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Culture

Is This Guy Really Turning Customised Stingrays into Customised Trainers?

I interviewed Raymond Ong to see if he's full of shit.

by Sam Voulters
28 August 2012, 3:50pm

Rayfish is a Thai company that says it can genetically "biocustomize" stingrays so that they grow in any colour and pattern. When this is done, Rayfish claim that they are able to turn each pretty GM stingray into a shoe. The aim is to eventually sell them for $1,800 a pair, but right now Rayfish is charging around $15,000 dollars for the privilege. It's a strange claim for sure, and one which scientists aren't entirely convinced of.

Two weeks ago, Raymond Ong, the CEO of Rayfish, broke the news that their hi-tech lab and aquarium had been broken into by a bunch of animal rights shitbags who had stolen some shoes, and captured all the stingrays and released them into the wild. This was a disaster! The stingrays have been lost in the ocean and haven't been found, so it's now impossible to get a picture of them. Hmm.

OK, if we suspend our cynicism for a second Rayfish and take their claims at face value – which is probably A Bad Idea, given that's what The Daily Mail did – then this is actually a pretty shitty thing to happen. However well intentioned the PETA activists were, all the very expensive biocustomized stingrays have surely been swallowed up by now, given that most marine predators are used to hunting less conspicuous prey than those floating around the sea in natty pink leopard print.

I don't know why I'm taking this seriously, there's literally no fucking way these shoes can be real, right? I gave the CEO a chance to convince me he wasn't full of shit.

VICE: Hey man, how did this whole sorry mess start?
Raymond Ong: My grandfather was a fisherman and my family have been in the business of using stingray leather to make footwear for decades. It is very common in Thailand that all parts of the fish are used, not only the edible parts. Stingray leather is very durable and strong. I spoke at a conference last year where I discussed the development.

Okay. Is your background in bio-chemistry or fashion? 
Bio-engineering is what I studied and have been working in previously, but my family has a background in using stingray leather to make footwear.

Wow, seems like you were destined to bio-engineer stingray shoes. What was the scientific breakthrough?
In 2010, we managed to breed the first fish with the visual pattern of a rattlesnake. Soon after that, we had the whole code cracked. You can read about the process at our website.

Hmm, fishy... There must be some colours and patterns that are difficult to produce, is there anything you are still not capable of?
Sure! As we are merely tweaking the normal patterning process in the animal, we cannot make everything. Square forms, logos or letters are for instance, not possible. It is all done with synthetic genes to replicate the patterns of real animals.  

Why only shoes and not other items?
Because shoe-making is in my family, and there is a pre-existing culture of personalisation in sneakers that I felt we would have a part in.

It sounds like a hugely expensive process. Where does the money come from?
Asian venture capital. I cannot go into details on this as the investors are shocked by the recent events.

Ah, the break inI'm sorry to hear about that. Knowing your stingrays, what do you think their fate will be?
We haven't been able to find any of them, nor heard from them so far. The ocean is a big place. I'm very upset about it.

It must have set you back but will you get back to producing the shoes?
We are currently in discussions with our investors. I hope to return stronger than ever.

If scientists can now grow organic matter independent from an animal, is it not possible to simply grow the stingray's skin instead of the whole fish?
I would absolutely not know how to do it. You would not get the same quality of leather either. I actually think it enriches the product to know an animal lived and died for you. Our process is entirely transparent. Please note, though, that we were raising our stingrays in the best, most humane conditions.

Some people suggest that this is just plain stingray skin but dyed, why would you choose such an expensive process instead?
Call me romantic, but I think it has a completely different meaning. Also the leather will feel and look different. I noticed there are also some copycats on the market that dye stingray leather and call it biocustomization.

Dicks.

OK, let's check the evidence. He definitely spoke at an actual real event in Amsterdam called Next Nature about his shoe creation. Somebody definitely took some stingrays out of tanks that were in the same place as some shoes and put them back in the sea. It wasn't quite possible to tell if they had been biocustomized or not, or if, in fact, it was Raymond Ong in a balaclava doing it himself for publicity. As well as having a fair amount of money for good imagery and a decently designed website, Raymond seems to know what he's talking about, at least sufficiently enough to confuse me. 

He hasn't found many believers in the scientific community yet, though.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to do what they claim, both in terms of the colours, as many of those colours on their website have no way to be expressed in the skin, and the ability to completely control the pattern that they imply has not been achieved for any animal," Randy Lewis, a biologist at Utah State University, has said.

Hmm, "To the best of my knowledge," he says. Is there a chance that the best of Randy's knowledge just isn't as good as the best of Raymond's? Let's hear from a few more scientists.

"The transgenic stingray claim fails the reality check for at least two huge reasons," said Perry Hackett, a geneticist at the University of Minnesota. "The first reason is that scientists still have difficulty inserting new genetic traits that rely upon many different genes working together, rather than just a single gene." You too, Perry? Why are you being such a h8er?

"The state of transgenic technology is that any gene from any organism can be moved into any other organism with a high probability that you can get what you want," Hackett told Innovation News Daily. "However, the fly in the ointment here is that if you're looking at things like patterns and the like, that's not due to a single gene. That's probably due to many genes acting in concert." I, for one, don't like how he says "probably".

OK, so a bunch of "scientists" from universities in America don't believe what Ramond Ong is capable of. More fool them, I say.

Despite how preposterous the company, the story of the break in, the matinee idol good-looks of the CEO and the fact that no photographs of the stingrays exist might seem, I full on believe it's real. Because, what on Earth would be the purpose of stirring up all this publicity if they're not even selling shoes right now, eh? Eh?

Ugh, unless it's some horrible stealth marketing campaign. That would be about ten times more heinous than someone actually doing this to poor little stingrays.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @samvoulters