This article is based on an episode of the Red to Green podcast on food tech for sustainability and health. The first season is covering cell-based meat, dairy and seafood. Listen to this and past episodes here.
Did you know that farmed shrimp is often grown in sewage water or slaughter farm runoffs? The shrimp end up all dark and oily and then get dunked into antibiotics. This is a standard industry practice but you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way. In the latest episode, you will hear from *Dr. Sandhya Sriram, Co-Founder & CEO of Shiok Meats. They develop cell-based and clean seafood, founded back in 2018 in Singapore and with over 7.6 million under their belt in financing so far, they’re just getting started.
*Sandhya is also a TEDx speaker and has been featured in Forbes Women in Tech.
Breaking barriers: making sustainable shrimp
Why sustainable shrimp? Sandhya explains that through her experiences of visiting shrimp farms across Thailand and Vietnam she realised just how inhumane the growing conditions really were. Shrimps are used to living in sewage water since they are bottom feeders of the ocean and live off dead plants and animals. Shrimp farms can often exploit this and don’t have to spend money on fish, feed and water.
This results in shrimps that are oily, black and smelly and then cleaned in antibiotics and bleach, words that should never be used in the same sentence as food. The antibiotics used to clean the shrimps are primarily dumped in oceans and rivers, adding to the contamination of our planet.
“The major issue is that it’s unsustainable, that’s it”
(Image courtesy of Shiok Meats)
The next steps towards commercialized cultured shrimp
“We had to do a lot of groundwork and my cofounder and I started the company with a very clean whiteboard..we are kind of the first ones to do it and there’s no academic research.”
Shiok works on cultivated crustacean meat, which encompasses crab, lobster, and crayfish. However since starting the company they have focused primarily on shrimp and most recently on lobster and crab; “ the three main animals or species that we are concentrating on.”
Due to a lack of academic research and background knowledge regarding cells and crustacean stem cells its taken them approx. two years to fill in any research gaps and to truly understand the entire biology, chemistry and physics behind the operation of stem cells, but they have “managed to make quite a bit of progress on the technology” and are looking to “commercialize this product in the next two to two and a half years.”
(Image courtesy of Shiok Meats)
Burger patty vs. shrimp cells
Sandya explains that the main difference is that a burger patty is a mix of cell types or tissues but looking at a piece of shrimp, you only consume the inside which is one hundred percent muscle. There’s no fat, no connective tissue and no blood. Therefore, “it is less complex when you compare it to red and white meat”.
Shrimps belong to the insect family after all and are more redundant when it comes to their chemical and biological make. Shrimps are one-dimensional animals, unlike crabs or lobsters they don’t have claws or other parts.
“They are like a lower animal in the evolution of things.” and therefore don’t require as many nutrients to grow.
Shiok meats aren’t only setting their sights on shrimp however, they are also trying their hand at cultivating other seafood animals too. Sandya assured that since her and her team at Shiok have already mastered the cultivation of shrimp it’s been easier this time around with other animals “It took us two years for shrimp. Definitely will not take us two years for lobster and crab.”
Female founded startup
Shiok is a fully female founding team and Sandya seems thankful that she hasn’t experienced discrimination in Asia. She has however witnessed bias in more western countries and from western investors or entrepreneurs who seem to be more interested in knowing if she has children or how she is able to manage a company while managing a family.
“Numbers are showing that more Asian women actually are entrepreneurs than Asian men, which is kind of heartwarming, in the last five to 10 years, which is great and I honestly don’t feel that discrimination here.”
Investing in cultured seafood
Sandya explains that her first investment win was a nice surprise, from angel investor Ryan Betancourt.
“I told him, you know what, I want to do it. I’m going to quit my job in the next couple of weeks and I’m going to start this company…And he was like, fine I’ll be your first investor. And that’s literally how it started.”
With mission-oriented investors in the alt protein space, Shiok was able to grow a whole world of new connections and recognition for their innovative solution.
The startup also aims to reduce the commercialisation price as they are currently looking at a couple of thousand dollars to make a kilogram of shrimp meat, which markets it as a premium product, and outside of a lot of peoples price range.
“Right now (we are) in the middle of R & D and kind of trying to set up our first manufacturing plant so that we can commercialize”.
Seafood reinvented: breaking into the industry
So, what about advice for those who want to enter the cultured space, how can they get their foot in the door? Sandya assured that if you don’t try it, you’ll never know “one thing that I always say is go for it.” Entrepreneurship is never easy, but running with your idea is only the first step, getting heard is the real tough spot.
“Every step that you take, you might question yourself, but take the step.”
Timelines are also important, the Shiok team gave themselves 12 months to reach a few milestones and within this period they worked the hardest they could to get their idea off the ground. They came up with a prototype and then managed to isolate STEM cells from shrimp, even though no one before them had managed to do so, as well as secure minimal funding to get their project running.
Listen to the full episode on iTunes or Spotify
Want to know something quirky about Sandya? Check out her Instagram as she also runs a fashion blog @scisandya
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