When we think of seafood, we think of shrimps, crabs, and lobsters freshly caught from the ocean. At Shiok Meats, chief technical officer and co-founder Ka Yi Ling leads a team of scientists to grow sustainable and environmentally-friendly crustacean meats by cultivating stem cells in a lab tucked away in Singapore. In this edition of our Women in Tech series, we chat with Ka Yi on how she is applying her experience in biotech research to improve the way we eat and inspire the next generation of scientists.
23 July 2021 / By SGN
In recent years, Singapore has emerged as the food tech capital of Asia, with more than 15 start-ups entering the alternative protein sector in the past two years alone. This has led to a greater availability and acceptance of sustainable plant-based meat substitutes in supermarkets and on restaurant menus. However, one local start-up is charting a new path when it comes to alternative proteins, focusing not on plant-based alternatives but instead cultivating meat directly from cells, eliminating the need to slaughter animals for food.
Shiok Meats, a Singaporean start-up that cultivates sustainable, cell-based crustacean meats like shrimps, crabs and lobsters, is one of the pioneer labs in the region and the first in the world that focused on developing crustacean meats.
Its chief technical officer and co-founder, Ka Yi Ling, and co-founder Sandhya Sriram noticed that seafood was a huge protein source for Asians, commonly used in dim sums, hawker dishes and Thai cuisine. “The consumer interest and APAC market for crustaceans is huge. APAC is the leading region for shrimp production, and the top importers and exporters of shrimp products,” Ka Yi explains.
Ka Yi (left) and Sandhya (right) at the Shiok Meats lab, where they experimented with shrimp stem cells to cultivate minced shrimp meat in a controlled process.
Back in 2018, Ka Yi and Sandhya noticed that there was a gap in the fledging alternative protein industry. Most seafood-specialised cell-based meat companies focused on developing fish products like salmon and tuna, but no one was producing crustacean meat. They jumped on this opportunity, leveraging their expertise as scientists trained in stem cell research to tackle the untouched crustacean-specialised cell-based market.
Leaving their stable, coveted jobs to become trailblazers was difficult to say the least.
“Many doubted we would succeed and saw us as crazy scientists who gave up their well-paying and stable job at A*STAR to start Shiok Meats,” Ka Yi laughs.
Ka Yi and Sandhya persevered, fuelled by their love and passion for biotech and stem cells.
Fusing Passion for Science & Food
Ka Yi tells us that her love and interest in biotech research stemmed from her childhood in Singapore, where she devoured encyclopaedias and science school newsletters.
“I remember reading about Dolly the Sheep in The Straits Times – being able to produce Dolly the sheep by combining the nucleus of mammary gland cell and the egg cell of another was beyond fascinating,” Ka Yi says. She later joined Singapore’s leading public sector R&D agency, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), for a junior college research internship programme which spurred her to pursue a career in biotech research.
After earning her degree and PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ka Yi returned to A*STAR as a research fellow in the developmental epigenetics and diseases group. As much as she enjoyed her role initially, she thirsted for more.
“I always knew that academic research wasn’t the career for me, but I wanted to stay in research and make an impact with my work,” she explains. Whilst living in Wisconsin, where a good amount of food is sourced from local farms, Ka Yi was able to connect with the farmers to learn and appreciate how her food was produced and where it came from.
When Sandhya shared with the A*STAR Post Doc and Early Career Scientist Society (A*PECCS) about an opportunity for a technical co-founder for a start-up that uses stem cells to make shrimp meat, Ka Yi was immediately intrigued. “But as much as I was interested, I had to think about this long and hard. I never thought I would be a part of the start-up world, much less co-found a start-up! Ultimately, I took a leap of faith as developing cell-based crustaceans with Shiok Meats was the best way for me to combine my passions for food and research,” she shares.
From Crustacean Cells to Culinary Delights
When Ka Yi and Sandhya first started working on Shiok Meats, research and work on crustacean cell culture was virtually non-existent. No one had ever worked on muscle and fat stem cells in crustaceans before, which meant that the founders had to pave the way forward, from scratch.
“We gave ourselves 12 months to build the company and raise funds. If we didn’t reach our goal by this deadline, we would already have done all that we could. We would then reconsider if we should keep pressing on,” Ka Yi says.
Thankfully, the two succeeded in developing and showcasing their first prototype within 6 months. The revolutionary process they developed grows minced shrimp meat in 4 to 6 weeks, presenting a huge boost in boosting food production as it takes a conventional farm up to 6 months to grow an adult shrimp.
How Shrimp Meat is Cultivated in The Lab
Cell-based meat presents many benefits for consumers. Firstly, they would no longer be at the mercy of health risks presented by microplastics and mercury pollution from the ocean, as cell-based meats are cultivated using filtered water in an enclosed environment. Secondly, food wastage is also reduced as only meat that is consumed (muscle and fats) is produced. Finally, cellular agriculture can also help land and resource scarce countries like Singapore to cultivate meats and become self-sufficient.
As our production process is controlled, we are not affected by external events like global warming, viral infections or even ocean pollution. We also save on land and water usage compared to traditional processes,” Ka Yi explains.
However, the novelty of cellular agriculture meant that production is still costly, and Ka Yi expects prices to remain at a premium for the next five to seven years.
Cell-based meats are typically cultivated in nutrients which are currently pharmaceutically produced for medical therapy research in small quantities, leading to hefty costs and the need to secure large capitals. To bring down the price point and ease consumers to opt for cell-based meat options, Shiok Meats is now working on developing their own food-grade plant-based nutrients to feed their crustacean cells and having more conversations about cellular agriculture.
Science Talks: Conversations to Inspire and Educate
Food neophobia is a major hurdle facing the cell-meat industry. Defined as a fear of the new foods, there is great resistance among conservative consumers in accepting cultivated meat. While this remains a major challenge for the sector, Ka Yi believes that having more transparent conversations about cell-based food production processes will change the public’s perception about lab-grown meat over time.
“My key interest in research was in embryonic stem cells, which faced many ethical and religious concerns from the public. I spent a lot of time in my undergraduate and graduate school days at Wisconsin-Madison engaging in scientific outreach to share about stem cells research with kids and the public,” she says. Since starting Shiok Meats, she has made it her mission to help the public understand scientific advancements and inspire talents to join the field of cellular agriculture.
Ka Yi has given numerous talks to students, including those from the Singapore Institute of Technology (left image) and A*STAR Scholars’ Network (right image).
Previously, Ka Yi was a co-host at Science Talks, a podcast that discusses on current scientific topics in an easy-to-understand manner, and today, regularly gives talks, conduct scientific outreach at the Science Centre Singapore and science fairs, and work with media partners to share about Shiok Meats’ technology.
“I find it a privilege to be able to share my knowledge and learnings with the next generation, and hopefully inspire more youths to get into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) field!” she shares. “Having the right skillset and culture fit is most important when selecting new members for the team.”
She encourages other women in science to reach for the stars, sharing that the best thing you could do is to set your sights on an audacious goal that will get you fired up. “Find something that you’ll be willing to put in your best effort to make a reality. If you don’t reach the stars, you’d have at least touched the sky!” Ka Yi says.
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About Ka Yi
Ka Yi Ling is CTO and Co-Founder at Shiok Meats, a Singapore-based cell-based meat and seafood tech start-up. Ka Yi is a trained developmental and stem cell biologist with over 10 years of expertise in tracing and studying stem cells, and often takes part in science outreach and speaks at food sustainability and career management events.
Ka Yi is also a host of two science podcasts, “Science Now” and “Life after PhD”, with fellow colleagues and scholars. In 2020, Ka Yi was awarded EmTech Asia’s Innovators under 35.
Connect with Ka Yi here.