This Singapore startup is trying to grow seafood in a lab, and lobster will be way cheaper if it succeeds

According to its creators, apart from being less environmentally damaging, lab-grown lobster is so healthier for you, as it doesn’t contain microplastics and other cancer-causing compounds sometimes found in seafood.

Seafood fans, good news: cheap lobster could soon be on its way to your plate.

The catch? The luxurious, delicious meat won’t be pried from the shell of a dead crustacean, but grown in a lab using just a few cells.

According to its creators, apart from being less environmentally damaging, lab-grown lobster meat is also healthier for you, as it doesn’t contain microplastics and other cancer-causing compounds sometimes found in seafood.

Shiok Meats, the Singapore-based startup behind the idea, is currently working to perfect its formula for lab-grown shrimp first, which will be ready to hit diners’ plates in 18 to 24 months.

It will then start researching lab-grown lobster and crab meat, with prototypes expected by 2021 at the earliest, founder Sandhya Sriram told Business Insider.

Shiok Meats founders  Ling Ka Yi, 31, and Sandhya Sriram, 33. Both women are former stem cell biologists from A*Star, the Government’s science and technology research agency.
Shiok Meats

To “grow” a piece of meat in the lab, the team must first extract stem cells from an animal’s muscle tissue, multiply them, then wait for them to develop.

It takes Sriram, 33, and co-founder Ling Ka Yi, 31, a couple of weeks to isolate the stem cells required at lab scale. Both are former stem cell biologists from A*Star (the Government’s science and technology research agency).

The duo are working to add texture and shape to their shrimp meat, which currently resembles mincemeat. They most recently used it to make siew mai (a type of Chinese dumpling) as a sample for their investors.

“People emailed us asking where to buy it”

Shiok Meats plans to sell its shrimp to high-end restaurants here, just like competitor Impossible Foods has done.

The startup has been contacted by restaurants, hotels and a food delivery platform for the meat, and plans to sell it in supermarkets once production costs are low enough to compete with mass-market prices.

Currently, a kilogram of lab-grown shrimp costs S$5,000 to produce, but Sriram predicts this figure will drop to just S$50 by next year, a 99 per cent reduction in price.

This is because most of the costs come from buying culture media, a nutrient solution the cells grow in – and the startup intends to make (and sell) its own plant-based culture media for as little as S$1 a litre in the future, she told The Straits Times.

If Shiok Meats distributes its lobster meat the same way as its shrimp meat, it could mean lower prices for consumers, as part of lobster meat’s astronomical cost lies in the fact the animal must be shipped alive to avoid bacterial infections. Shiok Meats will also be able to run tests on their lobster meat to ensure it meets food safety standards.

Sriram, a vegetarian and a self-professed food lover, said she decided to venture into lab-grown meat as it combined her stem cell knowledge with a desire to conserve the environment for future generations – including her six-year old son, Aarav – to enjoy.

The founders decided on seafood as most players in the industry are currently tackling red meat. Shiok Meats is Southeast Asia’s first cell-based seafood company.

Though the shrimp haven’t hit the market yet, Sriram said Singaporeans are very excited about the product, and the company has been peppered with emails from the public, chefs and businesses asking where to buy or try it.

There was even a pet owner who wanted to buy the antibiotic-free meat as pet food.

“Singaporeans have a more international mindset, a wider palate, and are accepting of novel foods,” Sriram said.

“A lot of people told us that we were crazy”

To date, the six-man startup has managed to raise US$4.6 million in funding, of which half a million dollars will be spent on equipment. A major investor is Big Idea Ventures, a venture firm funding over 100 companies working to produce alternative meat.

But no investors in Singapore – or across Asia – were keen on the idea in its early stages, as the company did not have a prototype.

“We jumped in not even knowing if we could make any meat out of the cells,” Sriram said. “A lot of people told us that we were crazy. But we were passionate about the idea and confident in our abilities.”

The founders initially raised US$10,000 from a single US investor, all of which was spent on research. (They also went without pay for four months.) Funding subsequently rose to US$600,000 thanks to investors from the US, Australia and Hong Kong.

The company only began receiving attention from local investors after it debuted its siew mai in March. Interested parties now include Temasek Holdings, the Singapore Food Agency, the Economic Development Board, and Enterprise Singapore.

After Singapore, the company plans to sell its products in Hong Kong, India, Australia and New Zealand, but is waiting to secure “strong partnerships” before it enters China.

In 10 years, it hopes to replace traditional shrimp meat entirely with the lab-grown variety, and teach shrimp farmers how to create it, so they can use their sales networks to continue selling shrimp.

For now, though more alternative meat startups are mushrooming up, Sriram says Shiok Meats does not fear any competition.

Said the CEO: “Even if 100 companies come up with the same idea, we all still wouldn’t make enough meat to feed the whole world.”

Read also: Singapore’s getting a new govt body – and its priority is to make sure the country has enough food