Dr Sandhya Sriram: Stem cells for healthcare to stem cells for food

Dr Sandhya Sriram, CEO / Co-Founder, Shiok Meats

March 2021 SgWIS speaker

Written by Maanasa Ravikumar, Member of SgWIS

Dr Sandhya Sriram is no stranger to SgWIS. A returning speaker, we were excited to welcome her back as our guest for March 2021! The last time she was here, Dr Sandhya was a postdoctoral research fellow at A*STAR. But now, all that love and enthusiasm for stem cell biology has morphed into establishing something revolutionary: Singapore and South East Asia’s first cell-based meat company, Shiok Meats. Dr Sandhya took us through her professional journey right from where it all began, a humble lab bench.

 Dr Sandhya completed her Master’s degree in biotechnology from the University of Madras, Chennai and moved to Singapore to pursue her PhD at NTU. She knew from very early on that the world of science and research was where she belonged. Her natural curiosity combined with the intellectual challenges, stimulation, impact on healthcare, and space for creativity and originality that are a part and parcel of scientific research appealed to her to such a great degree, that she never thought she would NOT be a scientist! Reflecting on her ambitions back in the day, “I saw myself going all the way…having my own lab, doing my own research, becoming a professor one day”. But what changed? During her postdoc, Dr Sandhya explains that she felt she wanted to do something more. Something beyond the confines of a lab coat and pipettes. Over many brainstorming sessions fuelled by copious amounts of chai with another comrade in the postdoc trenches and SgWIS member, Dr Laxmi Iyer, the idea to start Biotechin.Asia was born. Through this biotech and healthcare news website, the duo focused on two key aims – how can we simplify science and enable everybody to understand it? How do we demystify and de-sensationalize science to provide factually correct information to the public? Dr Sandhya looks back at how she had no business skills or prior experience as an entrepreneur at the time. But, throwing herself into the deep end with Biotechin.Asia allowed her to discover an entrepreneurial side that ignited new sparks!

One thing was clear though. Dr Sandhya needed to understand more of the business side of science if she were to go down this new path – finance, budgeting, intellectual property, commercialization, negotiation, people management, etc. there was a lot to learn and no time to waste. This pushed her to take up a programme manager role at A*STAR, where she got a chance to complement her scientific training with business development skills. Concomitantly, the entrepreneurial fire began burning brighter and Dr Sandhya founded a company called SciGlo, an “Edtech” and event management company aimed at providing career development solutions for scientists and students alike. With a myriad of new professional skills and experiences now under her belt, Dr Sandhya decided that it was time to move on from A*STAR and fuel a new idea that was brewing in her for a biotech startup: “I know stem cells. There is an ongoing environmental crisis. I hit my jackpot”.

Shiok Meats took flight in 2018, with the pioneering mission to bring delicious or “shiok”, clean and healthy seafood and meats by harvesting from cells instead of animals. Dr Sandhya laid down the facts plainly and simply – “we are going to hit a global population of 10 billion in the next few decades; where are we going to source enough food from?” She also emphasized that the major problem today is that food is unevenly distributed around the world, with a lack of food security and sustainable supplies as paralysing issues that need urgent addressing. Alternative protein sources are essential to shift our dependence away from current factory farming practices, which are highly inefficient, unsustainable and the main drivers of the climate crisis. Dr Sandhya draws attention to how such alternatives may be developed – principles from biomedical research on stem cells can be applied to the food industry. She explained the concept of and need for cultured meat succinctly, “we have achieved organogenesis in a dish. Similarly, why not grow a particular part of an animal to be consumed, rather than breed whole animals for slaughter only to utilize a small part of them for consumption?”.

Based on scientifically validated and evidence-based processes, the meats developed by her team bring this novel bench-to-plate concept to life, with a population of stem cells isolated from an animal as the starting point. Their products are created via a zero-waste workflow, and are completely devoid of antibiotics and harmful chemicals that are commonly found in conventional meat and seafood. The result: animal-friendly, health-friendly, environment-friendly, and cruelty-free meats with the same taste, same texture, and more nutrients compared to their traditional counterparts – what’s not to love?

Currently, Singapore is the only country in the world to approve the sale of lab-grown meat. Dr Sandhya is hopeful that Singapore will continue to develop as a global leader in cellular agriculture and is eagerly awaiting Shiok Meats products to hit restaurants for widespread consumption. She has also started mentoring and angel investing in other start-ups to support and help hone a global alternative protein and cellular agriculture ecosystem. “My future lies in food and stem cells. Two things I love dearly”, she responds with a smile to the question of what lies ahead. On a final note, she urges the audience to think outside the box: “An idea is all that matters. We all have a lot in us…we just have to dig it out!”

If you are interested to reach out to Dr Sandhya Sriram, she can be contacted on LinkedIn at: linkedin.com/in/sandhyasriram