So when I heard that a Berkeley-based start-up called Wild Earth was experimenting with sustainable “clean protein” for pets—made from a fungus called koji for dogs and lab-grown mouse meat for cats—I was intrigued. I mean, it seemed almost too on the nose.
“I always thought vegans were extremist weirdos,” says Ryan Bethencourt, who is now actually a vegan. Bethencourt is the co-founder and CEO of Wild Earth. In June, I met him at a vegan, dog-friendly cafe in the Bay Area, where he ordered rolls with cheese made of tapioca and coconut. A miniature husky with fur dyed bright pink lounged nearby.
Bethencourt’s conversion happened eight years ago in Los Angeles, when a group of vegans introduced him to the documentary Earthlings. The film was “super intense,” he said, and it drew for him a through line between civil rights and animal rights. He had been a pescatarian, and he went vegan overnight. As an animal lover who also fosters dogs for a local shelter, he put two and two together. “Why am I feeding animals to animals?” he asked. “That just wasn’t consistent for me in terms of my personal ethics.”
In his professional life, Bethencourt works with biotech start-ups, and biotech, he realized, held a solution. As an investor himself and a co-founder of the start-up accelerator IndieBio, he has advised meat- and animal-product-alternative companies like Memphis Meats (chicken, beef), Finless Foods (fish), and Vitro Labs (leather). Elsewhere in the Bay Area, biotech companies like Bolt Threads (spider silk), Impossible Foods (a bleeding, meatless burger), and Zymergen (microbes) have attracted lots of buzz. Fundamentally, all of these companies rely on cells grown in bioreactors to help manufacture their products. So why not use the technology to manufacture pet food—especially cruelty-free, sustainable pet food?
Bethencourt and his co-founder, Ron Shigeta, launched Wild Earth in March with a teaser for its first product: dog treats made from koji. Koji is a fungus traditionally grown on grains to make soy sauce, miso, sake, vinegar, and other fermented foods in Asia. Lately, it’s become popular among foodies. Wild Earth cultures koji in bioreactors, feeding it beet sugar that the fungus converts into protein.
“It tasted like a Cheez-It,” Bethencourt said—he knows because he’s eaten it. “The CEO should always eat their own dog food,” he added. “I wonder how many other dog-food CEOs would say that.” The treats are supposed to be commercially available in October. “We really want to get pet parents”—that’s the preferred term over pet owners—“comfortable with koji as a new protein source,” Bethencourt said, and the next step is a koji-based dog kibble.
Lest we forget the cats, Wild Earth is also in the early stages of an even more ambitious project: growing mouse meat in a bioreactor.