Q&A with Wildtype Food’s Justin Kolbeck

Justin Kolbeck is the Co-founder & CEO of Wildtype Foods, a cell-based meat and seafood company.

Briefly introduce us to Wildtype and your journey to founding the company. 

We started Wildype in 2016 and were in the first generation of cell cultured meat and seafood companies.  It started off as just the two of us, Aryé Elfenbein (the scientific half) and me, and today we have 21 people and are based in San Francisco proper.  

I started my career as a Diplomat in Pakistan and then Melbourne and then in Paktika, Afghanistan.  I was working on a provincial reconstruction team whose mission was to help provide critical infrastructure and services to Afghanistan’s provinces.  One of the things that surprised me about the assignment was the amount of time I spent thinking about food insecurity.  I didn’t think that was going to be one of the biggest consumers of my energy.  But, I found that war has decimated watersheds, trees and natural resources, and as a result food insecurity is rampant.  Afghanistan, in particular, is one of the most food insecure places in the world — and certain provinces are getting worse.  That experience made the concept of food insecurity very real to me.  

After the assignment I spent a lot of time researching the global food system. I met my Co-founder Aryé — who is a Ph.D. molecular biologist and cardiologist — while we both were studying at Yale and became fast friends.  

Ironically, we met at a dinner. He introduced me to this outlandish idea of being able to create meat from cells. There, the issue became simple: how are we going to provide enough protein to feed 10 billion people in the second half of this century? 

Fast forward a few years, and I found that even when I would tell my story about food security during our investment rounds, it wasn’t necessarily tangible.  Over the summer, African Swine Fever wiped out nearly ⅓ of China’s pork population.  Think about how insecure China’s leaders must have felt about their food supply?  This year, because of COVID-19, the chicken has come home to roost in the United States.  We are now confronted with this reality of food insecurity as production plants and slaughterhouses shut down, which shows just how delicate our system truly is. 

Wildtype, like all cell cultured meat start-ups, is pre-revenue — and has been for some time. As the CEO, what KPIs do you prioritize and how do you establish a business model that can serve both your R&D needs and your future commercialization?

There are three KPIs that I focus on as it pertains to our product.  

1) Quality of our product.  The idea of growing real meat, starting from literally one cell, is complicated.  The forces of nature that produce the animals that we eat are complex and chaotic and have multiple inputs that determine meat’s texture and taste.  Recapitulating these forces is an incredibly difficult process, and we are constantly working towards a product that is of the highest quality. 

2) Cost.  We need to bring our cost down (price/pound) to parity with conventionally-produced seafood to fulfill our mission of solving food insecurity.  I look at price/pound every day and its various drivers.  

3) Scale.  I monitor the amount of kilograms per month (kg/month) we can produce.  We need to be able to produce large quantities at a commercially viable price point so that we can have the type of impact we have set out to achieve — solving global food insecurity.  We cannot do that if we are just in a handful of restaurants and distributors and have a product that only wealthy people can purchase. 

In regards to the second half of the question, there are two things that we are doing to focus on future commercialization.  Our team, which is also true for the cultured meat and seafood space generally, largely comes from academia.  They have high standards for any work that gets published.  So in a commercial setting, knowing when a task or objective is done, or version 1 of a product is done, is a challenging shift for a lot of our team.  That is something we try to be transparent on internally.  We are constantly having very healthy discussions about when good enough is good enough.  

Second, I expect like many companies in this space, we need to make a decision about the first version.  At some point you need to stop the R&D process and focus on refinement and get ready to go to market.  That is where we are as a company today. 

How are you strategizing educating the consumers on your product and demystifying cultured meat?

I think conversations like this are a big part of that.  Anytime people reach out to us to learn more, we are always happy to do that.  If this conversation leads to 10 more people knowing about the cultured meat space, that’s beneficial.  Also, I would say that the media and transparency in general (which is one of our company values) are really important.  Consumers have the right to know about this technology.  The idea that you can make meat by assembling it from the cell-up rather than dissembling a carcass is important.  Institutes like New Harvest, GFI (The Good Food Institute), and other non-profit organizations publishing research and sharing information are also very helpful to educating investors as well as interested consumers. 

Describe to us the main differences in the bioengineering process of cell-based seafood compared to cell-based livestock?

One important difference is that fish are cold blooded.  This is important because it means that the cells grow at a cooler temperature.  That distinction may seem superficial or unimportant, but if you think about large scale production, the difference between heating up bioreactors to mammal body temperature compared to room temperature is a considerable expense.  So, from that aspect, the process is cheaper and more green.

Another is that most research relevant to cultured meat has been done on mammals.  So from this standpoint, we had to do a lot more work — foundational work — to catch up to the same point of resources that our mammalian counterparts have.   Right now, you can actually order an existing cell line for cows, pigs, and chickens.  Those exist.  But for most fish they do not.  So we have actually made these cell lines ourselves, which is almost like creating a new yeast starter for baking bread.  The initial investment is a lot higher, but it also creates a stronger competitive moat. 

Third, the texture of fish is quite different from meat.  Most people could tell the difference between the two with their eyes closed.  The same can be said for different types of fish.  You can tell raw salmon from raw shrimp pretty easily.  So that level of distinction doesn’t really exist to the same degree for the land-based animals, which makes texturizing our product all the more important. 

Where do you see white space in the cultured meat industry across the value chain?

There is a whole lot of white space.  We wrote a medium post about this.  It seems like many companies differentiate themselves based on the type of meat they are producing.  Certainly cell culture media development and creation of different cell lines is an interesting area (Future Food in Canada is doing this, as well as Orbillion in SF).  The companies in this pocket don’t necessarily need to be startups, they could be companies that are already making cell culture media for other usages in biotech who can then leverage their resources to develop these new cell lines and media. 

The second area is creating bioreactors specifically for cell cultured meat.  Bioreactors today have largely been designed for pharmaceutical purposes.  Many use disposable plastic bags for each batch that are very expensive and wasteful.  If you are making expensive therapeutic drugs, then using these costly inputs can make economical sense, but for a commodity product like meat, it doesn’t.  So, there is definitely opportunity for specialized bioreactors or cultivators. 

And then further down the value chain, I think about quality assurance and quality control.  Those are big things in the food industry, and they need to be developed for cell cultured meat in a way.  We aren’t dissembling, we are building up.  So, from a QA standpoint, we need to determine what this looks like and whether legacy processes can be adapted to support the cell based production processes. 

What is the most consequential issue facing our food supply chain today?

I do think the most consequential issue is vulnerability to epidemics and the inability to sustainably meet food demand.  We also wrote a medium post about this!  The premise is, let’s say you don’t care about the environmental or health benefits that cultured meat might provide.  Could we still make a business case for the industry solely based on economics?  What we found, in short, is yes.  There are a number of factors why.  One being that the inflation adjusted price of meat has gone up every year since 2000. Also, we might have even higher prices in the not-so-distant future if we don’t find a new way to cost effectively produce meat.  So the need for technologies like cell cultured meat to provide a sustainable food supply at scale is essential in order to meet this growing demand. 

What has been a particular inflection point along Wildtype’s journey that has allowed you to get to the point where you are today?

I think this often goes under appreciated, but meeting the right Co-founder was completely influential and necessary for us.  I have been very good friends with Aryé over the past seven years.  He is one of my best friends, he spoke at my wedding — so just from the standpoint that we don’t have to worry about trusting each other or putting in effort to form a relationship has been huge.  We are like a highly functional married couple and spend all of our time problem-solving.

If you could join the crew from Inception and implant one fact about cultured meat into the minds of consumers, what would it be?

The fact that I’d want people to think about is that cell cultured meat is nutritionally equivalent to conventional meat but without any of the baggage.  This is particularly important for seafood consumers who are eating salmon for its nutritional benefits but don’t like things like mercury and antibiotics used in the production process. 

Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?

The latter two KPIs, price and scale, are going to be big focus areas for our company for the next few years. 

How are you navigating legal regulations and the FDA?

Fortunately the FDA and USDA took a very proactive approach to this industry.  They first started public discourse about this in 2018 and have been very helpful in setting up a framework to bring cultured meat and seafood to market.  

What is Wildtype Foods’ superpower?

I’d say it is the ability to make a product that is delicious, healthy for you, and without any of the baggage of the products we are making — in the case of salmon, that’s microplastics, antibiotics, and other contaminants. 

If you could eat a Wildtype salmon roll with one person, who would it be?

Shinya Yamanaka.  He is the researcher who is credited with the discovery that stem cells could be generated without harvesting them from an embryo — which has unlocked a vast amount of industries and scientific pursuits.  Also, I’d love to learn his opinion of our raw salmon product as a Japanese consumer and one of our generation’s greatest scientific minds. 

If you could learn one new skill what would it be?

Cell culture! 

What is a memento from your childhood that you still keep and how does it serve you?

I have a coffee mug, a plastic coffee mug, of Oscar the Grouch which I use as a toothbrush holder.  I recently passed it on to my kids after upgrading to an electronic toothbrush.  It serves me as a reminder of who I was as a little kid.  Curious, never satisfied with someone’s answer, always wanting to ask the second and third-order questions. 

I think a lot of us, as we get older, lose that inherent curiosity and wonder of the world.  So, every morning when I go to brush my teeth I think about that a little. 

What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?

I’ll give you a few. I was on The Price is Right.  I had a college job as a gondola driver and security guard at some public events.  And I have eaten most of a goat head in Afghanistan — not out of choice but out of cultural obligation! 

What is the most calculated decision you have ever made?

I think a lot of people would say leaving a previous job to start a startup.  For me it was leaving the Foreign Service after business school to be a consultant.  It was something I wanted to do but took a lot of reflection and ultimately was the right call.  I couldn’t have started Wildtype without that experience.  

What is your biggest failure and how did you respond to it?

Startups are filled with failures.  The one that comes to mind is my first big professional failure.  I had a very important visitor who came to Peshawar, Pakistan and for a variety of reasons a big part of this official visit went off the tracks.  My mistake was not elevating the issue soon enough thinking I could handle everything on my own. 

The lesson I learned is that if you feel like you are out of your depth, it is better to ask for help sooner rather than later.  I didn’t handle that well and never made that same mistake again. 

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel a flow state?

I started learning how to play the piano last year, and flow state is a really good analogy for music.  You have to coordinate your mind to read the music, your fingers to execute the notes and your body staying on beat.  I think that forces you to push everything else on your mind, which is really hard to do.  I get there sometimes from running, which is another important outlet, but music fills that need.  

For the record, I am very bad at the piano. 

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?

Before I go to bed every night, I tend to reflect on and give thanks for all of the things in my life that I am grateful for.  No matter what’s going on in my day, it helps to center me in a place of gratitude and optimism and helps me sleep at night. 

What is the last: 

TV show you binged?

Stranger Things.  Unfortunately a long time ago (last year).  

Movie you watched?

The Founder.  

Song you listened to?

Mountain Song by Monsters and Men. 

Podcast you listened to?

This American Life hosted by Ira Glass. 

Book you read?

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.  Which is short and sweet. 

Last question.  I am currently 24.  How old will I be when I order my first Wildtype sushi roll? 

Definitely no later than 30 — probably long before.  

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