kind of cut of salmon you might see behind the sushi bar.)

The two friends — a former business consultant and a trained cardiologist, respectively — are so confident in their end product that last year they opened a tasting room just beyond the tanks so that chefs could try the salmon and learn more about its production.

If all goes as planned, those chefs will soon feature Wildtype’s salmon along with their other offerings. So will grocery stores.

It’s within sight. In December, Wildtype announced distribution agreements with Snowfox, which operates sushi bars at 1,230 grocery locations nationwide, and Pokéworks, which operates 65 fast casual restaurants, and the deals “pave the way for consumers to experience Wildtype’s cultivated salmon once the company’s manufacturing capabilities achieve the required scale,” per the announcement.

It’s getting from A to B that’s the trick.

First, getting Wildtype’s salmon to the same price — or less — than traditional sushi-grade salmon is still a work in progress, say Kolbeck and Elfenbein.

It also remains to be seen if consumers will embrace cell-grown seafood with the same zeal as plant-based meat. It’s widely known that red meat consumption is associated with an elevated risk for cancer, whereas fewer people are aware of the PCBs, dioxins and mercury that appear in some salmon because of the food the salmon have ingested. More, strict rules on contaminant levels in feed ingredients are now in place, which have lowered contaminant levels in these fish, making them safe to eat by federal standards.

Perhaps most notably, Wildtype is still awaiting FDA approval after entering into a consultation process with the agency in 2019; it can’t sell through the restaurants it expects to partner with until it receives this. (As for liability insurance, the company says it has the same liability insurance typically found among meat and seafood producers.)

Still, the company is interesting for a long list of other reasons, including that one of its biggest potential threats, Impossible Foods, has said it was working on plant-based and not cell-grown seafood, but it hasn’t released anything yet.

Meanwhile, smaller venture-backed companies in the same industry appear focused on other seafood items. BlueNalu, for example, is trying to create cultured bluefin tuna toro as its first cultured seafood item, while Gathered Foods is working on single-serve, ready-to-eat pouches of plant-based tuna.

Wildtype’s product could also prove a lot faster and more efficient to use since it grows only the edible parts of the salmon. (Theoretically, chefs would avoid the time and waste traditionally involved in the butchering of a fish.)

Yet another argument that Wildtype makes centers on traceability. Says Elfenbein, “It’s particularly relevant in the world of seafood where people often order one thing and receive another.”

Indeed, if the 35-person company is able to scale and sell its salmon at a reasonable price, it’s easy to see how it makes a dent.

Time will tell. On the scaling front, Wildtype says it can’t grow the salmon faster, a process that currently takes four to six weeks. But it can open up new locations, and it can develop a fully automated production system, which it hasn’t yet done.

Meanwhile, the nutrients it feeds the cells, which Elfenbein describes as “like a fancy Gatorade,” is “expensive today because it isn’t customized for food production methods” so Wildtype is “investing heavily in just providing the basic nutrients that cells need to survive.”

It isn’t clear that these will become cheaper, but the team doesn’t sound daunted by the challenges either way.

“In the end,” says Kolbeck, “we’ll have a very affordable and accessible product. We want to turn [the status quo] on its head, where the most nutritious foods are the most expensive.” The ultimate goal, he adds, is sushi-grade salmon that’s “cheaper than a chicken thigh,” which they see as “within the realm of possibility.”

Wildtype last raised funding in late 2019, closing a $12.5 million Series A round from CRV, Maven Ventures, Spark Capital and Root Ventures. Its newest financing pushes its total funding to a little more than $120 million altogether.