27/08/2019 – Country Focus / Singapore / Start-ups
Singapore: The island state for start-ups
Already South East Asia’s leading food and nutrition hub, Singapore is now striving to develop its flourishing start-up community.
It’s been two decades since The National University of Singapore first launched its Food Science and Technology programme, alongside the first degree courses focused on the subject. While the island state has long been linked with heavy engineering and ICT, then the pharma-bio sector, it was only a decade ago that Singapore’s potential as a regional food hub really started to emerge, according to Dr Ralph Graichen – director of food and nutrition and consumer care at state-funded Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
A major contributing factor has been GUSTO (Growing up in Singapore towards healthy outcomes) – a major collaborative R&D effort, which continues to this day, that has engaged academic minds across Singapore, as well as experts from New Zealand, the UK and elsewhere. The GUSTO study’s raison d'être is to explore how differences in nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood impact upon the health and development of women and children.
The interest generated from the study saw many of the world’s major food manufacturers flocking to establish research and innovation bases in Singapore. From 2008–2013, this included luminaries such as Abbot, Nestle, Danone, Mondelez, Kellogg’s and Ferrero.
Insights for the ingredients sector
Further important milestones include the launch of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre (CNRC) – a joint initiative between the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, A*STAR and the National University Health System. CNRC aims to develop an integrated programme that understands how food may be used to prevent and manage chronic disease and promote healthy ageing.
Another key pillar bolstering Singapore’s food research success is A*STAR’s Biotransformation Platform – launched with the aim of discovering novel sustainable biotechnology for the production of highly nutritious value-added ingredients.
These two programmes piqued the interest of major international ingredients producers, including Ireland-headquartered Kerry Group and US giant Ingredion, followed by French firm Roquette, and chemicals giant DuPont. One of the most recent major arrivals came last year with Swedish business AAK, which focuses on developing vegetable oil and fat-derived ingredients, while others like German flavours and fragrances firm Symrise have strengthened their presence in Singapore in recent months.
Nurturing future food sector stars
Generating over US$15bn annually, food manufacturing is today more vital to Singapore’s economy than ever – and the government continues to invest accordingly in this thriving industrial segment.
Having already successfully attracted some of the food industry’s biggest names to the island state, Dr Greichen explains how he and his team are now keen to draw in the very best from the food and agri-tech start-up space, in order to nurture the innovations that may transform F&B in the years ahead.
Startups can tap into the considerable scientific knowledge that Singapore has developed in abundance, says Dr Greichen, who points to retail tech start-up teapasar’s recent tie-up with NUS-FST and A*STAR’s Biotransformation platform to develop fingerprint authenticity technology for traceability in the tea sector.
In January this year, local firm Alchemy Foodtech launched a new lab in Singapore. Its natural, gluten-free additive 5ibrePlus – a glycaemic-index-lowering ingredient blend – has already earned the firm much acclaim. 5ibrePlus acts as an ideal functional ingredient for carbohydrate-rich foods (white rice, bread, noodles, etc.) and it is hoped the new food tech lab will assist the government in its war on diabetes.
Elsewhere, Shiok Meats – a cell-based clean meat company – has made waves as the first-of-its-kind business across the South East Asia region. In April, the firm completed a US$4.6m seed round, including high-profile investors like the CEO of Mondo Nissan (owner of Quorn) and also Big Ideas Ventures – a new VC fund with the backing of meat giant Tyson. Not only does Asia have a huge appetite for alternative protein, it also has the regulatory flexibility to bring new edible technologies like cell-based meat to market before the US does, potentially giving the firm first-mover advantage.
Certainly, Dr Greichen says that Singapore has myriad advantages in this space, due to its stem-cell research background and scientific knowledge-base, and he suggests the country should leverage upon this to become an international leader. “Singapore has come a long way in a short space of time,” he tells us in closing. “However, there’s still much left for us to do, especially in terms of how we extend the value chain of research and also communicate some of the future innovations we will make to consumers.”