Lab-grown shrimp dumplings: Clean, sustainable and cruelty-free

Shiok Meats' lab-grown shrimp dumplings contain a filling that was created using shrimp stem cells in a local lab. PHOTO: SHIOK MEATS
In a lab at research hub Biopolis, shrimp stem cells are kept swimming in a pink nutrient solution. PHOTO: SHIOK MEATS

SINGAPORE - The yellow dumpling looks and tastes like shrimp, according to the few people who have tasted it, yet the mince inside it cost more to produce than the priciest abalone.

Its filling did not come from the sea, but was created using shrimp stem cells in a local lab.

Shiok Meats, the region's first cell-based seafood company, launched its first creation, lab-grown shrimp dumplings, in March.

It took the eight-month-old company months of trial and error and $5,000 to make just eight dumplings using cell-cultured shrimp, according to its co-founder and chief executive officer Sandhya Sriram.

Dr Sandhya, 33, and her colleague Ling Ka Yi, 31, both stem cell biologists, moved from studying stem cells for potential medical treatments to harnessing them for food.

Few lab-grown meat companies are focusing on seafood and the pair wanted to cater to the Asian palate as seafood is popular in the region.

"As the cells need nutrients to grow and multiply, we had to go back and forth... to figure out which worked for us," Dr Sandhya told The Straits Times at the 2019 Food for the Future Summit on Thursday (April 25).

The summit brought together industry leaders from the food and beverage sector to discuss issues surrounding food sustainability, wellness and convenience.

Both scientists - who worked as stem cell biologists at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) - extracted the stem cells from locally-farmed shrimps that were antibiotic-free.

By January this year, their lab at the research hub Biopolis was filled with flasks and glass bottles containing millions of shrimp stem cells swimming in a pink nutrient solution.

It took two to four weeks for the stem cells to multiply and grow into muscle tissue, forming minced shrimp.

Their Shiok Shrimp Dumplings cost $5,000 to produce because the commercially available nutrient solution - also known as culture media - used to feed the cells is expensive, Dr Sandhya explained.

This comprises the bulk of the cost, which she believes will plummet once production is ramped up in three to five years.

By the end of next year, the company believes it can reduce the cost to $50 per kg, by concocting its own in-house plant-based culture media.

This food for cells is made up of proteins, carbohydrates, fats and growth factors - a form of protein to coax the cells to multiply. The team has plans to eventually sell their plant-based culture media for between $1 and $5 per litre.

Most of the company's investments come from foreign companies, said Dr Sandhya.

She did not reveal the amount that American venture firm Big Idea Ventures has channelled into Shiok Meats for its seed funding.

With US$50 million (S$68 million), Big Idea Ventures intends to fund more than 100 companies that can produce alternative proteins over the next four years.

Singapore is ramping up efforts in food production, and aims to produce 30 per cent of the food needed here by 2030.

Under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise (RIE) 2020 plan, $144 million will go towards food research, including urban farming and lab-grown meat, while $80 million will be invested in ramping up cell manufacturing capabilities.

Shiok Meats also plans to expand from minced shrimp into making a product that has the mouth-feel of whole shrimp flesh, and hopes to also expand to producing lab-grown prawn, crab and lobster flesh.

It is currently working with two local research companies to create the springy, smooth texture of a shrimp and connect the muscle tissues by mixing the tissues with edible plant-based collagens - a major component of tissue engineering that links tissue together like Lego blocks.

Greens rich in collagen include algae, seaweed, cactus and aloe vera.

A lifelong vegetarian who tries her best to live sustainably, Dr Sandhya said she did not agree with killing animals for meat but has no qualms eating her own creation.

"When I first tasted our shrimp dumpling, I didn't feel any guilt because I knew that it was clean and healthy. Moving forward, if I do like the taste of cell-based meat like chicken, I would eat it."

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