Sandhya Sriram and Ling Ka Yi knew they wanted to help save the oceans. Overfishing, according to the United Nations, has left more than 70 percent of the world’s fisheries exploited or depleted. Some species are bordering on extinction and marine ecosystems are being destroyed.
And with Earth’s population growing at 75 million people every year, more must be done beyond sustainable fishing and consumption. Seafood, after all, is an excellent source of protein and perceived as healthier because it’s less fatty than red meat.
“The way we are consuming seafood is unsustainable,” says Sriram, 33, “and we are destroying our oceans and our health by consuming tainted and misrepresented seafood.”
Powered by this passion, the women quit their jobs as stem cell biologists at A*Star to co-found Shiok Meats last August.
As Ling , 31, its chief scientific officer, shares: “We wanted to produce clean and delicious seafood by harvesting from cells instead of animals. We wanted to create meat that is healthy and environmentally-friendly that’s as tasty and nutritious, but without involving any animal cruelty.”
Shiok Meats is the first in Southeast Asia to grow seafood using stem cells in the lab. Sriram, its CEO, and Ling decided on seafood for two reasons: it is commonly eaten in the Asia Pacific region, and no other clean meat company did it.
“There is very little research on seafood or crustaceans,” says Ling. “Most published work focuses on mammals, so we had to develop and optimise protocols and reagents to suit crustaceans specifically. For example, from which part of the shrimp could we derive the stem cells? How should these cells be isolated? How then should we turn these cells into meat?”
This was only one of several challenges for the ladies. Initially, it was difficult for them to even find investors, until their mentor Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Wild Earth, stepped in with a cheque for US$10,000 ($13,700).
Getting a lab to conduct experiments was tough as well since they were not affiliated to a university or academic institute.
“We ended up renting a lab on a daily basis at the Tropical Marine Science Institute on St John’s Island. Whenever we had to work on prototypes, we’d have to take a 45-minute boat ride out!” exclaims Sriram.
But their tenacity paid off. In March, Shiok Meats rolled out its first shrimp dumplings. That was the first time Sriram, who’s vegetarian, tasted shrimp. “Knowing how the meat was made gave me a lot more confidence to try it. I think the taste wasn’t too bad,” she adds with a smile.
Come April, a $4.6 million seed funding will allow the company to work towards mass production over the next few years. For a start, the six-member team will be shifting into new lab premises at Jalan Boon Lay.
Shiok Meats is planning to make its products available at premium restaurants, which the women reckon will take at least 18 months, after which they will target to hit grocery stores in 5 to 7 years.
For more on trailblazing leaders, read our series on alphas here.