If you are unsure about what cell-cultured (clean) meat is, read our primer article first
Foodies come in all types. You can be a homebody with an interest in preparing the most efficient nutrient-rich meals for your family, a bargain hunter for the best local noodles or a fine-dining addict.
A foodie may also have an unusual obsession with all things food tech, so when we got the chance to sit down with Carrie Chan, co-founder of Avant Meats, the food nerd in us got excited.
Carrie Chan, co-founder of Avant Meats
First of all, what is fish maw (魚肚)?
Fish maw is the (usually) dried swim bladder of large fish like croaker and sturgeon.
It is prized as an ingredient in Cantonese soups for its high collagen content, as well as its rich proteins and nutrients such as phosphor and calcium. Fish maw is said to nourish one’s “yin” and is believed effective in improving lung and kidney health.
Fish maw is the source of isinglass – used mainly for the clarification or fining of some beer and wine (that’s right – most of our wines are not vegan). Isinglass is also considered a superior ingredient for the formulation of glue and has even been used since the 18th century as a dressing for wounds.
Due to the limited (and reducing) supply of suitable large fish, fish maw is expensive and counterfeit fish maw is common.
Carrie, how did you come to be a co-founder of Hong Kong’s first cell-cultured meat start-up?
I have been vegan for about four years, primarily because of the environment and partly for health. I learned more about the environmental impact of animal agriculture, and my spouse and I dedicated quite a bit of our time outside the office doing volunteer work – out organising meet-ups, going to vegetarian restaurants and showing educational videos to passers-by.
I found that I don’t want to really push people to, you know, turn to a plant-based diet, but the consumption of meat is growing so fast, especially in China. So I began to explore some entrepreneurial ideas and attended the Berkeley conference organised by the Good Food Institute and met a lot of people who were in the early stages of alternative proteins. Exciting start-ups like Memphis Meats were there, and the common theme was why do we not have something in China, where there will be the most impact?
It was there that I met my scientific adviser, Dr Steven Kattman, and some potential investors. On my return I spent a lot of time touring China’s different lab facilities and meeting different people with a view to finding a CSO (Chief Science Officer).
And that’s when you met your co-founder, Dr Mario Chin?
Yes. We decided to collaborate and began working on our business idea, particularly for Asia. Food is very related to our culture, and what we eat is totally different from what people eat in the West.
Together, we talked a lot about the length of time required for research and development before we could have a product, and we needed investors to understand and commit to that too.
Dr Mario Chin, expert in medical genetics and genomics
Why did the two of you decide on fish maw?
Before I understood the technicalities, I did not understand why there were clean-meat companies that had already been doing R&D for three or four years. Why is it taking so long?
In layman’s terms, a piece of steak is made up of lots of different types of cells – muscle, connective tissue, fat. There are many different types of cells at different proportions, and they grow at different rates and require different nutrients, temperatures, PH levels and scaffolding to bring them all together. This is a matrix of variables, with very complicated interactions.
The animal body is magical – it can grow all of this naturally – but in the lab it takes a lot of trial and error to get these things right.
Fish maw is made up of one cell type. So we don’t need to work with fat or muscle cells, and we only need to work on growing the cells in the right environment for one type of cell. This will reduce our R&D time.
Then, as you may know, fish maw comes from large fish that are becoming fewer and more expensive. Bahaba has become critically endangered, and totoaba is now a threatened species that’s still sometimes traded illegally. With the high price of fish maw, we are confident we are able to compete with traditional sources.
Can you grow fish maw from the endangered bahaba cells?
Yes, but we are unable to get the cells at this time. There was a bahaba farm in the Dongguan area, but they were not successful and we have been unable to track them down.
We are working with cells from the croaker. The swim bladder of this fish is very thick and contains a lot of collagen.
What are the reasons to choose cell-cultured over traditional fish products?
Fish maw is sold on a grade, like diamonds. The very expensive investment-grade fish maw is shown in the windows of shops but rarely sold. They must be intact, a certain size, a certain species, a certain dryness level. We don’t wish to target this level, but rather displace the ordinary consumption base. Our product will be the same as what is traditionally used in soups.
My mother used to make this soup, and it takes some time and care to rehydrate the dried fish maw. Our process ensures the product will not be contaminated, so there is no need to dry the fish maw, which is usually done to stop it from degrading. It can be sold in more convenient packaging as an ingredient to use immediately.
Our process also ensures the fish maw is free from the pollutants, antibiotics and microplastics that are common in seafood now.
Are you able to describe the process of growing fish maw in the lab?
At first, the cells are almost invisible. When they grow in number, they are loose and require a scaffold to hold them together. One of the methods we are researching is using a bioink made from algae to bioprint a scaffold for the cells to grow on, and our nutrient feed is vegetarian also. The cells will grow on the scaffold inside a sealed bioreactor.
What are your upcoming milestones? How about the main hurdles at the moment?
We are looking to have a tasting product ready in three months. We are then able to apply for a HK Government grant subsidy to help to cover the R&D team costs.
We are also concurrently researching muscle cells and will look to evolve our products to sea cucumber and eventually fish fillet.
Mario and I are both from Hong Kong, and we would love to hire someone from here, but it’s difficult. Talent is quickly snapped up. If we find good talent from overseas, we will have to make them an offer, but the market rate is often not enough to cover the costs of living here. So that’s a hurdle.
There are a lot of very interesting companies to watch in this space. Any one you are keeping a close eye on?
JUST has a clean-meat chicken nugget ready, and we have a great interest in that process of regulation in the States. They’ve just completed a debate on who will regulate, and it will be regulated at the federal level, which is good – it means there won’t be different rules in each state.
Imagine you are ready to launch but cannot because of regulation. It is a very expensive bottleneck to maintain your operations, waiting for the regulations to catch up. So we will watch what everyone is doing in the next 12 months or so; our timing is advantageous right now.
You mentioned you have been vegan for some time. Will you eat your own fish maw?
Yes, I will eat it because I know that it is clean. There are no antibiotics or hormones. One of the health benefits of becoming vegan is a reduction in skin conditions. This is definitely sustainable, with no additives, so I will definitely eat it.
Avant Meats will be at our Food’s Future Summit in October 2019 – watch this space for ticket information