Business Insight

Navigating Challenges in Deep Tech: Umami Bioworks' Journey in Cellular Agriculture

Jinny Kim
June 3, 2024

The global seafood industry is currently facing substantial challenges.

Climate change, over-fishing, and pollution are threatening marine ecosystems and the supply chains that depend on them. Traditional seafood harvesting methods are gradually becoming unsustainable, driving the need for alternative solutions.

In the biotech industry, cellular agriculture is emerging as a groundbreaking field with the potential to revolutionize food production. This innovative approach involves growing agricultural products directly from cells, using techniques akin to those in tissue engineering and synthetic biology.

(Source : The Good Food Institute)

Within this context, Umami Bioworks, a Singapore-based biotech startup, is making significant strides in the production of sustainable seafood.

(Refer to : 10 ESG startups to spotlight in Asia)

Under the leadership of Mihir Pershad, founder and CEO of Umami Bioworks, the company is at the forefront of this movement. Umami Bioworks focuses on creating cell-cultivated seafood, aiming to transform the seafood supply chain by offering a sustainable and reliable alternative to wild-caught fish

This interview delves into the journey of Umami Bioworks, exploring the challenges and triumphs faced by the startup as it navigates the deep tech industry to offer a viable solution to one of the most pressing issues of our time.

(Credit : Mihir Pershad)

Tackling Seafood Supply Issues Due to the Climate Crisis

Q: Could you please introduce yourself to the readers of Asia Tomorrow?

Hello, I’m Mihir Pershad, the founder and CEO of Umami Bioworks.

Umami Bioworks is a Singapore-headquartered biotech startup that leverages cellular agriculture technology to cultivate sustainable seafood. We are developing manufacturing systems for scalable production of cell-cultivated seafood that enable traditional industries to adopt a more sustainable production system compared to extractive methods like wild catch.

Q: The name of your startup is unique. Is there a special reason you chose the name ‘Umami Bioworks’?

When starting the business, I had two main criteria: it should be a food tech company and fall within the biotech sector. Accordingly, I wanted a name that would clearly represent what we do and capture the essence of the delicious food products that  we set out to create. With several searches and mind maps, ‘Umami’ stood out.

The term ‘umami’ was coined and grew out of Japan to the rest of the world when it was used to describe the impact of MSG on food. Umami is the only word that gives us the savory taste of seafood. English speakers immediately can recognize the feeling conveyed by this word, even if they don’t speak Japanese, which is why I chose it as the company name.

Q: We recently heard about your decision to proceed with a merger. Congratulations! How is the merger progressing?

The merger with Shiok Meats is now being completed. Shiok Meats has been pioneering in the field of cell-cultivated crustaceans such as shrimp, crab, and lobster. The merger helps us get to the first commercial proof faster by scaling into larger infrastructure that Shiok already had available and to also establish a broader platform for cultivated seafood.

(참고 : Singapore cultivated seafood firms UMAMI Bioworks and Shiok Meats set to merge - TNGlobal

(Source : Umami Bioworks)

Q: In 2020, you founded a startup with the unique business idea of "cultivated seafood." Have you always been interested in this field?

Initially, I was interested in math and science, anticipating a career in engineering or medicine. Many of my family members work in the medical field, so it seemed like a natural path for me.

However, when I entered university, I realized that working within rigid, prescriptive systems wasn't as fitting for me as I had thought. I was more inclined towards fields where I could approach problems flexibly and creatively. 

My experience of running a nonprofit organization with friends during university helped me understand this inclination better and motivated me to pursue the startup path.

Q: You had already experienced founding a business through a nonprofit organization during your university years.

Yes, but at that time, we lacked the funds to support a full-time role with the  organization. To successfully grow a startup, securing investment is crucial, but we didn’t have the experience to raise significant funds to scale the nonprofit back then.

This experience led me to join a venture studio. The studio licensed patented technologies developed by universities to build deep tech startup companies. There, I contributed to building the six startups, four of which were in the agricultural sector. This was when I first delved deeply into the food systems.

Q: Why did you focus on building agricultural startups at that time?

Although it seems less thrilling compared to technologies like artificial intelligence, it’s obvious that people cannot live without food. The systems for producing and distributing food have a significant impact on society. However, despite the importance, these systems are generally underrepresented and unsupported by funders and entrepreneurs.

So, I decided to dive into the field of food systems and build a career as an entrepreneur. By addressing significant societal issues, I thought I could make a huge impact. I specifically sought business opportunities in the supply side of the seafood manufacturing and aquaculture industries, which I saw as being in crisis.

Q: What kind of crisis has hit the supply side of the seafood manufacturing and aquaculture industries?

People often think of climate change as a future event, but it’s a reality we are experiencing now

You know, Singapore has recorded its highest temperatures in the past few years. In circumstances like this, the ocean is absorbing massive quantities of both heat and CO2. This means the sea is taking in the consequences of human-induced climate change.

The marine ecosystems are already feeling the effects. In areas where sea temperatures are 10 degrees above normal, we are witnessing mass die-offs of fish. The Alaskan snow crab is a prime example of this phenomenon.

(Refer to : Billions of crabs went missing around Alaska. Scientists now know what happened to them | CNN

The Alaskan snow crab, a seasonal delicacy highly sought after in Japan and Korea, has disappeared for two consecutive years, with billions of crabs missing. This has caused companies to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, and millions of consumers cannot buy crab even if they want to. 

Additionally, marine disease problems are worsening as the oceans warm. This situation extends to many other seafood species as well. Unlike terrestrial meat, the supply issues caused by the climate crisis are more difficult to notice for seafood. This is why we believe  cell-cultivated seafood is important now for creating a more resilient food system.

How Deep Tech Startup Defines Problems and Propose Value

Q: Why did you choose to cultivate and supply seafood through cellular agriculture instead of focusing on terrestrial meat? Can you share more about this decision-making process?

Personally, I believe that finding the right market for a startup founder, known as Founder-Market-Fit, is crucial. This is especially true for deep tech* startups. In this context, I found myself well-suited to the cell-cultivated seafood market. 

*Deep Tech Startups: These are startups that aim to provide technological solutions based on significant scientific or engineering challenges. 

I have knowledge and expertise in this area and have consistently communicated with fish farm owners and industry professionals over several years before starting Umami. 

Having worked directly in the field of seafood disease and farm management, I have closely observed the growing challenges facing aquaculture producers and have developed an understanding of what is happening in the overall supply side of the seafood industry.

These experiences changed my perspective. While the climate crisis is undoubtedly affecting food supply, in markets like Asia, where the purchasing power of the middle class is increasing, the demand for seafood is rising. We can predict a growing mismatch between supply and demand, but there is currently no alternative supply.

Q: Can’t existing solutions address the seafood supply issue?

Relying solely on wild catch from the ocean is becoming increasingly limited. The number of species that can be farmed is also limited. While aquaculture can be a short-term solution for some species, we will need a fundamental change in our approach in the long term.

For instance, what if new seafood diseases emerge every year? We can't always rely on fish farming to respond. As we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, diseases are not static and can rapidly evolve to avoid our preventative and treatment measures. This is why I believe a food tech company that addresses the seafood supply issue sustainably through technology is necessary.

(Source : Umami Bioworks)

Q: Why did you focus on the supply side of the seafood manufacturing and aquaculture industry?

From a food systems perspective, we can’t simply tell consumers, “Don’t eat fish.” There are cultures with a long tradition of enjoying seafood, and for many people, seafood is a familiar part of their diet. It’s challenging to drastically alter demand. Therefore, our team focused on the supply side of the problem

In order to do so, we formed partnerships with traditional seafood companies. They have a vested interest in solving issues related to seafood and a reason to continuously invest in seafood production systems. 

Our team strongly suggests that Umami Bioworks' manufacturing system, with its emphasis on sustainability, has the potential to gradually bring about change and be accepted in the B2B sector.

Q: The concept of producing seafood through cell cultivation might be unfamiliar to the general public. How do you propose value to your customers?

About half of the goods we consume consist of natural derived components that could principally be produced by cultivation. Consider common commodities like cotton and plastic; originally used from only  natural supply, they are now commonly synthesized in factories. Food can be viewed similarly.

However, it’s also true that when introducing such novel products to the market, there must be sufficient market support. In this regard, we can explain that Umami Bioworks aims to achieve groundbreaking results in the biotech field, akin to space travel.

Just a few years ago, sending something weighing 1 kg into space orbit cost $100,000. Now, we can ship cargo - and people! -  to space for just a few $1,000 per kg. This change made space industries commercially relevant for many more companies and industries simply by reducing the cost of entry

Umami Bioworks is pursuing the long-term goal to demonstrate value by providing premium seafood that consumers can enjoy through our innovative seafood production system. This requires lowering product prices and simplifying the manufacturing process. 

While scaling up to a global infrastructure is undoubtedly challenging, those who succeed will have tremendous opportunities. Our team is ultimately striving to achieve this.

(Credit : Umami Bioworks)

Starting a Business and Team Building as a Biotech Company

Q: How is the Umami Bioworks team currently composed of?

Umami Bioworks has about 20 employees. We are focused on building two main teams: 1) a commercial team to develop and market the products, and 2) an engineering team to create and optimize production lines in the factory. We plan to expand our team further over the next year.

Q: Starting a deep tech startup and building a team must have been challenging. How did you handle the initial team building?

From the beginning, we had a few investors who believed in us and gave us the initial funding we needed as a deep tech startup to create early traction. 

About a month after Umami Bioworks was founded, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Singapore, making the team-building process even more challenging. Despite this, we quickly opened a lab, started collaborating with professors in Singapore, and secured government grant funding. 

Then, we initially hired team members for the scientific team to develop cell lines*.

*Cell line: The stage of selecting a species and making it ready for production.

Fortunately, our team received pre-seed funding, which allowed us to hire cell line and media development team members. We gradually built our bioprocess and manufacturing teams as we began to scale our process. 

Currently, we are focusing on hiring engineering team members to create our plug-and-play production lines and food science team members to develop products based on consumer preferences.

Q: Is team building for a deep tech startup different from that of a general startup?

It's certainly not easy to bring experts from various fields together and have them work cohesively. For example, molecular biology scientists and cell biology scientists often use different terminology. Adding engineers to the mix makes it even trickier. Each team might have different expectations and anticipations.

To mitigate this, we created a transparent organizational culture where we share roadmaps and progress openly. 

This doesn’t mean that engineers have to communicate daily with R&D researchers to achieve results. Instead, we focused on establishing a structure where cross-functional teams (CFTs)* work together to piece together different parts of the puzzle.

*Cross-Functional Team (CFT): An organization composed of people from various industries and departments, characterized by a diverse range of expertise and perspectives.

(Source : Umami Bioworks)

So, we separated the R&D, engineering and operations, and commercial applications departments. 

For instance, scientific processes for scaling up production lines are handed over to and implemented by the engineering team. Interfaces designed by the engineering team are then passed on to the process engineers. However, new cell lines developed by cell biology scientists don’t need to be transferred to the engineers every day, so we can create a structure in which our teams are highly aligned but loosely coupled.

Additionally, the factory with production lines works closely with the food applications team. They discuss matters like what type of eel product application to produce. Since production lines need to be optimized for different types of seafood, communication is essential.

Q: I understand that you intended an organizational structure that works 'separately but together.'

I realized early on that each group needs its own technical lead. A centralized approach where the Chief Scientist manages the engineering team as well is rarely effective due to the significant difference in background and experience. Instead, we have found It is more effective to have someone like a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) to manage the engineering team separately. I believe in decentralizing leadership in this way.

Q: I get the impression that engineers, businesspeople, and scientists are quite different.

People who have studied pure sciences tend to be more cautious and prioritize less risky approaches because they often have to make decisions in ambiguous and uncertain situations. I also had to change my perspective when I transitioned from studying biochemistry to working in the commercial field to balance research goals with commercial goals.

However, in a deep tech startup, it’s beneficial to have scholars with technical backgrounds in commercial roles. Business-oriented individuals often see the vision but may overlook obstacles. In contrast, scientists are adept at taking small steps toward goals, accepting uncertainty, and setting a long-term path while enduring failures. This mindset can be well-suited to startups.

Ultimately, in a deep tech startup, you need to view situations and make decisions sometimes from a scientist’s perspective and sometimes from a businessperson’s perspective. It’s a hard combination.

Q: How was the process of securing seed funding as an early-stage deep tech startup?

We received seed funding from various regions, including Asia Pacific, Australia, Europe, and Silicon Valley. It was truly a journey of blood, sweat, and tears. Especially since I founded the startup as a solo founder, securing initial investment was even more challenging.

Startups with co-founders who can share various roles are more likely to be attractive to investors because they fit the common expectation. However, I made every effort to open dialogues with as much sincerity as possible about how Umami Bioworks intended to tackle the problems before us and how we were building our team to achieve these outcomes.

Plus, convincing industries and ecosystems where venture investing in very early-stage startups is not as active was not easy. It took several months, and we faced difficulties building relationships and closing deals. Despite this, we managed to secure seed funding from several venture investors, not just from Silicon Valley.

Q: How did you convince investors of your competitive differentiation when securing seed funding?

We highlighted three main competitive advantages compared to other companies:

1)B2B Approach

Most cell-cultivated seafood companies still claim, "We will do it all." Often, you see talented individuals forming a team and convincing investors that they can solve any problem while lacking prior experience in  the industry. 

I think that’s a naive perspective, especially in industries with deeply entrenched incumbents, like in food. Umami Bioworks aims to create an impact by changing the market through partnerships with corporate clients.

"We use 'technology' to produce ETP(endangered, threatened, and protected) species, but like the traditional seafood industry, we aim to solve market and consumer problems."

We believe genuinely communicating with the traditional seafood industry is practical and the right approach. It's also widely acknowledged that as seafood demand increases, production methods like ours are necessary to meet the demand.

2)Network with Corporate Partners

Umami Bioworks managed to secure initial LOIs* from partner companies or traditional seafood companies interested in working with us. Even as an early-stage startup, we demonstrated what our basic business model is and how it operates during the investment process.
*LOI: Letter Of Intent, a document indicating an intention to invest before formal agreements.

3)Expertise and Authenticity in the Business Idea

We clearly explained why my prior background in the seafood sector offered unique insights for me as  a founder in the cell-cultivated seafood sector.

With my experience building startups in the seafood industry and direct communication with industry people in the field, I identified real problems within this market. I emphasized to investors that I founded the company to devise solutions to these problems. This drew the reaction:

"It makes sense."

(The new facility is scheduled to open in 2025 by Umami Bioworks and Cell AgriTech, Source : The Cell Base)


B2B Product Processes, Business Model, and Future Plans

Q: Can you share more about Umami Bioworks' business model?

(At this early stage) our business model is conceptually divided into licensing and manufacturing system supply.

We would license the production process to a partner, to a customer that would be building a factory. Ideally that factory is under license. In some scenarios, it might be a joint venture where we are the technology partners. 

Then the customer is choosing which species they want to license. Do they want Unagi? Or do they want Tuna? It could be according to what they want.

To support licensing and manufacturing systems, we need to adhere strictly to regulations related to general food factories and also those unique to novel foods. This includes managing production quality and specifications in the supplier. Approved entities must purchase raw materials, ingredients, and facilities, and all production lines must integrate with Umami Bioworks' production platform to ensure consistent quality inputs and modules.

Once all these processes are confirmed and improved, we will submit them to regulatory bodies for approval to apply them to all factories. This extensive process, which may take years, ensures that the technology our customers will use is reliable and safe.

To help understand, we can draw an analogy with Intel. Dell, Acer, and other Gateway laptops all run on Intel chips. Each factory can create the desired laptop, but the Intel chip remains the central element around which all other components and designs are built. 

Of course, because food is more perishable than chips, Umami Bioworks will license the production and the manufacturing processes, much like setting up a chip factory co-located with a PC factory to avoid product spoilage.

(Source: umamibioworks)

Q: Can you explain the five stages of Umami Bioworks' cell-cultivated manufacturing process (TechBio platform)?

The process varies depending on what the customer wants to produce. However, generally speaking, the stages are as follows:

1)Cell Line Development:

The first layer involves selecting the species and establishing stable cell lines to create the desired taste and growth conditions. We use a single stem cell and employ techniques to rapidly generate muscle and fat separately.

2)Inputs Development:

In this stage, we determine the media feed to provide to the cells. This phase focuses on reducing costs and increasing efficiency, accelerating the development process.

3)Process Applications:

This stage involves planning the scaling methods. We utilize the ALKEMYSTTM toolkit that we developed in-house for conducting experiments via computer simulations. 

Instead of physically running bioreactors* in the lab, we use simulations to understand the relationship between the bioreactor and the experiment scale. This helps in designing the experiments and conducting faster process development.

*bioreactor: A reaction device used to make a product using chemical reactions (enzymatic reactions, fermentation, etc.) that occur in living organisms. Examples include fermenters, enzymatic bioreactors, etc.

The reason for this approach is that typically, experiments start on a small scale, progress to an intermediate scale for optimization, and then move to a larger scale for further optimization. Since bioreactors respond differently at each stage, using computers for experiment design is essential.

(Source: umamibioworks)


From this stage, we are closer to the customer. Fourth step involves developing methods to deliver Umami Bioworks' production structure and automation processes to the customer.

5)Production Application:

This final layer focuses on how to best provide products to customers. Given that food companies are the experts in this area, we prefer to partner with them and discuss strategies for delivering the final product effectively.

Q: What are the strengths of the manufacturing methodology and technology described above?

Biomanufacturing is moving towards mass production. In this vein, Umami Bioworks' manufacturing system platform is designed to reduce costs and maximize efficiency. Additionally, the entire process is meticulously controlled to ensure cell stability in the vessel. This methodology highlights sustainability by maintaining and culturing the cells properly.

*Biofarm: A biological farm where animal husbandry or vegetable growing is managed by a computer.

Q: What challenges do you foresee in growing the organization?

Finding strategic partners who can help us from the consumer side can be a next challenge. Since Umami Bioworks primarily operates a B2B business, we have limited interaction with general consumers. We need partners who can engage with general consumers to ensure we develop the right products.

For example, we might need partner companies to work with us on researching the taste, texture, and flavor of seafood produced using our manufacturing system. This includes handling bioreactors, and collaborating on software and hardware. Since Umami Bioworks can't do everything alone, we need partners willing to co-invest and find win-win solutions.

We are investing in building a team with core competencies right now and developing partnerships to strengthen our capabilities for a long run.

Q: What are Umami Bioworks' short-term and long-term goals?

Our short-term goal is to build a first factory and quickly launch commercial products to demonstrate the value we bring to the market. We are planning to achieve this within the next year.

Our long-term goal is to replace a meaningful percentage of traditional wild-caught seafood that is increasingly endangered and unsustainable with cell-cultivated seafood.

The pace and nature of technological advancement are astonishing. Powerful devices like smartphones have become commonplace, and all technology is evolving around them. Manufacturing, even larger than the software industry, is also progressing rapidly. We hope to use our cell-cultivated seafood technology to gradually transform the world around us.

In fantasy novels, the most advanced beings are often depicted as elves, living surrounded by nature while enjoying high-level technology. I believe cell-cultivated technology looks for a similar direction. It represents high-level technology coexisting with nature. Biomanufacturing is one of the technologies that can help humanity achieve this vision. As a food tech company, we see many opportunities ahead.

Interview by May Jang

Written by Jinny Kim (underdogs)


*Find out the rising Asian entrepreneurs with their vivid stories and business insights!

From Silicon Valley to Vietnam : Strategy of the Startup Founder to Tap into $260 Billion Savings Market

From Trash to Triumph: How This Startup Makes a $10 Billion Impact on Waste Management Business Across Asia?

Meet the Change Maker: Who Is Jessica Novia & How Her Startup is Revolutionizing the Fight Against Climate Crisis

Singapore’s Delivery Startup Growth : Practical Playbook for Market Expansion (


Active Here: 0
Be the first to leave a comment.
Someone is typing
No Name
4 years ago
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only text information.
Your comment will appear once approved by a moderator.
No Name
2 years ago
This is the actual comment. It's can be long or short. And must contain only what if text information.
Load More
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Load More


Jinny Kim
underdogs. Media Manager & EO STUDIO. Freelance Writer