FB Pixel no scriptA conversation with Cellivate founder Viknish Krishnan-Kutty about passion and entrepreneurship | KrASIA

A conversation with Cellivate founder Viknish Krishnan-Kutty about passion and entrepreneurship

Written by Marvin Goh Published on   4 mins read

This founder used his expertise in cellular engineering to turn his passion for animals into an entrepreneurial career.

“One of the things that I started to question was, is it right for us to kill so many animals?”

Viknish Krishnan-Kutty’s experiences in his teenage years has had a major influence on his beliefs. When he first learned that livestock rearing can result in animal cruelty, he began abstaining from animal-based products and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.

Krishnan-Kutty’s stance toward animal well-being may be personal, but his sentiments are shared by a growing segment of the global population that is changing their diets accordingly. Research by Euromonitor International indicated that, as of 2021, 23% of global consumers try to limit their meat intake, with 16% striving to follow a plant-based diet, fueling an industry that could hit a valuation of over USD 162 billion by 2030, according to a report by Bloomberg Intelligence. Around 19% of those who are willing to switch to plant-based alternatives highlight animal welfare as a factor.

The issue of animal welfare spans further than the meat industry. Animals are also integral to a myriad of industries ranging from agriculture to pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, textiles, and more. Addressing this issue is therefore more complex than it seems.

Melding passion with profession

Although Krishnan-Kutty has remained steadfast in his passion for animal welfare, he did not initially align his career with the cause. Instead, he began his career in academia, pursuing a PhD and postdoctoral work in biomedical engineering, first at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and then at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

As an academician, however, Krishnan-Kutty soon experienced difficulties translating new science into industry solutions. This disconnect motivated him to consider alternative career pathways, when he eventually saw the opportunity to meld passion with profession: he participated in the NUS Graduate Research Innovation Program (GRIP), a venture creation initiative run by the institution, culminating in the founding of Cellivate Technologies.

“I wanted to be in a field where I could actually see my discoveries make a difference,” Krishnan-Kutty expressed. “I didn’t plan it that way, but it just happened.”

Cellivate, a spin-off from NUS GRIP, leverages Krishnan-Kutty’s expertise in cell growth technology. The startup specializes in animal-free solutions aimed at enhancing cell growth for various applications including skincare, cultivated leather, and cultivated meat.

Participating in The Big Spark

Cellivate gained prominence after participating in The Big Spark, a CNA program featuring startup founders pitching their business ideas to investors.

Photo of Viknish Krishnan-Kutty (second from right), founder and CEO of Cellivate Technologies, alongside the host and other finalists of The Big Spark.
Photo of Viknish Krishnan-Kutty (second from right), founder and CEO of Cellivate Technologies, alongside the host and other finalists of The Big Spark. Photo and header photo courtesy of Cellivate Technologies.

The startup stood out as one of the biggest winners from the show, securing investment offers totaling SGD 850,000 (USD 627,930) from four investors during the finale. Cellivate’s head-turning moment came when Sebastian, founding partner of Rigel-Farro Capital, made a separate offer to lead Cellivate’s SGD 3.3 million (USD 2.4 million) seed funding round. Krishnan-Kutty had only intended to raise SGD 350,000 (USD 258,560) for a 2.5% stake in his company on the show, he told CNA.

“[Participating in The Big Spark] was a surreal moment for me and very humbling,” he said.

Receiving the investors’ offers—particularly Sebastian’s outsized proposition—proved to be significant for Krishnan-Kutty, who revealed to KrASIA in an interview that Cellivate would likely have shut down had the startup’s participation in The Big Spark been unfruitful.

“Many of us went without salaries for months,” recalled Krishnan-Kutty, citing a tough funding winter for biotechnology companies in 2023 and disrupted investment cycles due to slow progress in the cultivated meat industry.

As of June this year, Krishnan-Kutty said that discussions between Cellivate and Rigel-Farro Capital remain ongoing, although Rigel-Farro may postpone its investment until Cellivate’s next, larger funding round. Nonetheless, participation in the show has sparked significant investor interest, making the completion of Cellivate’s seed round likely imminent.

What’s next for Cellivate?

The positive reception received after participating on The Big Spark has inspired newfound confidence at Cellivate, with Krishnan-Kutty saying that the startup is now actively pursuing new prospects, particularly in skincare and cell therapy. He was recently in Melbourne to collaborate with Medtech Actuator, a medtech startup accelerator, seeking connections with pharmaceutical and cell therapy companies based in the area.

Antler, one of Cellivate’s new investors, has also been providing connections in South Korea, which is home to a robust skincare import market valued at USD 485 billion as of 2023, according to Statista.

Krishnan-Kutty also expressed interest in entering other markets, including China. However, skincare market entry can be complicated due to potential challenges with accessibility and compatibility. For instance, the National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) advised against stem cells in cosmetics because of insufficient research, deeming it a false concept. Dev Patel, a specialist in aesthetics and regenerative medicine, echoed this concern in an interview with Vogue, stating that “stem cells can only function in their natural environment or in special lab-controlled conditions.”

“They would not survive in a product and are too large to penetrate the skin surface. Thus, they cannot perform their regenerative function,” Patel added.

Such advisories could impact public perception of cell-based products in skincare, despite Cellivate’s use of stem cells to produce common ingredients instead of including stem cells in the products itself.

“It’s not the stem cell itself, it’s the stem cell-generated ingredients that go into the end product,” Dr Viknish elaborated.

Tackling misconceptions is but one of the many challenges ahead for new ventures like Cellivate, with much more for Krishnan-Kutty and the company to maneuver through. Growth will prove difficult to achieve, but it’s nothing the researcher-turner-entrepreneur isn’t ready for: “A lot of people celebrate the glories of entrepreneurship, but most entrepreneurs go through more lows than highs.”


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