Singapore-based startup Shiok Meats hopes to build a sustainable future with lab-grown seafood.
It looks like your average prawn dumpling. It may even smell like it. But the shrimp meat within isn’t fished off the ocean or reared on a farm. It began life in a petri dish. This is Shiok Meat’s prawn dumpling prototype, made with stem-cell-grown shrimp meat. Three of their pilot eight dumplings were showcased at the Second Disruption in Food and Sustainability Summit on 29 March. Says co-founder Dr Sandhya Sriram, “When we opened the steamer, everyone got a whiff and said that they smelt like the ocean. The taste (sweetness) is exactly what regular shrimp tastes like. We have to do a bit of tinkering on texture for sure, and are already working on it.”
Still in its R&D phase, tinkering is an everyday affair for this company started last year. Dr Sriram and co-founder Dr Ling Ka Yi, who met as Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) colleagues, are more than up to the task. Dr Sriram has been working on stem cells from her undergrad to postdoctoral research days. A few years ago, she left full-time research to manage her other technology startups. Dr Ling, on the other hand, is a developmental stem cell biologist with over a decade of experience. She did her Bachelors and PhD at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was last a research fellow at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, A*STAR.
What spurs them on is the goal of launching their cell-based shrimp meat first in fine-dining restaurants and specialist grocers, and eventually in supermarkets and grocery stores in three to five years. They are already in talks with premium seafood suppliers and fine-dining restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and India for possible trials by the end of the year. After shrimp, they hope to move on to cell-based crabs and lobsters.
With their technical skills, the pair of self-professed foodies, Dr Sriram a vegetarian one at that, could have applied their stem cell research expertise to other areas. But they chose food technology because they strongly believe that cell-based, lab-grown or clean meat is the answer to the future of food.
Says Dr Sriram, “By 2050, the population of the world is going to be 10 billion—there is no way we can feed the entire population at the rate we are consuming meats and seafood. Hence, we need a sustainable solution to produce meats without further harming our planet, animals or human health. Cell-based meats are real meats but without animal cruelty, are sustainable and have the same taste and texture. Also, the Singapore government just announced the 30 by 30 plan—30 per cent food production in Singapore by 2030. Our business is perfect for this goal.”
In the US, their compatriots include Memphis Meats working on cell-based meat, and Finless Foods who are developing cell-based seafood, starting with bluefin tuna. Based in Asia and serving the Asia Pacific market, the duo felt seafood was an obvious choice given its popularity in this part of the world. “At the same time, our technical expertise allows us to work on any types of meat or seafood—we chose crustaceans,” Dr Sriram adds.
Station control for them is currently a shared academic lab space but they will soon move to Singapore’s first food tech incubator, Innovate 360. Their staff strength will also expand to six in the next few weeks. Their method involves “isolating stem cells from live regular shrimp—one-time, and these stem cells can be frozen down,” describes Dr Sriram. “We’d grow them in petri dishes in a liquid nutrient mix or ‘media’ in scientific terms, then transfer those cells into a bioreactor for them to grow in numbers and form muscle fibers. We’d collect those muscle fibers by removing the liquid nutrient mix and that solid left behind is the meat.”
They do not use a potentially controversial ingredient—foetal bovine serum derived from foetal calf blood—used by some clean meat companies to spur the cell division process, but use commercially available substitutes for now. Neither do they use genetic engineering for their meats at this point, although they are not against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in principle.
Making it Palatable
Rather than scientific techniques, what keeps the co-founders up at night is the business of scaling up the cell-based products and bringing down the cost. Indicatively, their first eight pieces of dumplings took $5000 to produce. They know they still have quite some way to go if they are going to make this an accessible product in three to five years. Dr Sriram remains sanguine. “As we move away from commercial media to the in-house media that we are working on and at the same time scale up, the costs will come down without compromising on quality,” she says.
Dr Sriram adds that they will also pay attention to demystifying cell-based seafood and explaining their potential benefits to consumers. “For instance, the use of antibiotics and hormones in fish and shrimp farms is harmful to the environment, human health and animal health. Seafood tainted with harmful antibiotics in particular contribute to the global superbug (bacteria that has become immune to antibiotics) epidemic. Cell-based seafood can help control the overuse of antibiotics while serving healthy, tasty, nutritional seafood to the consumers.”
Being a vegetarian who chooses not to eat meat or seafood as they come from killing an animal, Dr Sriram says she would eat cell-based meats as they are ethical and cruelty-free. She believes Shiok Shrimp would appeal to others who have similar beliefs. For those particularly concerned about animal welfare or health and safety issues, she says in assurance, “We need to use live regular shrimps in very small numbers for isolation of stem cells. Once we make a stem cell bank, we do not need to go back to the regular shrimps again. Hence, instead of killing billions of shrimps for consumption, we will only kill a handful in the process of producing cell-based meats. We get our shrimps from legit, high quality farms in Singapore.”
Through education and the proof of their product, the technopreneurs see themselves changing the industry slowly but surely. They equate it to the smartphone industry where the ubiquitous use of smartphones 10 years ago was just a dream but is now a reality. And the pie is big enough for everyone in the business of thinking about the future of food too. The plant-based meat sector, for instance, has its own market that needs to be catered for in its own way. At the end of the day, they just want to provide an option for building a sustainable future. They say, “consumers will be given a choice, and they will decide, as a whole, what works for them.”
*This article was first published in Wine & Dine May/June 2019: Game-Changing Innovations.