While demand for seafood is on the rise, the ocean is struggling to keep up. Rather than asking individuals to switch to a plant-based diet, startups such as Avant Meats are providing cell-based alternatives.
Cell-based meats are traceable, closely monitored, and can be carefully adjusted to increase nutritional value. Focusing on Chinese aquatic delicacies, Avant Meats is catering to the country’s massive market and demand from the surrounding areas, such as Singapore and Malaysia. The startup is still under R&D and is working to bring the cost down—a problem that all cell-based meat startups are currently facing. We spoke with Carrie Chan, co-founder and CEO of Avant Meats, to learn more about the startup’s process and vision.
What motivated and inspired you to found Avant Meats?
When I realized the impact of our dietary choice on our environment, I adopted a plant-based diet. That was about four years ago. Given also the health benefits, I tried to promote plant-based diet to people around me. I soon realized that the rate people take up plant-based diet seriously lags behind the rate of increase in meat consumption around the world and particularly in China. In 2018, I learnt more about the alternative protein sector. There are a number of cell-based meat startups in US and Europe. I thought to myself, why are we not having it here?
What kinds of cell-based products do you sell?
Avant Meats’ technology platform focuses on cell-based fish and seafood protein products that are tailored for the food culture, preferences, and behaviors of consumers in China and in the region. Our initial offerings will be cell-based fish maw products. Fish maw is the swim bladder of fish and is a Chinese traditional tonic food. Pipeline direction will focus on Chinese aquatic delicacies.
Can you briefly explain the process you use to develop cell-based fish and seafood?
First, we prepare a self-regenerating cell line. Depending on the species and the parts of the fish and seafood product to be made, a small sample of cells is taken from the animals.
Second, we grow the cells under clean and controlled conditions. In this step, we provide the cells with the necessary nutrients, such as amino-acids, vitamins, minerals, glucose, etc.. We also need to provide the cells with instructions to develop and grow into the required cell types that are elements of the fish and seafood product. In addition, we provide a suitable surface, which can be flat or spherical, for the cells to grow on. Finally, we need to ensure the conditions are suitable for the cells to grow, such as temperature, acidity/alkalinity, supply of carbon dioxide, etc..
Third, we harvest the product from the incubation environment and proceed with further product preparation and packaging. Voilà, a premium quality product is ready to be delivered to consumers for enjoyment.
Why do you focus on fish and seafood products?
Currently, about half of the global fish and seafood supply is wild-caught and half farm-raised. Unlike terrestrial farm animals which we can increase output by inputting more and raising more, fish and seafood supply is generally inelastic. Quite a few species cannot be easily domesticated. The growing appetite of seafood has already led to depletion of marine ecosystems and species extinction.
From consumers’ perspective, the traditional way of procuring fish and seafood needs improvement due to the increasingly polluted marine environment. Heavy metal, chemicals, and plastic micro-particles in the case of wild caught plus antibiotics and diseases in the case of farm-raised fish and seafood worry consumers.
Furthermore, China’s per capita consumption of fish and seafood is double the global average. Fish and seafood market is estimated to grow at a high pace of about 9% in the coming few years. We hope our products will solve the above environmental problems while addressing consumers’ demand.
How much does your meat substitute cost in comparison with traditional seafood?
One of the challenges for cell-based meat commercialization is the high production cost. The base case, for all startups, is over a thousand times more expensive than conventionally produced meats. Our R&D will focus on scientific solutions to bring down the production cost at a level equal to or lower than that of conventionally produced products.
What are your target markets?
We target the China market as well as nearby regions where food culture is influenced by Chinese cuisine, such as Singapore and Malaysia. Our products will offer tasty, cleaner, safer, 100% traceable, more sustainable, and more convenient alternatives. We target young to middle age groups, busy, urban middle class who care about food quality and safety.
What are some of the advantages or disadvantages of a cell-based meat substitute?
Compared with conventional meats, cell-based meat offers cleaner, safer, fully traceable, and more sustainable alternatives to consumers. There are opportunities for cell-based meats to offer even better nutritional value. As nutrients fed to the cells can be adjusted, not so healthy elements in conventionally produced meats, such as cholesterol, can be replaced by good fat for example.
On the other hand, due to higher production cost, the price of cell-based alternatives may at the beginning be higher than conventional products. It is expected to improve over the long run with economy of scale and further improvement of the technology and production.
How did you source your funding as a startup? Which VCs or companies have invested in Avant?
In addition to personal contributions from the co-founders, we have raised a small pre-seed round with support from two VCs and one family office. We will be able to share more details later.
What has the public reception been like?
Surveys carried out for the China and India markets by independent non-profit organizations show that the receptiveness for cell-based meats is over 50% in general. This number feels quite right when I compare with the feedback I received personally from my own network.