The fisher(wo)men of the future wear lab coats

Quick background on Shiok Meats…

Shiok (“delicious and fantastic” in Malay/Singapore slang) Meats is taking on the global shellfish industry (shrimp, lobster, crab)… one petri-dish at a time.

The startup – founded a mere 11 months ago – is the first cell-based food company in Singapore. With Singapore’s pledge to raise domestic food production from 10 to 30% by 2030, Shiok Meats’ timing could not be better, although it wasn’t planned by the founding team. Plus, there’s already huge demand for these sea creatures: currently, we consume 143.8 million tonnes of shrimp globally per year – with Asia leading the charge.

As an ultra-simplified version of the process: Shiok Meats is isolating stem cells from shrimps and then placing these cells in a special mix of nutrients that allows the cells to grow into the shrimp meat – all in a bioreactor (a pressure cooker of sorts). Unlike beef where the bulk of the lab-grown meat industry’s focus has been to-date, crustaceans are actually much simpler to grow as the meat is less complex.

Already, the company has produced the world’s first lab-grown shrimp dumpling (albeit with a pretty hefty price tag of $5000 for a kilogram of shrimp meat).

The very first lab-grown dumplings… yum! – Source: Shiok Meats

Even Silicon Valley’s famed unicorn factory is taking note: Shiok Meats is the first cell-based startup to be accepted to the oh-so prestigious accelerator, Y-Combinator (boasting such noteworthy alums as Airbnb, Dropbox and Reddit).

Why this is SO EXCITING…

It is hard to imagine a more destructive process to produce any food at a mass scale: widespread slave labor in the shrimp supply chain, an ENORMOUS carbon footprint (up to 10x that of beef… yes you read that right!), biodiversity loss, and contamination with antibiotics and micro plastics.

Shiok Meats is part of a new wave of companies reimagining how we produce our foods in a more sustainable and ethical way. Shrimp grown in a lab eliminates all the environmental and health issues, as well as human rights abuses (though raises questions about the future livelihoods of all those involved in current shrimp production).

Meet Dr Sandhya Sriram (CEO)…

Sriram (PhD) was a stem cell scientists working at A*STAR (The Agency for Science, Technology and Research) in Singapore when she decided to quit to start Shiok. Intrigued by the emerging lab-grown meat space (there are only a handful in Asia, concentrated in Israel), Sriram (who had already started two companies by the way…) set her sights on growing the food caught previously in the sea in a lab.

“nobody was disrupting the multibillion shrimp market”

Dr Sandhya Sriram (CEO and cofounder) – shiok meats

“People don’t know how shrimp is produced, and how dirty and unsustainable it is,” explained Sriram. Five years ago she visited Thailand and realized that farmers were growing meat in what looked like “sewage water” after which it was dumped it in a cocktail of antibiotics. Appetizing indeed.

In pursuit of a cleaner way to produce shrimp, these founders (Sriram’s co-founding partner is Dr Ling Ka Yi, another ex-A*STAR scientist) raised $10k from a friend and mentor (currently they’ve raised about $5 million to-date) and set their sights on securing lab space. But, unlike most other biotech startups in Singapore, Sriram’s and Ling’s work is not an offshoot of their work at A*STAR or a university, and so their quest for lab space was far from straightforward. The only lab that was available to them was 2 hours away from Singapore, on an offshore island for which they had to take a boat, resulting in 4 hours of traveling every day: “grinding it out” in true startup style to make their vision a reality.

For these two founders, the mission of making an impact in other people’s life with science is central to why they do what they do. There is not a strong culture around entrepreneurship in Singapore – Sriram cites the dominant risk averse culture as a major factor: “not enough cases of people who have tried and failed and then had success.”

On the market opportunity…

The shrimp market alone is $45 billion. By the end of 2027, it is expected to surpass $67 billion (CAGR of 5.6%), and there’s been growth in demand in general for seafood, which is good news for Shiok as the company plans to expand beyond shrimp.

According to Sriram, people are willing to pay for healthy and safe food in Asia. This is why at supermarkets you can find premium foods with a significantly higher price tag (think Cold Storage supermarket chain in Singapore).

On SDGs and sustainability…

Yes, shrimp farming is by and large inhumane and environmentally destructive. Let us elaborate on some of the issues… 

SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth: Major investigations in 2014 and 2015 revealed a significant percent of shrimp farmed in Thailand (sold via grocery stores and restaurants in Europe, the U.S. and Asia) involved trafficked workers and forced labor. 

SDG 14 – Life Under Water:  Shrimp farming has destroyed about 40% of the world’s mangrove areas, which serve as biodiversity hubs for coral, plants, fish and other species. Mangroves are essentially tropic forests that grow in salt water, and their location is often ideal for shrimp farming since it is close to the coast. 

SDG 13 – Climate Action: Mangroves also serve as carbon sinks, sequestering carbon dioxide (approximately 3 billion metric tonnes between the wood and soil of mangroves globally)… more than tropical forests. When shrimp farmers come in and destroy the mangrove ecosystem, as much as 1 ton of C02 indirectly for every pound of shrimp produced. Hence the 10x the carbon footprint of beef.

What’s next?

Eventually Shiok will be expanding its offerings over time to those higher-end crustaceans. “We chose to start with shrimp because it’s an easier animal to deal with compared to crabs and lobsters,” says Sriram.  

The founders predict it will be 15-18 months to commercialization in Singapore (a much tighter timeline than many of the other lab grown companies) after which they will target different countries in Asia-Pacific. 

Perhaps the biggest task will be getting the price down from $5,000 per KG to sell to restaurants (which – to be fair – is already a lower price point than that of other lab grown meat companies).

Our big takeaways:

  • If you want entrepreneurship to grow and the culture surrounding entrepreneurship to change in a place like Singapore… well, start your own company!
  • The global shrimp industry is growing, but mass farming practices are problematic to say the least
  • Lab grown shrimp can offer a “cleaner”, more sustainable way to meet growing demand for shellfish

In case you want to read more:

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