Aqua-Spark distances itself from Shiok Meat founder’s controversial comments on aquaculture

A TEDx talk delivered by Shiok Meats Founder Sandhya Sriram in January, which makes misleading and at times inaccurate claims about the seafood industry and specifically denigrates the farmed shrimp sector, has drawn a rebuke from Aqua-Spark, the lead investor in its recently completed USD 12.6 million (EUR 10.8 million) Series A funding round.

Shiok Meats is a Singapore-based company developing lab-cultured shrimp cells as a substitute for natural shrimp meat. Aqua-Spark, based in Utrecht, the Netherlands, is an investment fund “with a mission to transform the global aquaculture industry into one that is healthier, more sustainable, and more accessible.”

In Sriram’s talk, available via the TedX Talks YouTube channel, Sriram said “most of the shrimp we are eating is not even shrimp.”

“It’s something else that has that jelly-like texture” due to being injected with silicone or other non-natural substances, Sriram says around five minutes into her talk, titled “The Future of Meat.”

Sriram goes on to call the seafood industry “completely unsustainable” and says “we are at a point of no return” when it comes to the health of wild stocks of shrimp. She describes visiting a shrimp farm using sewage water to grow its products.

“I’m not making this up. This is not from a YouTube video. It’s my first-hand experience of seeing it,” Sriram said. “The shrimps that come out of sewage water are black in color, so they are actually cleaned with bleach and then cleaned with antibiotics before they are sent off for us to cook and eat.”

The video, which has more than 6,600 views, has been flagged by the TEDx franchise as making claims “not corroborated by sufficient scientific evidence,” with the group saying, “it falls outside the content guidelines TED gives TEDx organizers.” There are 224 comments on the video, with most written by shrimp farmers in India upset with the content of the video and asking that it be retracted by TEDx.

In an email to SeafoodSource, Aqua-Spark Co-Founder and Managing Partner Amy Novogratz, who used to head the TED Conference's annual TED Prize and whose brother-in-law – according to Forbes – is TED Talks Curator Chris Anderson, said she had not seen the recording of Sriram’s talk before Aqua-Spark invested in Shiok Meats.

“As far as the content of Sandhya’s talk, we don’t agree with her take on shrimp farming and do not like that it furthers misconceptions that are out there,” Novogratz said. “Yes, it’s true aquaculture still has challenges but a lot of groups are working hard to solve them and we’ve already seen and are invested in technologies that are transforming the way we produce shrimp – making it more resource-efficient, less polluting, more transparent and controlled. Shrimp production has come a long way and aquaculture in general has major potential to feed the world with a minimal footprint. We need to celebrate all of that work and progress to continue to move it forward.”

In the Forbes article, which featured Novogratz on the magazine cover under the headline “Saving the seafood industry from itself,” the magazine reported Aqua-Spark’s has holdings in 19 portfolio companies valued at USD 180 million (EUR 153.6 million), not including the Shiok Meats investment. Forbes reported Aqua-Spark hopes to eventually have 60 to 80 companies in its portfolio and that it’s actively tracking at least 1,550 firms.

In Aqua-Spark’s 29 September announcement of its Shiok Meats investment, the firm said most shrimp currently on the market “is raised in crowded factories/farms and treated with antibiotics, chemicals, and hormones. Conventional production processes often contribute to overfishing, excessive bycatch, misrepresentation, and mislabeling as well as contamination with effluents, heavy metals, and microplastics. This form of production is unsustainable and the sector strain will only increase as the population grows. Shiok is addressing this need and disrupting crustacean production to ensure people can eat clean shrimp, crab, and lobster from a safe source.”

Additionally, Aqua-Spark said so-called "clean meat" production could result in significant reductions of the shrimp sector's greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, land use, and water consumption.

In her email to SeafoodSource, Novogratz said she hoped Aqua-Spark could foster a more positive messaging around seafood, rather than a negative one around aquaculture.

“Truthfully one of the reasons we wanted into the cell-based seafood space is that we had seen a lot of this type of negative aquaculture messaging from cell-based entrepreneurs – we wanted to get into the space to help inform, educate, and help these companies engage and work with the aquaculture industry rather than against it,” Novogratz said. “Shiok is hoping their knowledge and tech can enable shrimp farmers and they wish to work with the industry to improve practices and work together. We hope we can help facilitate that.”

Aqua-Spark’s portfolio “works as an ecosystem, with the companies agreeing to collaborate on optimal solutions, and working together toward this shared vision of a more efficient global aquaculture industry,” according to the firm.

A bridge must be built between the seafood industry and the plant-based and cell-based sectors in order to ensure an adequate, sustainable supply of protein for a growing global population, Novogratz said, explaining Aqua-Spark’s investment in Shiok Meats, which is its first venture into the cell-based arena.

“We’ve been looking into cell-based proteins focusing on seafood, assuming it will play a big role in the future of seafood,” she said. “We're going to need to produce a tremendous amount of protein in the next few decades – and our best option for offsetting the demand for accessible, sustainable, healthy offerings will be to support each other.”

Novogratz said Aqua-Spark likes to take an active role in working with the leaders of the companies they invest in.

“We are really looking forward to working with Sandhya on a more informed aquaculture message and further igniting this global conversation about sustainability and protein production,” she said.

In an email sent to SeafoodSource on Friday, 2 October, Sriram did not answer specific questions about her views on aquaculture, or answer a questions about whether her views had changed since her talk.

"I look forward to learning more about some of the great work going on in the seafood industry to make it more sustainable. I believe that the aquaculture industry as well as cell-based seafood will need to work together, rather than compete, as the world is going to need a large amount of protein with the sheer population growth," she said. "It is my hope that Shiok Meats will work with the industry and even further enable better practices with our technology. This is why we accepted funding from Aqua-Spark. In this series A round, we have [Aqua-Spark] as our lead investor as their mandate is to make the planet and food security better by impact investing in aquaculture. Cell-based seafood is cellular aquaculture and hence having them on board is a great partnership moving forward."

Photo courtesy of Shiok Meats


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