If you’ve been on the internet in the past, oh, year or so, you’ve probably heard some media buzz about cell-based meat: animal tissue produced outside of an animal. But the pool of companies working in this space is actually pretty small in terms of product and geography.
Cellular aquacultured startup Shiok Meats is pushing the industry envelope on both accounts. Firstly, they’re developing ways to make cell-based crustaceans. Companies are working on ground beef, steak, pork sausages, salmon, and tuna — but as far as I’ve heard (and granted, some companies are in stealth mode), Shiok is the first to tackle crab, lobster, and shrimp.
When I spoke with Shiok Meats CEO and co-founder Dr. Sandhya Sriram, my first question was about texture. Replicating meat’s texture is one of the biggest challenges for cellular agriculture/aquaculture companies, and crustaceans in particular have a toothsome bite that seems like it would be much harder to copy than, say, ground beef or processed pork sausage. But Sriram is undaunted. “Yes, the technology and science are different [than other clean meat companies,] but we all have similar challenges,” she told me. They also won’t be trying to make the shell, which keeps things simpler. And with new innovations continuously being developed to facilitate cell growth, such as edible scaffolds, perhaps Shiok’s relatively late entrance will serve them well.
The fact that I could eventually taste a cell-based lobster roll is certainly exciting, but what’s more notable about Shiok Meats is its location. The startup is based in Singapore, which makes it, according to Sriram, the first cell-based meat company in Southeast Asia.
This is huge. Asia is the largest meat producer in the world, making 40-50 percent of the world’s meat. From a consumption perspective, there’s expected to be a 78 percent increase in demand for meat and seafood by year 2050. Yet the vast majority of cultured meat companies are based in the U.S. or, across the Atlantic, in the U.K. and Israel. (The notable exception is Shojinmeat, a Japanese company open sourcing clean meat production.) It makes sense that a company is bringing cell-based meat, which some herald as the solution to the evils of industrial meat consumption, to one of the regions where it could make the biggest impact.
But the choice to operate out of Singapore brings plenty of challenges. At the Alternative Protein Show this week in San Francisco, Sriram spoke about the differences between operating a cell-based meat company in the U.S. vs. Asia. Cultured meat companies in the U.S. have more access to funding and infrastructure than they would in Asia, and American and European consumers are more amenable to the concept of meat grown outside the animal.
Sriram told me that they expect to bring their first product to market in 3-5 years, with a taste test happening in the next year in high-end restaurants. Their target market is Asia-Pacific, so they’ll start rolling out products in Singapore, Hong Kong, and India, then eventually move onto Australia. Eventually, Shiok will sell their cell-based crustaceans to food companies who will incorporate their products into frozen meals.
For now, Shiok Meats is still in the R&D phase. They’ve developed a media (food which helps the animal cells grow) made of synthetic and plant-based substances, so they don’t have to use the very contentious Fetal Bovine Serum. They just closed their pre-seed round for an undisclosed amount and are working on raising a seed round over the next few months.
Currently, Shiok Meats just staffed by Sriram and her co-founder Ka Yi Ling. Compared to “veteran” cell-based meat companies like Memphis Meats, which was founded in 2015, the startup is small, young, and untested. But because of its location, Shiok Meats has the potential to make a global impact that could far outweigh cultured meat companies in the U.S. and Europe.