Ever grown your own herbs at home? Some kale, perhaps? How about cultivating some stem cell meat for dinner?
Never say never, for that could become a possibility in the longer run, like in "10 to 15 years," according to Sandhya Sriram, stem cell scientist and co-founder of Shiok Meats, a Singapore-based clean meat startup. By then, consumers could run out to buy some stem cells and liquid nutrients and grow their own meat at home, she said.
"People have been baking, making wine and beer and growing their own vegetables and fruits at home," Sriram said on the Agri Matters podcast by Pinduoduo. "Why not grow cell-based meat at home as well?"
Less adventurous consumers will probably encounter lab-grown meat in restaurants in the next few years.
Sriram started Shiok Meats in Aug. 2018 with co-founder Ka Yi Ling, a fellow scientist who between them have more than 20 years of experience in working with muscle, fat and stem cell biology. According to Sriram, the company plans to set up its first manufacturing plant in Singapore to produce cell-based shrimp within the next two years and get the product on the menu in at least one or two restaurants by 2022. The startup showcased cultured lobster meat in lobster gazpacho and lobster terrine at a tasting event in Nov. 2020.
"Shrimp is one of the highest consumed proteins in the entire world, and we realize that the industry has a lot of issues," Sriram said. "Nobody was working on it, so we could literally be unique and start from scratch."
The shrimp market is a $50 billion market with Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and India among the biggest producers. The conventional shrimp industry is plagued by problems of overcrowded farms and overuse of antibotics, chemicals and hormones. There are also issues with overfishing and contamination with effluents, heavy metals and microplastics.
Shiok Meats is among the wave of startups worldwide developing meat, poultry and seafood using stem cells as an alternative to traditional livestock agriculture, which is exacting an increasing toll on the environment with its impact on water use, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Intensive agricultural practices have also drawn criticism from human health and animal welfare groups.
Companies like Bill Gates-backed Memphis Meats, Aleph Farms of Israel and San Francisco-based Eat Just are racing to bring cultured meat to the consumer market.
The cell-grown meat industry is developing in parallel to plant-based alternatives championed by companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have worked with restaurants and supermarkets to market vegan sausages and mock meat.
According to Barclays, the market for meat alternatives could be worth $140 billion within the next decade, or about 10% of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry.
To be sure, one of the critical challenges for the cell-based meat industry is cost.
The fledgling industry is an offshoot from the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, where scientists used to do stem cell research to understand diseases. The nutrient medium, which comprises liquid ingredients like proteins, carbohydrates, fats and vitamins, is being produced in the laboratories of pharmaceutical companies at a tiny scale. A liter of such nutrient liquid currently costs about $1,000 per kilogram, said Sriram.
"Everyone from the pharmaceutical companies to the equipment manufacturers to the food industry to startups like us needs to come together to make things slightly inexpensive and think of everything in the food side of things rather than the pharma, drug side of things, which is very expensive," she said.
To reduce cost, Shiok Meats is working with one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies to develop edible plant extracts, which are cheaper than chemical components. It has also partnered with a Japanese company called IntegriCulture, which has a proprietary technology that can reduce the pricing of nutrient liquid.
When Shiok Meats made its first batch of crustacean meat it cost about $10,000 to produce a kilogram, now the cost has been reduced to about $5,000 per kilogram, and the company intends to further lower it to a "two-digit kind of pricing" in one year, according to Sriram.
Globally, companies are making faster-than-expected headway in reducing costs of cell-based meat. Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies this month beat market expectations by reducing the production cost of a cultured chicken breast to $7.50.
Given that there is no commercially available cell-based meat product anywhere globally, dealing with regulators is another major hurdle. Singapore made global headlines in Dec. 2020 by becoming the first country in the world to allow the sale of cultured meat.
"The regulatory landscape is definitely a huge challenge for us," said Sriram. "But I would say I think we are blessed being in Singapore and Singapore is this country that does things very swiftly and was able to set a standard for the rest of the world."
In 2019, Shiok Meats raised $4.6 million in seed funding from various investors including Big Idea Ventures. It followed with a $12.6 million Series A funding round in Oct. 2020 led by Aqua-Spark. Other investors include SEEDS Capital, the investment arm of Enterprise Singapore, Real Tech Fund and Toyo Seikan Group from Japan, Irongrey and Yellowdog Empowers Fund from South Korea.