Lab-Grown Shrimp Is Silicon Valley’s Latest, and Most Ambitious, Frankenfood

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Written byKaleigh RogersNovember 12, 2015 // 12:45 PM EST

The latest Silicon Valley frankenfood endeavor might be the most ambitious yet: lab-grown shrimp. That’s right, a biotech start-up called New Wave Foods is currently trying to create a plant protein-based, lab-grown, faux shrimp to bring to the market.

The US eats more shrimp than any other type of seafood, with the average American consuming about 4 pounds of the little crustaceans each year, according to the National Fisheries Institute. But as with anything delicious, there’s a catch. New evidence continues to reveal the already pretty well-known dark side of commercial shrimp fishing and farming, including slave labor and environmental destruction. And while this is true for many kinds of seafood, the shrimp industry is particularly bad.

Although the button-pressing word “frankenfood” is used, it is here deployed in a light humourous tone rather than a critical one. The lab project is brightly ambitious, in direct opposition to the “dark side” of the shrimp industry, touching on the complex issues of human rights and the environment. As is a common theme in any discussion of contemporary food, the question of what is natural and normal in this instance is complex.

“If you look at seafood, you have to look at the food miles, how it’s being caught, and there’s a lot of mislabeling,” said Jennifer Kaehms, CEO of New Wave. “We’re really focusing on sustainable seafood, that’s our core motivation.”

It’s unclear which brand of sustainability is taking precedence here: ethically justifiable, environmentally sound, economically dependable, or a combination of the above. In any case, there is a clear statement that the current model is not sustainable and an alternative is called for: a modern system to be supplanted by another. Evidently, technology can be applied in multiple ways to food systems, and despair at one application does not necessarily prompt a look backward in time for an earlier model.

Kaehms recently graduated with a bioengineering degree from the University of California San Diego. She came up with the idea for her lab-grown seafood startup after co-founder Dominique Barnes, an oceanography grad at her alma mater, told Kaehms about the perils of shark finning.

“I thought, ‘we can do something about this,’” Kaehms said. “If we can print ears and noses, why can’t we print shark fins?”

This is perhaps not the question to be asking, but rather would the printing of shark fins provide a viable solution to shark finning. For a locally illegal food product prized for its rarity rather than any inherent qualities alone, is a printed replacement enough to change the industry for the better, or maybe collapse it entirely? It is of course impossible to tell, but worth investigating and speculating.

The pair, along with the company’s lead engineer, Michelle Wolf, applied to participate in IndieBio, a science-focused startup incubator that gives successful applicants $250,000 and lab space to launch their business. The team was accepted into the most recent class of startups and began work in early October.

The New Wave Foods team, from left to right: Michelle Wolf, Jennifer Kaehms, and Dominique Barnes. Image: Jennifer Kaehms

While lab-grown shark fins are on their list of proposed products, right now the team is focusing on shrimp due to its unrivaled popularity in the US. New Wave is experimenting with different ways of extracting protein from algae and mashing it together to get the same texture and nutritional value as real shrimp, Kaehms explained. Because they’re using the same algaes that shrimp eat, the nutritional component is fairly straightforward—shrimp bioaccumulate a lot of their nutritional value by eating algae. But nailing the texture is tricky.

“I like to use the analogy of kneading bread,” Kaehms said. “If you knead bread too long it becomes really firm and if you don’t knead it long enough, it can be too soft. So the way we mix it and align the protein gels gives it its texture.”

The team says it has managed to replicate the flavor of shrimp, but Kaehms wouldn’t reveal any specifics about how they’ve achieved that feat. “That’s our secret sauce,” she said.

Secret, unknown ingredients are the pinnacle of today’s pattern of food’s opacity. This here takes on an innocent quality due to the earlier moral alignment based on the corrupt seafood industry, but leaves plenty open to debate for many people uncomfortable with the concept of lab-synthesized food. The salient qualities to replicate appear to be nutritional value, flavour, and texture. The hypothetical question of what defines a food item comes into play: if, in theory, it looks, tastes, feels and functions exactly like shrimp, is it close enough to shrimp for all purposes, or is there still another important factor distinguishing it from the original product?

In fact, Kaehms was a little hesitant to go into too much detail about any steps in the process, because they actually haven’t nailed it all down. Each of the IndieBio teams will have a demo day in early February where they can reveal their first product, and New Wave will debut their lab-engineered, plant-based shrimp then, complete with taste tests and a more detailed explanation of the process.

The team also needs to keep a few cards close to their chests, as New Wave is far from the only startup seeking to replace less-sustainable food options with lab-grown offerings. In this IndieBio round alone, New Wave is sharing space with Clara Foods, a company looking to create lab-grown egg whites without a chicken, and Gelzen Inc, which is trying to create an animal-free, bacteria-produced gelatin. Outside of IndieBio, Silicon Valley businesses are cooking up vegan egg substitutes, lab-grown burgers, and powdered food replacements like Soylent.

(Have those people ever seen Soylent Green, because I wouldn’t name a food item after that…)

Venture capitalists are lining up to back these endeavors, and it’s pretty clear we need some alternatives to our current food production system. The public is becoming more aware of the problems with how their food is produced, but nobody really wants to give up their favorite dishes. Lab manufactured meat—and seafood—could bridge that gap. But so far, no one has truly been able to create a convincing, tasty, nutritious, lab-grown meat that satisfies the masses, so the race is on the be the first company to break through.

This establishes the climate of the current food system: rising public awareness creating demand for alternative solutions. Here scientific and technological development move with a sense of forward progress and constant improvement. Significant weight is given to cultural inertia, and the unwillingness to change eating habits, presenting the easier solution as scientific revolution. Not much hope is reserved for social change in the same way as technological.

Lab-grown seafood may be an even tougher sell, considering how delicate and perishable seafood is, compared to heartier meats like ground beef. If real shrimp is even a little bit old, for example, it’s inedible—and really gross—so creating a perfect substitute seems like an especially difficult challenge.

For now, the New Wave team is just trying to focus on getting this first product out the door. But the team is excited to see where the idea of sustainable, non-sea seafood could go.

“We’ve been looking at shark fin, scallops, and tuna,” Kaehms said. “But we’re open to suggestions.”

This openness to the future marks a significant sign of hope for their project as an ongoing, ever-improving and adapting idea. There is a sense of Scott Lash’s theory of activity over agency, allowing for situational adaptation rather than relentlessly pursuing a more specific goal.