Given everything scientists have achieved in the past decade, from genetically modified embryos to 3D-printed bladders, it’s not so shocking that lab-grown meat will make it to our plates in the next couple of years. Perhaps what is more surprising is that Singapore is at the epicentre of this trend. It was the first country in the world to commercialise cell-based or cultured meat products in 2020. It is also home to Shiok Meats, the first cell-based meat and seafood company in South-east Asia.
The science is simple: collect a small sample of stem cells from a cow and place it in a nutrient-rich environment to grow. With this, researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands created the first cultured hamburger in 2013. It was this experiment that inspired scientist Dr Sandhya Sriram to be the first to develop the technology in South-east Asia and, along with fellow scientist Dr Ka Yi Ling, co-founded Shiok Meats in August 2018.
“We started from scratch with an idea, a bit of angel investor money and lots of skill and passion,” says Dr Sandhya. “But in the beginning, everything was a challenge. We had to find a lab, get funding, hire staff, and convince people that what we were doing made sense. Many thought Ka Yi and I were crazy for leaving behind well- paid jobs to do something almost unheard of. Many expected us to fail miserably. We proved everyone wrong.” Within six months of its founding, Shiok Meats raised about US$5 million (S$6.8 million) and launched its prototype: eight shrimp dumplings that cost $5,000 to make.
The company also grew from just the two of them to 32 and now operates out of a 700 sq m lab and office space in the Innovate 360 Innovation Hub. No one was more astounded by its progress than Dr Sandhya who never imagined she would be an entrepreneur after attaining her PhD in Biological Sciences from Nanyang Technological University.
“I was a typical scientist, introverted and happy to be in my lab coat and goggles. I was never interested in the outside world. All I did was research and study, and I loved every minute.” Then, obstacles in the corporate world left her frustrated. “People always perceived me to be too young for roles I could have taken. So I said: ‘If you will not promote me, I’ll just promote myself’.”
Driven by a newly discovered entrepreneurial spirit, she co-founded Biotechin.Asia, a science news website in 2014. When that business failed, she launched the science-focused events company SciGlo in 2016 that she still helps to manage today. “My first venture may have been a disaster but it made me realise just how strong I am as a person.” This came in handy during the earlier, more uncertain days. “I was the CEO, but I was doing everything. I was the cleaner, the scientist, the fundraiser and the operations person. Ka Yi dealt with everything on the science and research side.”
Now that she has the luxury of delegation, Dr Sandhya’s chief preoccupation is redefining her role as CEO to take the company forward. While the next milestone is to scale its technology – so Shiok Meats’ products can retail at $50 per kilo by early 2023 – the end goal is to become the global leader of all cell- based protein – not just in seafood and red or white meat, but also for animal by- products like leather and even skincare.
It’s a big dream that hasn’t escaped criticism. “I remember two instances when someone told me to my face that they would have funded me if I were a man,” she recalls. “But I pay little heed to such assumptions about me. I’ll just show you I can do it.”