A fish harvest that’s more sustainable—and tastier, too

December graduate Saif Khawaja’s President’s Sustainability Prize is helping him build Shinkei Systems, a company that has developed a robotics-based system for minimizing waste in the fishing industry.

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

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

The tastiness of the fish served in this setting owes in large part to the animals’ journey from sea to table. And with a budding entrepreneurial endeavor, Khawaja hopes to bring this level of culinary quality to the masses, while also encouraging more humane and sustainable fish harvest practices.

Khawaja’s company, Shinkei Systems, has developed a robotics-based system to automate a Japanese style of fish harvest, known as ikejime. While many fish that eventually make it to our plates die by suffocating on ship decks, ikejime involves using a knife to cut the fish’s hindbrain, killing it instantly. Not only is the method considered more humane than protracted suffocation, but ikejime is also believed to lend a better flavor to the meat, avoiding a build-up 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. “The fish meat, instead of rotting, will start to dry age.”

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

“Saif is combining the problem-solving approach of an engineer with the market savvy expected of Wharton graduates to make the fishing industry more sustainable,” says President Liz Magill. “I am thrilled to see Shinkei Systems supported by the President’s Sustainability Prize. I expect that it will have a profound impact in changing the way we all think about animal welfare, ocean conservation, and food waste.”

Interest in fish

Khawaja’s innovation stemmed out of many threads of his interests and education at Penn, which included coursework in engineering, physics, and an individualized course of study at Wharton that focused on human-computer interaction, “basically a combination of technology and design,” he says.

During the summer following his sophomore year, Khawaja and colleagues developed a prototype for what would become the machinery at the foundation of Shinkei Systems. The technology involves using computer-vision to process the fish, recognizing different species and adapting techniques accordingly.

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

After “a slew of early rejections,” the successes began to roll in. Khawaja won entry into prestigious accelerator and mentoring programs such as Creative Destruction Lab and Penn’s Venture Lab VIP-X accelerator program. That encouragement and funding from angel investors enabled Khawaja to dedicate significant time to the company, which launched in 2021.

The President’s Sustainability Prize is another affirmation that he’s on the right path, he says. “The Sustainability Prize is going to be huge as I continue with this work. I’m so thankful.”

A multifaceted solution for fisheries

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, just one of every three fish extracted from the ocean makes its way to a plate. The remainder are either tossed back into the sea or become rotten before they can be sold or consumed.

Shinkei Systems could cut down on this waste, reducing the likelihood that off-target species would be caught and killed, and streamlining the process to avoid waste. The computer-vision-aided tool is straightforward to use. After catching the target fish—currently the technology is designed to work with striped bass, steelhead trout, black sea bass, and a few other species local to the North Atlantic—workers place them into the machine, which automates the ikejime processing.

Saif Khawaja poses by a river
The Prize is helping support Khawaja’s enterprise, Shinkei Systems, an effort to improve the sustainability and animal welfare practices of the fishing industry. (Image: Courtesy of Saif Khawaja)

The company has been running pilots with fish farms and boats in New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Shinkei Systems rents them the equipment in a profit-sharing agreement, matching them with buyers, mostly farmers markets and chefs looking for fresh ingredients.

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

As Shinkei Systems grows, Khawaja hopes more consumers will have the opportunity to experience what sets apart ikejime-killed fish, at a significantly lower cost than the omakase meals he has treated himself to in New York.

“I think it’s definitely a burgeoning space,” Khawaja says. “We’re coming to realize that there a lot of people out there eating a lot of bad fish.”

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

“Right now, Saif is focused on making this an extraordinary and far-reaching company,” she says. “This is not a build part of it and get acquired story. This is a build it and impact and change the world story.”