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Umami Meats: Cultivated meat set for rapid growth?

Umami Meats: Cultivated meat set for rapid growth?

KUALA LUMPUR: Singapore-based Umami Meats believes that the cultivated meat market has a strong value proposition and that the market will grow quickly in the coming years. Umami Meats co-founder and chief executive officer Mihir Pershad said this is given the pressures of climate change and the need to urgently reduce carbon emissions and increasing pressures on traditional agricultural systems to produce enough healthy nutritious delicious food. He noted that Malaysia has a strong manufacturing industry, deep agricultural know-how, and a growing bio-manufacturing sector which can contribute to the development and commercialisation of cultivated meat in the country.

"This combination of knowledge base, talent, and production costs make Malaysia a competitive market for cultivated production.

"In particular, the skilled workforce with experience in scaling up bio-manufacturing will be critical to helping the cultivated industry achieve its potential of producing enough food to support billions of people around the world," he told the New Straits Times in an interview recently.

Umami Meats is a manufacturer of cell-based foods that aim to provide healthy alternatives to seafood. Its products are directly made from fish cells and tissue and are free from mercury, antibiotics, microplastics, and ocean pollutants, enabling clients to find affordable, delicious cell-cultured seafood and meat with low-cost, high-performance serum-free media and novel marine cell lines.

According to Mihir, the market for alternative protein and cultivated meat is still quite early in most of Southeast Asia, but the market is fundamentally the same as the animal protein market. He added that some subset of that market actively wants to replace animal protein in their diet for a variety of reasons and that will be the early adopter segment for cultivated products.

"Most consumers have still never heard of cultivated meat and couldn't tell you any of its potential benefits if you ask them about it. However, our initial research from other key Asian markets indicates that awareness of cultivated seafood and meat leads to a 300 per cent increase in willingness to try and consume these products. For this reason, we think education and awareness campaigns will be critical to building the market for cultivated products in Malaysia and in Asia more broadly," he said.

Mihir also highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic has made food security and stability of the food supply part of national conversations throughout Southeast Asia and brought the concerns around food imports to the public awareness for the first time in many countries. Given this new context, technologies that can help to provide local contaminant free and predictable supplies of protein may be viewed more positively than they would have been pre-pandemic. Mihir said traditionally, local climates and availability of freshwater and arable land significantly determine a country's ability to be self-sufficient in feeding its population. He added that in a country like Singapore, for example, limited arable land and freshwater resources make traditional agriculture very difficult.

As such, cultivated meat and seafood production help to break this paradigm by enabling Umami Meats to produce food local to where it needs to be consumed in a controlled environment that is less sensitive to local resource constraints. He emphasised that this technology has the potential to enable most countries to sustainably supply their people with meat and fish even if they have scarcity of freshwater arable land or other natural resources.

Potential benefits of cultivated meat

Cultivated meat and fish have potential benefits for food security, sustainability, and affordability in the long term. Mihir said with cultivated fish, for example, we can continue to enjoy culturally important dishes without driving prized species to extinction because we find them delicious.

"We can also localise production of these species, so they no longer have to travel around the world from where they are produced to where they are consumed. This reduces the carbon footprint but also makes the supply chain more reliable and makes prices and supply more stable, resulting in greater food security," he added.

"Our oceans and waterways are also increasingly contaminated with heavy metals like mercury and cadmium and with micro-plastics from human activity and these accumulate in the fish that we enjoy." He added that we can produce cultivated fish that is free from these contaminants, providing a healthier choice for consumers who are sensitive to these contaminants in their foods.

It's a lengthy process

As with any new technology, cultivated meat and fish will take time to scale, Mihir said. It can be difficult to conceptualise just how much meat and seafood the industry can produce around the world every year.

"Seafood alone amounts to roughly 200 million tons of consumption. However, we believe that starting with species that are already supply constrained, like endangered fish that cannot be farmed, will provide an initial market with sufficient willingness to adopt cultivated products to enable this industry to scale," he said. Due to climate change and the strain that it will put on local ecosystems and resources, Mihir believes that cultivated meat and seafood production will become a compelling technology and that Umami Meat's ability to consistently produce great food will help to drive broad global adoption in the long term.

"At Umami Meats, we believe that compelling manufacturing technology paired with production experience can help to grow the production of cultivated seafood rapidly in Malaysia and in countries around the world. We are developing the operating system for cultivated seafood with the goal of enabling traditional food producers and manufacturers to use our technology stack to produce a broad range of delicious appealing cultivated seafood products," he said.

Mihir added that scaling manufacturing capacity will require infrastructure investments and funding from private equity investors, particularly in the earlier stages. He believes that a standardised production design can help to de-risk the investment in production scale up by providing a template production process that can be proven once at a first production location and then replicate it at multiple sites without any technical risk.

"With our operating system for cultivated seafood, we hope to make this approach the reality for how cultivated production gets scaled," he said.

Commercialisation of cultivated products

According to Mihir, there are no cultivated products that are in retail and only one is currently sold in restaurants in Singapore. He expects that all foods containing cultivated cells will have a clear distinctive label indicating that the products were "cultivated from cells" or will use similar language to ensure consumers can distinguish them from meat or fish products made from farmed or caught animals.

"We anticipate that cultivated products will be marketed and promoted on the basis of key attributes that consumers care about, like being antibiotic free, heavy metal free, and parasite free.

"In some markets, statements about animal welfare, nutritional benefits, or carbon footprints may also resonate with consumers," he said. As Umami Meats prioritise work on endangered species of fish that are not farmable at large commercial scale, Mihir anticipates being able to launch first commercial products at price parity for consumers. He noted that species like eel, tuna, and snapper have high commercial value due to their relative scarcity and aspirational value to consumers and those are easier for us to produce at price parity with these higher price points compared to commodity farmed species like barramundi, pangasius, and trout.

In terms of implementing the right policies to promote the advantages of cultivated meat, Mihir said the government must have a willingness to collaborate to develop the food safety standards and quality metrics to ensure consumer safety in this new industry. He also said the government must have clarity around regulatory timelines and the processes that will be needed to achieve a regulatory framework. The government should also consider providing some financial support for the academia research that will be needed to support developments that help bring cultivated meat and seafood to the mass market.



Umami Meats is one of our portfolio startups in Plug and Play APAC. As an in-house venture capital, our goal is to fund the teams that are building the defensible businesses of the future. By leveraging our capital, our network of VCs, and our corporate partners, we give our portfolio companies an added advantage. Join our platform today!

Written by: S Birruntha

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