By Jolie Fong and Caleb Thien
Ka Yi Ling is the group Chief Technical Officer and Co-Founder of Shiok Meats, a cultivated seafoods and meats company. In this interview, she shares about her experiences in academia, her pivot into entrepreneurship and founding a start-up, and advice for youths planning a career in the biotechnology industry.
I am the group Chief Technical Officer and Co-Founder of Shiok Meats. Shiok Meats is a cultivated meats and seafood company where stem cells are used to manufacture meat. In particular, we focus on crustaceans, including shrimps, crabs, and lobsters. We also acquired a company – Gaia Foods – that focuses on cultivated beef and pork. In the past two years, we have been focusing on research and development, setting up our manufacturing facility in Singapore, getting regulatory approval, and working toward commercialisation.
I had previously completed my Bachelor’s Degree and PhD in Biology at the University of Wisconsin, focusing on developmental biology and stem cells. Upon returning to Singapore, I took up a post-doctoral fellowship with A*Star. That was where I met my co-founder, Sandhya (Sriram), who is also a biologist and serial entrepreneur, and together we decided to start Shiok Meats.
When we first started, my role was to mainly oversee research. However, as the research team expanded beyond six people, I had to let go of hands-on research in order to focus on other aspects of the business. Nowadays, my typical day is mostly spent guiding the team, fundraising, working with stakeholders, and building innovation.
When we first started Shiok Meats, cultivated foods had not yet gained traction in Singapore. Now, there is an increasing number of companies in peripheral industries supporting cultivated seafood and meats. For example, scientists are integrating AI technology into research to gain a better understanding of cellular development. There are also companies focusing on other cultivated foods such as cultivating proteins to substitute milk.
In the next five years, we will likely see more companies like ours with products in great variety and commercially available for retail. Similar to the plant-based food trend, cultivated meats will likely be more commonly adopted by food establishments and supermarkets in more countries.
We plan to start selling our products to local restaurants first, before setting up manufacturing facilities in the wider Asia Pacific region. Next, we plan to enter the European and US markets by finding partners whom we can licence our technology to in order to build manufacturing plants outside of the Asia Pacific region. We hope that within the next seven to ten years, our products will be found in restaurants and supermarkets around the world, with a wider variety of meats ranging from shrimp to lobster and crab.
Despite my deep interest in research, I was not as interested in academia given its strong focus on publications and grants. Instead, I was more keen to utilise research as a means of impacting society. The idea of utilising stem cell technology to manufacture food to feed a growing global population particularly fascinated me.
This required a mindset shift as academic research is rather different from how commercial or industrial research is carried out. Commercial research is conducted in teams each with their own specific experiments working toward a common goal. In contrast, academic research is much more individual, involving people pioneering their own areas of expertise and deeply exploring their areas of interest. Additionally, in commercial research, there is little time to dwell on failures in an experiment. Instead of diagnosing what went wrong, the focus in commercial research is about attempting different methods to find a solution. Furthermore, supply availability and cost allocations also differ between academic and commercial research. To prove a concept in academia, it is sufficient to conduct the experiment a few times in a small quantity successfully. However, in a commercial setting, we must be able to reliably reproduce the result in order to mass manufacture for consumers.
Startups in the biotechnology sector were previously rather uncommon in Singapore. Being two young females who were first in the sector to cultivate crustaceans, we had to raise awareness and convince investors to garner their support. Hiring was also a challenge as people with a background in biology preferred to remain in academia or join multinational pharmaceutical companies, which they perceived to provide a more stable career. As such, we had to pique the interest of people with the right skill sets to join us.
Nevertheless, converting lab research into real food that can be tasted by people is extremely gratifying. During our various prototype showcases, I find it satisfying and exciting to see people enjoy our various creations such as our shrimp dumpling, lobster bisque and chilli crab cake. Guiding my team members to grow with the company and watching them enjoy what they do is also very encouraging.
We were with Y Combinator in the US. During that time, startup incubators and accelerators had a more general focus, such as in digital fields like FinTech and AI. However, it was nonetheless a great opportunity to get funding and a stamp of approval from a recognised institute. Additionally, we were able to network with peers who were also on the journey to start their own venture. This provided us with the opportunity to find other collaborators who were interested in contributing to our work. Furthermore, as my training was in the scientific field and I was less cognizant with the business end, the accelerator programme was also a helpful boot camp that acquainted us with the basics of running a company.
It may be true that most of the startups in the cultivated meats and seafood sector are based in the USA, making financial support and infrastructure more readily available. However, most of the projected population growth and accompanying food demand in the next decade is found in Asia Pacific. Additionally, we wanted to be based in a country where food safety and regulation is well respected. Hence, Singapore was a natural choice for us to base our company.
A co-founder who is only trained in business may find it difficult to understand how much time it takes to fully commercialise a product of new technology. This challenge is exacerbated by investor pressure to portray your best side, produce a measurable time frame, and deliver results. Hence, balancing business pressures with a good understanding of the scientific possibilities might be a challenge for those only trained in the business end.
Communication skills are vital in both areas. In order to appeal to consumers and investors who are not necessarily trained in the scientific fields, it is important to be able to communicate science in ways that are digestible and amenable. Additionally, the ability to multitask and prioritise is also important in order to achieve our commercialisation goals.
One needs to be adaptable and open to picking up new skills. This is particularly vital in a startup environment where roles are often not fixed. As my team grows, my scope of responsibilities will continue to shift, requiring me to develop new skills to adapt to the changing nature of my role. As you rise to positions at the management level, the need to be a generalist rather than a specialist becomes more pertinent. This is vital for managing people who may have expertise in areas that you do not specialise in.
The ability to network is an uncommon trait among scientists, including myself. We generally tend to be more introverted, making it harder for us to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to socialise. However, networking is an important skill for building relationships and finding the right people to work with.
I would first identify my specific goal of networking. For example, if I were to look for research collaborators on a project, I would first seek out people with expertise in the area, speak to them, and find out if they are suitable for the project. I would also consider what I can offer them so that our relationship is mutually beneficial.
Work connections tend to be guided by the projects that we are working on together. If the relationship I am seeking to maintain is not related to any formal work arrangement, then I would suggest connecting once every few months. This can be done by sharing relevant news or an interesting publication.
Ultimately, how much to invest in a relationship depends on how you envision the long-term partnership to be. It is also helpful to consider the topics you want to engage on, and what aspects of the relationship you would like to build.
Look for opportunities to do a research internship. Doing an internship for at least three months will allow you to be independently trained in some scientific skill sets. It will also provide you with the experience of running your own experiment. This is highly relevant as designing independent experiments is a large part of doctoral education. Apart from that, having work experience in research will also help you understand whether it is a suitable career path for you.
Most students think that academia and research is the only path they can pursue to further their studies in science. Academic research has often also been idealised as the pinnacle of achievement. Interestingly however, only about 5% of PhD holders eventually decide to pursue academia to become professors and academics. Therefore, I would encourage students to keep an open mind and be receptive to exploring other available career paths.
Grants and publications are a large part of academia. I really enjoyed spending time in networking events with people who had received their PhD but were working on different career paths helped me realise that there were alternative pathways I could explore. It also helps to consider what makes one happy. For me, it was the ability to utilise my skills to impact the lives of others.
If you are interested in the cultivated foods industry, the Good Food Institute and New Harvest are non-profit organisations that publish enriching reading materials. They address research gaps and challenges and identify skills that are sought after in the industry. They also fund undergraduate student projects. For introductory articles on cultivated meats and its environmental success, whatiscultivatedmeat.com is also a helpful resource.
I told myself to identify my areas of passion early and be courageous in taking calculated risks to explore these areas. I also set feasible checkpoints between major milestones to work towards a goal.
If you are someone with a scientific background without much business experience, find a business partner who shares your vision and has the scientific background to understand the product.