Consuming food is a daily affair for every person. But with increasing global population growth, there is a huge pressing need to provide more solutions in food production.
But what is Singapore working on in the area of technologies on food? To understand the state of food tech in Singapore, I speak to three Singapore food tech startup players for their insights.
Foodtech encompasses a wide range of solutions
Dr Sherman Ho, co-founder and CTO of Hoow Foods, starts off by explaining what FoodTech is.
“Foodtech plays several important roles in society as a whole and has far-reaching effects globally. Current foci in food tech are health, sustainability and accessibility.
The first encompasses new ingredients and products that are beneficial for health, such as fibres, sugar substitutes and GI lowering products.
The second focus is represented by alternative proteins, be it insect, plant or fungi proteins, upcycled ingredients and also environmentally conscious packaging.
The last focus is one that the general public would likely associate most with foodtech, and they include POS systems which enable quick food delivery to consumers’ doorsteps.
The utopian vision of foodtech would be a world where people have easy and economical access to quality food made from healthy ingredients without straining the planet’s resources and environment.”
Dr Sherman finds the foodtech industry nascent in Singapore.
He anecdotally sees the familiar few faces at foodtech-related technology conferences. But the scene is heating up where he notes several food tech startups concluding successful funding rounds.
Darren Ho was a previous agri-tech startup founder and is now an agrifood consultant across geographic regions involving livestock and crops. He sees a similar trend where food tech in Singapore is starting to ripen as an industry.
Ho noticed 5 years ago food tech was relatively slow and the consumers were not quite ready. However, in the last 2 years, he saw a considerable increase in both interests and activities from both the demand and supply side.
Darren cites biotech companies such as Alchemy to the last-mile food logistics company such as Redmart and Deliveroo and even hawkerpreneurs giving old school dishes new food recipe twists are giving the food tech scene a shake-up.
He is enthusiastic about these developments as Singapore has neglected this sector for a long time. To him, it is a crucial part of every nation’s industry to ensure food and provenance are kept high in the priority for innovation and development.
Rayner Loi, CEO and co-founder of Good for Food, joins in agreement with the others about the food tech scene rising in recent years.
He says, “We have more VCs coming into play with funds set up specifically to invest in foodtech companies and we also have the government and corporates coming in strongly to support and incubate food tech startups.
One of the main reasons why I believe this is the case is because more people are starting to realise the immense value and meaning behind the building/supporting/investing in food tech companies because all, if not most of them contribute in some way to bringing about a more sustainable future.”
Opportunities for Foodtech in Singapore
Rayner found food wastage as one of the most overlooked problems in the world today. He cites a Boston Consulting Group report where US$1.2 trillion of food is lost or wasted, which equates to one-third of global food produced. He finds there are simply too few players for such an enormous problem.
To this end, his startup, Good For Food, empower hotels and large commercial kitchens with data analytics to reduce their food waste, cost and environmental footprint.
Good for Food’s founder Rayner Loi with Insight smart dustbin
Good for Food’s product is called Insight, a smart dustbin which leverages on sensors and image recognition technology to measure and track all food waste in a kitchen on the premise that whatever can be measured, can be managed, controlled and prevented.
Rayner brings about a win-win situation for our partners because when they reduce their food waste, they reduce their cost and their environmental footprint and become more sustainable in their business operations.
He is proud to mention that his clients saw around 30-40 per cent of their food waste within 3 months of implementation which provides between 3 per cent-8 per cent savings on their food purchasing cost.
Dr Sherman found an opportunity in the substitution ingredients market.
Screengrab from Callerys.sg website
He saw the rapid appearance of new ingredients on the market, many of which seemingly overlap in function and properties, and many of which are useful, yet difficult to introduce into present products, especially when the goal is to modify the nutritional profile of a product.
His startup, Hoow Foods, decided to address this issue, having a vision that links up “ingredient-tech” and food product manufacturers, retailers and eventually, the end-consumer.
Hoow Foods created its flagship brand, Callery’s, a line of healthy low-calorie ice creams meant to demonstrate this vision.
He says, “We were inspired by the success of low-calorie ice creams in the US, however, we were honestly disappointed by the taste and texture of those best-selling ice cream.
Using our deep understanding of the physicochemical properties of ingredients, we were then able to create an improved formulation which is embodied in Callery’s.
While we prefer to remain conservative on the loco-regional ice cream market, we are however confident on the potential of offering our highly efficient and rapid product development technology to create products with modified nutritional profiles that taste and feel similar to their originals.
This would fill up a much-needed gap in the food tech continuum and accelerate the launch of a new wave of products with healthier profiles (low calorie, sugar and fat), high protein, high fibre and more. In fact, our proprietary technology platform, Re-Genesys, was conceived to be able to tackle most food trends.”
For Darren, he explains one has to look at technology as an intersection in every part of the agri-food industry across the massive supply and value chain.
He says, “There are more interesting ones that are emerging in the developed markets are solutions like customised diets for your body type and lifestyle.
Health and wellness in the food sector have been under the radar because of a lack of awareness from the consumers, but today more and more consumers are information hungry and this trend should catch on.
As long we fall back to these points today, health, transparency and convenience we will be on to something.”
Challenges for Foodtech in Singapore
Dr Sherman finds his greatest challenge is the current mindset of the food industry at-large, where he faced difficulties support for new formulation products from traditional food companies.
These companies focus more on production costs and are not keen on supporting new novel healthier choices due to consumers unwilling to pay for more.
While the Health Promotion Board has already been championing the healthy eating trend for some time now, consumers are not demanding better and healthier food products in the market, let alone willing to pay a slightly higher price for such foods.
Rayner found timing an issue where food industry players may not be ready. When he first started Good For Food back in 2017, hotels were not ready for a solution like his.
Food wastage was not a priority and hotels had many other pressing issues to deal with. It was only in the last 12-18 months did he start to see hotels pay more attention to the food waste problem and actively seeking solutions to deal with it.
Darren sees challenges are regulatory and the speed to market.
For new ideas that have never been done in Singapore, food tech startups have to learn how to navigate around or work together with regulators to create a good environment for their particular type of business.
A lot of effort is a 2-way conversation that both parties need to invest time and effort into.
Another challenge is to educate consumers effectively which then allows food tech startups to have a faster speed to market.
He observes Asian consumers tend to be followers so there must be a clear and strong strategy to communicate to our consumers in a way that they will understand and then vote with their purchases.
To him, the marketing and branding is the challenging aspect that food tech startups need to deal with.
Singapore can be a global example for foodtech
Dr Sherman Ho believes Singapore will be a food tech hub within the next two to five years, as Singapore has always poised itself at the forefront of new tech trends.
He says, “What we have going for us is a diversity of food, meaning lots of different applications to experiment with.
This also means numerous opportunities if one were to look hard enough. And Singapore is always a great launchpad to enter other Asian markets given its reputation for quality products.
This is an important point for a new product from a small and relatively unknown startup; the Singaporean branding will be an important booster.”
To further make Singapore a global food tech hub, having the regulatory authorities such as Health Sciences Authority, Health Promotion Board and the Singapore Food Agency actively participating in food tech events and also organising their own food tech events and gatherings.
This would be instrumental in the smooth nurturing of Singapore’s food tech scene and allow the successful commercialisation of products with fewer problems.
Rayner agrees with Sherman, but further adds that there must be a strong collaborative FoodTech ecosystem made up of startups and corporates working closely together with backing and support from government and related organisations/agencies.
To Darren, Singapore has the potential to pave the way for South-East Asia by taking lessons from established known food tech hubs of Europe, America, Israel and Japan to create a really strong ecosystem of food producers and manufacturers.
He further adds that a strong education to cultivate a more sophisticated and deeper pool of Singapore consumers as fast as possible is needed to capitalise on the growth of this sector.
Advice to Foodtech startups
For Dr Ho, one of Hoow Foods’ best decisions was to commercialise its proof-of-concept product ‘Callery’s’ rapidly.
It gave his company credibility and the living proof of the technology behind it. Consumers, especially potential investors amongst them were able to try out the product. He encourages foodtech startups to do the same as what Hoow Foods did.
Foodtech startups also need to consider the unique tastes and needs of the Asian population, where the food culture and history differ greatly from the West.
Lastly, prices to consumers have to be considered. Food products in Asia are comparatively cheap when compared to the US and Europe.
More studies are needed here to quantify the willingness of the Asian market to pay a significant premium for sustainable food and provided it satisfies the unique and diverse taste preferences of Asian tongues.
Rayner talks more on the ecosystem strategy. He shares for first time entrepreneurs, joining a foodtech-focused accelerator or incubator programme will be preferable as one will have industry mentors who will help accelerate your understanding of the industry and navigate certain challenges.
He ends off this article: “Be intentional about engaging founders of other food tech companies in Singapore. You might be surprised at how much you can learn from them. Chances are they have faced similar challenges and will help you navigate or anticipate them.”
This is part of the “Science and Technology Development in Singapore” series.
This article first appeared on e27.