Lab-grown meat could soon be part of your seafood platter, as Shiok Meats, the world’s first cell-based crustacean product, moves towards launch.
Dr Ka Yi Ling is co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of the Singapore-based startup that is working on creating alternatives to prawns and other crustaceans using stem cell technology. Shiok is a Singaporean and Malay word that means “delicious”, and sums up the quality this startup is striving for with their products.
Dr Ka Yi was at Global Table presents Seeds&Chips – The Global Food Innovation Summit, where she participated in pitch competitions and joined the Next Gen Protein panel to discuss the rise of plant-based and cell-cultured meat as well as current constraints and opportunities for scaling up. With a passion for science communication and a love of trying new cuisines, Dr Ka Yi is in a perfect position to encourage more ethical food choices.
Why did Shiok Meats choose to focus on crustacean meat?
We wanted something that was very Asian, and seafood is a huge thing for Asians. The most commonly used seafood is probably shrimp but we know there are a lot of problems with shrimp farming. Then when you come to crab and lobster, some of that can’t be farmed at all and yet we’re still consuming it, at much faster rates. For us, crustacean meat was unique. No one else was doing it but it’s also very Asian and so it covered all the areas that we wanted to address.
What response does alternative protein get in Singapore, where you’re based, and elsewhere in South East Asia?
It’s really good. Consumers are interested. Obviously there are always people who are hesitant but when we explain what we are doing they really are excited and want to have it right now. Sadly, that’s not possible yet, seeing as we’re only about a year old. Government is also interested, and restaurants and people who do seafood packing and distribution. We’re getting a lot interest from all over the world, not just in Asia, but also the US and here [in Australia]. I think it’s partly because it’s rare. There’s no one else in South East Asia doing this and there’s only a handful [of cell-based meat companies] in Asia.
Your background is in research. How you come to be involved in an alternative protein startup?
Sandhya [Sriram, Shiok Meats CEO] and I worked at the same research institute, where she was already doing business development after leaving research. I myself was still in research but I wanted something else to do, I just wasn’t sure what. Sandhya was on the lookout for a scientist to be in the lab, because she likes the business side of things and even though she’s scientifically trained, she can’t possibly do it all. She shared this idea [for cell-based crustacean meat] with me and I thought “Wow this is amazing”. I love to eat but I don’t want to come to a point where I have to stop eating certain things because they’re not available anymore. Plus the sourcing, the health aspect, the cruelty of it, bugs me. So for me the personal motivation, the bigger picture and being able to use my science in food, were an amazing prospect. Now I get to do what I love to do all day long, which is wonderful.
Shiok Meats co-founders Dr Sandhya Sriram and Dr Ka Yi Ling
What stage is Shiok Meats at now?
We’re still at R&D stage. The next 12 to 15 months will be about scaling up production to a level where we can actually supply to a few restaurants. We also need to iron out the processing and optimisation of it and, most importantly, bring down the cost of the process. When we did our first showcase and prototype in April this year, it cost about $1,200 to produce eight dumplings. Some people might pay that, but the product is not going to be accessible for most people, which is what we want to do. The main goal is to bring down the cost of what we feed the cells, which is the most expensive part. We also need to ensure it’s safe, and that we’re not using animal components to feed the cell.
Our aim is to be in one or two restaurants – in Singapore most likely – by the end of 2020 or start of 2021. That really depends on how fast regulations go in, but we will be ready to do that by end of next year.
You’ve said you feel uncomfortable about the realities of eating meat but find it hard to give it up entirely. Where do you stand on the ethics of eating meat?
Right now, I’m a flexitarian. Usually when I eat alone at home, I eat vegetables or yoghurt and fruits; no meat. But when I eat out and when I travel, I love the joy of eating different cuisines and different dishes, so I do eat meat then. Also, price-wise in Singapore, it’s very hard to justify paying $15 for a salad, whereas I can get a rice dish with mixed meat and vegetables for $3. Economically, I’m not at a level to sustain myself and pay for such expensive meals. It’s convenience, too. If I made every meal at home, then I might be able to cut out all meat but then there’s the issue of time. So, it’s a balance.
What’s the biggest challenge in communicating science breakthroughs to consumers, especially when you’re dealing with short attention spans and an overwhelming amount of information that’s served to audiences each day?
The biggest thing we try to address is making sure people understand the difference between plant-based and cell-based meat, because plant-based is the only thing that’s available right now.
But I agree with you. Online, people mostly read headlines or sometimes very short, snappy summaries. So we make an effort to continually go out to events and conferences and actively talk to people. Obviously we’re only reaching some, but if you get to the masses and they come to listen what you’re doing, they usually understand why and what exactly we’re doing. I think most importantly you need to connect with people, be sincere, share what you’re doing and try not to speak in technical terms we’re all used to.
When we get to the commercialisation point, I think we will have to just ride the social media wave and have really clear messages about what we’re doing and just keep going at it. We’ll need a very good media person with us when we get there. That’s probably something for next year.
How do we get more people to make more conscious eating choices, whether it’s conscious for the planet or conscious for their own health?
One thing that helps people to understand the choices they’re making is when they actually see the process of food manufacturing whether that’s farming or where the fish come from. When they see that, whether through documentaries or by physically visiting it, it makes an impact. Handling the food themselves too, shelling prawns rather than buying them already shelled, they are more likely to ask, “What am I putting into my body? Where did this come from?”
There are many young people here at Global Table this week. The future can probably sound gloomy to a young person in 2019. What message do you have for them about changing our current trajectory?
They are already in the movement to help us be there. Most of the younger generation who are still in school are the ones who most understand that us continuing to grow at the rate we are is just not sustainable.
My message for them is that your actions are what’s going to determine where we’re going as a world. Keep making active changes, even though they might be on an individual basis. Reducing use of plastic, eating environment-friendly options, being energy conscious and not taking Uber all the time, taking public transport – all of these are actions we can do on a daily basis. If you have the interest, there are many ways of helping this movement go forward. You can be the innovator working in a company building the technology. Or you can be the one actually building the technology. Or if you’re writing or great at social media, share the message, make sure more people know why we’re doing this. Be part of it. Be the change you want to be.
Find out more about Shiok at shiokmeats.com.