A more sustainable and tastier fish harvest too

Saif Khawaja, a Wharton graduate, is one of the recipients of the inaugural Penn President’s Sustainability Awards.

Saif Khawaja is a sushi lover. On occasion, he’s been known to splurge and order the omakase style, a fine dining experience that allows sushi chefs to offer the best of the market to their customers in the form of a tasting menu. Such meals can cost hundreds of dollars per person.

The flavor of the fish served in this setting owes much to the journey of the animals from the sea to the table. And with a budding entrepreneurial effort, Khawaja hopes to bring that level of culinary quality to the masses, while encouraging more humane and sustainable fishing practices.

Khawaja’s company, Shinkei Systems, has developed a robotics-based system to automate a Japanese style of fish harvesting, known as ikejime. While many of the fish that eventually make it onto our plates die from suffocation on the decks of ships, ikejime involves using a knife to sever the hindbrain of the fish, killing it instantly. Not only is the method considered more humane than prolonged suffocation, but ikejime is also believed to impart better flavor to meat, preventing a buildup of lactic acid and cortisol in the fish’s body that can compromise flavor. .

“The method is similar to halal and kosher methods,” says Khawaja, who graduated from Penn in December with a degree from the Wharton School. “Fish flesh, instead of rotting, will begin to age.”

Shinkei Systems, has received a multitude of recognitions and support, including a 2022 President’s Sustainability Award. This recognition provides Khawaja with $100,000 for project implementation and a living allowance of $50,000. Along with the President’s Engagement and Innovation Awards, the Sustainability Award empowers Penn students to design and undertake post-graduation projects that make a positive and lasting difference in the world.

“Saif combines the problem-solving approach of an engineer with the market knowledge expected of Wharton graduates to make the fishing industry more sustainable,” said President Liz Magill. “I am delighted to see Shinkei Systems supported by the President’s Award for Sustainable Development. I expect this to have a profound impact on the way we all think about animal welfare, ocean conservation and food waste.

Interest in fish

Khawaja’s innovation stemmed from many threads of his interests and education at Penn, which included courses in engineering, physics, and an individualized curriculum at Wharton focused on human-computer interaction, “essentially a combination of technology and design,” he says.

During the summer following his second year, Khawaja and his colleagues developed a prototype for what would become the machinery behind Shinkei Systems. The technology involves using computer vision to process fish, recognize different species and adapt techniques accordingly.

Khawaja knew a year in advance that he wanted to apply for the President’s Awards. He worked with advisor Jacqueline Kirtley, assistant professor of management at Wharton, as well as other mentors, such as Utsav Schurmans from Wharton and Siddarth Deliwala and Jeffrey Babin from the School of Engineering and Applied Science, to identify opportunities , network and address challenges as you go.

After “a multitude of early rejections”, the successes began to be felt. Khawaja has been accepted into prestigious acceleration and mentorship programs such as Creative Destruction Lab and Penn’s Venture Lab VIP-X Accelerator Program. This encouragement and funding from angel investors has allowed Khawaja to devote significant time to the business, which launched in 2021.

The President’s Award for Sustainability is another affirmation that he is on the right track, he says. “The price of sustainability is going to be huge as I continue this work. I am so grateful.

A multifaceted solution for fishing

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only one in three fish extracted from the ocean ends up on a plate. The rest is either thrown back into the sea or rotted before it can be sold or consumed.

Shinkei Systems could reduce this waste, reduce the likelihood of non-target species being caught and killed, and streamline the process to avoid waste. The computer vision aid tool is simple to use. After catching the target fish – currently the technology is designed to work with striped bass, rainbow trout, black bass and a few other local North Atlantic species – workers place them into the machine, which automates the processing of ikejime.

Saif Khawaja poses by a river

The award helps support Khawaja’s business, Shinkei Solutions, an effort to improve the fishing industry’s sustainability and animal welfare practices. (Image: Courtesy of Saif Khawaja)

The company has conducted pilot projects with fish farms and boats in New York, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Shinkei Systems leases the equipment to them under a profit-sharing agreement, connecting them with buyers, primarily farmers’ markets and chefs looking for fresh ingredients.

“We had a chef taste test from a Michelin restaurant: three cans of fish, one that died of suffocation, one that was processed by hand, and one that was processed with our technology,” says Khawaja . “He could tell right away which was the smothered fish but couldn’t distinguish between the other two.”

As Shinkei Systems grows, Khawaja hopes more consumers will have the opportunity to experience what makes ikejime-killed fish stand out, at a significantly lower cost than the omakase meals it has treated itself to. New York.

“I think it’s definitely a growing space,” Khawaja says. “We come to realize that there are a lot of people eating a lot of bad fish.”

With her multifaceted interests and drive, Kirtley says Khawaja’s ambitions are within reach.

“Right now, Saif is focused on building an extraordinary, high-profile business,” she says. “It is not a part of construction and an acquired history. It’s about building it, having an impact and changing the history of the world.

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