Science / How stem cell-grown seafood could save our dying world

By: Robin Spiess - Posted on: February 18, 2019 | Business

With cruelty-free shrimps lab-grown from a handful of stem cells, Singapore-based Shiok Meats is putting Southeast Asia on the cell-based meats map – and offering an environmentally conscious alternative to the emissions-heavy fishery industry

Meatballs produced by Memphis Meats Photo: Memphis Meats

The first cell-based meatball sizzled and popped in the frying pan, as a traditional meatball would. A world-class chef plated it atop a bed of lettuce and greens. Observers said it smelled like beef; taste-testers said it tasted like beef.

But the meat didn’t come from a slaughterhouse – it was a product of beef cells, harvested from a cow and grown in a bioreactor. The cells were soaked in a nutrient bath and oxygenated until they multiplied enough to be processed, shaped in a scaffold where they developed into a growing mass of muscle, and eventually put through a grinder and made to resemble traditional ground beef.  

This meatball, produced by San Francisco-based startup Memphis Meats, was first sauced and plated in early February 2016. Now, just over two years later, cell-based meats are still not available on supermarket shelves – but even so, several more startups have begun diving into biotech food development, hungry for a more environmentally-conscious meat market.

Though the majority of these companies are based in the west, the launch of Shiok Meats – a Singapore-based startup intent on growing cell-based seafood, and the only company of its kind in the region – has officially put Southeast Asia on the cell-based meat map.

The venture

Entrepreneurs Sandhya Sriram and Ka Yi Ling, co-founders of Shiok Meats, spent more than a decade working as stem cell biologists before leaving the world of academia to launch their startup.

“All we did in our past life… is study, work with stem cells, and grow these cells in a lab,” Sriram said. “But not much [of our research] was being translated into actual products and therapies. So it came to a point where we had to decide: where can we best put our skills to use?”

Their decision to jump into the world of meat production was influenced by their interest in the developing scientific practice of growing cell-based meat, their passion for the environment and their simple, unadulterated love of food.  

“I don’t currently eat meat or seafood because it comes from killing animals,” Sriram explained. “But I will eat it, if it’s cell-based.”

Sandhya Sriram (L), CEO of Shiok Meats and Ka Yi Ling (R), CSO and CTO of Shiok Meats

Though most cell-based companies focus on replicating red-blooded meats like beef, chicken and pork – the traditional production of which continues to have an immense impact on the environment – Sriram and Ling chose to focus on seafood for a number of reasons. As an underserved niche, their seafood focus could be their selling point in a market rapidly attracting cell-based beef producers.

“Most clean, cell-based meat companies focus on red meat and poultry, but in Asia – where we are located – we eat a lot of seafood, and we need a clean solution for seafood as well,” explained Ling. “We can’t just keep fishing from the ocean; we have a limited supply, and we can’t keep overfishing.”

The carbon footprint per unit of seafood product, though much smaller than that of livestock, is still significant: fishing industry emissions went up by 30% between 1990 and 2011, as more fisheries turned their attention to harvesting shellfish. Crustacean fisheries account for only about 6% of all the food caught by fisheries, but are responsible for over a fifth of all emissions, according to a report published in the Nature Climate Change journal.

Southeast Asia is a prime destination for crustacean fisheries, and – in turn – a prime location for emissions related to shellfish harvesting. Intensively farmed shrimp in Thailand are among the least efficient in terms of energy return on investment, with one calorie of protein requiring about 71 times as much fuel to produce it, according to a 2016 report by The Ocean Foundation.

“Just looking at our projections, compared to normal seafood farming and fishing and so on… cell-based seafood is going to bring down greenhouse emissions by about ten times, [and bring down] land use and water use by three to four times,” Sriram said. “These are just projections, but we hope to increase those numbers.”

In addition to the environmental concerns, there are health-related issues to keep in mind as well: as heavy use of antibiotics in fish farms becomes more common, so too do concerns about the spread of antibacterial resistance and disease in animals and humans alike as a result.

“The good thing about doing it in a lab is that you know exactly what goes in, and we don’t put antibiotics [into our product],” Ling said. “We don’t need to put pesticides or any toxic chemicals. That is all good for the environment as well.”

There are a lot of reasons to stop eating traditional meats, but Ling – a meat eater herself – knows how difficult it can be to cut meat out of your diet completely.

“It’s hard for people to become vegetarian,” she said, explaining the importance of cell-based meats as a solution for supplementing traditional meats in one’s daily diet. “There’s a need to find a good source of meat that does not contribute to all of these environmental and health problems.”

The process

The process for turning seafood cells into edible crustacean meat is slightly simpler than that of growing beef or chicken cells, Sriram explained, but it isn’t exactly easy.

“In terms of the biology, seafood is not as complex as your other meats,” she said. “[Seafood is] mostly muscle and fat, but with beef you have to worry about blood vessels and connective tissue, and how it looks and feels, and all of that. So because of that, seafood is a little more simple.”

But when it comes to the actual growth and replication of the meat cells, the process for creating seafood meat is just as difficult as replicating beef cells, Ling added.

“What we do is harvest these cells from live animals and establish a cell bank, which will become our stock, so we don’t have to kill any animals,” she said. “After that, the process is kind of similar to how you would brew beer: we put the meat cells in a tank, and then we grow them… and feed them with liquid nutrients.”

Lab-grown meat from the US is presented in the Disgusting Food Museum on 6 December, 2018 in Los Angeles, California with the aim of exposing visitors to different cultures and foods and what we may all be eating in the future Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP

As the cells continue to divide, they form what Ling likes to call a type of “meat slurry” that requires packaging to resemble solid food. The Shiok Meats team is using edible scaffolding to shape their seafood, providing a structure that allows the cells to line themselves together in the general shape of a piece of meat.

For red-blooded meat products, cell-based companies have to focus on replicating beef’s natural marbling and fatty deposits, whereas seafood is easier to shape, she added.

Other companies are using 3D printing methods to make their meat slurries into solids, a sensible solution for many as 3D food printing has become more common across the industry: just as companies have begun feeding traditional meat into 3D printers as filament, so too can cell-based meat be built by these machines.

For Shiok, which has thus far produced about enough cell-based seafood for two hearty meals, several questions around how they will produce and shape their product on a mass scale have yet to be answered.

“We are trying to figure out how to get these cells to scale up, and grow. To be able to produce enough meat to put [our product] on shelves in supermarkets on a daily basis,” Sriram explained. “We’re nowhere close to the product in terms of selling it, but we’re offering a couple of taste testings among the founders and shareholders in the upcoming months – just to make sure we are getting it all right.”

The challenges

At just under six months old, the company is still very much in the research and development (R&D) stage: Shiok’s pre-seed funding round saw half a million dollars injected into the startup, and the company’s first official seed funding round is currently open to investors. But Shiok Meats could require up to a billion dollars’ worth of funding before it reaps any profit, if the amount of money required to launch other, more advanced biotech food companies provides any indication for funding estimates.

“We will be doing R&D for the next two years… and for it to be on the shelves for people to buy, it’s going to be at least three to five years,” Sriram said. “The next two years are very crucial in trying to understand how we can scale up these cells and this technology – which most of the clean meat companies haven’t mastered yet – so we’re trying to learn from them and learn internally on how we can improve.”

The team is currently working out of a laboratory, conducting their research in a limited space. When it comes time for Shiok to scale up, the company will have to seek funding to build manufacturing plants that are big enough, green enough and cost-effective enough to make cell-based meat production a viable long-term investment.

What we are doing is not making fake meats – we are producing the exact meat you want to eat, without needing an entire animal to do it

Another big issue for all clean meat companies continues to be the cost of the products they’re producing. The world’s first cell-based burger patty, produced by researcher Mark Post in 2013, cost a whopping $325,000 – and while the cost has now dropped significantly, the patty is still not commercially viable. Israeli-based startup Future Meat Technologies has cut costs down to $363 per pound of meat, and plans to continue cutting costs to between $2.30 and $4.50 per pound by 2020, but it remains a long process.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can scale down on costs,” Sriram explained, detailing the high costs of equipment and ingredients associated with any biotech food company. “We are thinking that in five years’ time, when we see a bag of our seafood in the frozen section [of supermarkets], it should be somewhere between 30% to 40% more expensive than what is there on the shelf currently.”

But the concept of cell-based meat being sold on shelves has proven difficult for some countries to wrap their regulations around, with the US and others dithering over the exact terms by which they would allow meat produced in a laboratory to be sold.

“All the countries are in the early stages of trying to figure it out, so we are just waiting for these countries to make up their minds and come up with a set of regulations that we can apply for [to sell our product],” Sriram explained.

One of the main challenges facing Shiok Meats is, of course, one that faces all cell-based meat companies: figuring out how to get past the bias among the public against eating meats may be considered “unnatural”. It’s a bias that Sriram says she can’t understand, but one she hopes to uproot before Shiok begins mass producing its product in the coming years.

“If you think about it, the food on your plate is nothing other than cells, muscle, fat, blood and connective tissue from an animal,” she said. “What we are doing is not making fake meats – we are producing the exact meat you want to eat, without needing an entire animal to do it.”

Currently, there are about 17 or 18 cell-based meat startups vying for funding and resources, but Sriram expects that several of these startups will falter or be bought out, leaving about five companies to dominate the cell-based meat sector in ten years’ time.

“In the next decade, at least the most developed countries are all going to have cell-based meat on their shelves – that has to happen, otherwise we are going toward a point where we won’t have enough meat to feed people,” Sriram said.

“The future is alternative meats, for sure,” she added. “Let’s get the world to eat clean.”