Cellular Agriculture
Avant Meats
Recreating a Chinese delicacy with cell-based seafood
They are growing the first ever lab-grown fish maw.
For those not familiar with fish maw, it's a fish's swim bladder or the part of the fish that controls their buoyancy. In Chinese food culture, this is considered a healing medicine. It's often purchased as a dried out food, then rehydrated and made into soup for people recovering from illness. Fish maw is one of four delicacies or 'treasures' in Chinese food culture. (The other three are shark fin, abalone, and sea cucumber.) While not as rare (or controversial) as shark fin, it holds similar cultural capital.

Additionally, they are developing a vegan cell-culture in which to grow the fish cells, thus removing all animals from the food production process. This advancement lowers the price of the consumer product significantly and will make the lab-grown fish suitable to populations who avoid meat but still eat fish. Pending regulations, they hope their first product will be on the market by 2022. Their goal is to start by selling fish maw and later on, launch other types of cellular-grown fish meat.
Starting out with fish maw--a culturally-specific, elevated food-- is strategic.
Less work to replicate yet more valuable
Like anything else, food cells grown in a lab need time to reproduce so finding ways to be more efficient or speed up the process offers many advantages. Carrie and team started with fish maw instead of fish filets because fish maw is comprised of a single cell type (vs fish filets which have many cells like fat, muscle, connective tissue, etc. and vary fish to fish.)

Fish maw is also relatively simple in taste and takes on the flavors it's cooked in. Thus they can get the pilot out without a ton of time and research spent on flavor. Economically, fish maw is a good bet because it's more expensive than other Chinese staple proteins. Carrie predicts that their second or third product will be fish fillets and that may be better timing for their market too!
Carrie even admits that while she knows how to make fish maw, her mom would prepare it for her because she rarely had the time.
Potential to make fish maw a go-to for modern times
Fish maw is usually purchased dried-out and requires over 24-hours to rehydrate and prep for consumption. Although the younger generation understand why it's an important food, typically elders are the ones who take the time to make it. Carrie admits that while she knows how to prepare fish maw, her mom would usually do it for her, before she went vegetarian, because she rarely had the time.

In lieu of this, Avant Meats will sell ready-to-use fish maw with the hope that it will be more accessible to the younger generation and a broader consumer base. Another bonus—it won't have a fishy smell.
Consumer preference
China is the top consumer of fish worldwide per capita. But, have you ever walked into a Chinese grocery store? They are called 'wet markets' for a reason. You will rarely see fish filleted--fish and seafood are typically purchased whole or dried. So for now, Carrie and team are building a product targeted at the current Chinese consumer. However, food trends are starting to lean towards a more westernized approach to food preparation and they're betting that eventually fish fillets will become more desirable to Chinese shoppers looking to save time.

Carrie believes that reproducing fish cellularly is a vital part of ensuring we all have clean oceans in the future. Though fish maw is just one membrane of a fish, it has a highly-prized market with often endangered fish caught for this use every year. Cell-based seafood can help minimize the impact of overfishing and consumer demands that reduce fish populations. And it provides cleaner, safer, micro-plastic-free fish.
Photo by Silas Baisch on Unsplash
Next steps
Plans are in place, but like any startup, it's not without its own set of challenges, especially being based in Hong Kong. Funding for startups is much more accessible in Silicon Valley and food tech is no exception. They have had issues finding a lab and a qualified workforce with which to partner too.

Regulations are currently a grey area. Hong Kong is not known for being at the forefront of regulating new technologies—and this could be a benefit or an impediment to them. There is not much cellular agriculture happening there so they will be paving the path.

But all of this aside, they are well on their way to launch a sample of their first product with the bet that the next generation of consumers will be open to trying out a modern version of a traditional food.
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