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From left to right, Mr Ricky Lin, founder of Life3 Biotech and moderator, followed by the speakers of the Kopi Chat Deep Dive: Prof Liu Mei Hui, Faculty A/Dean, NUS, Mr Eric Sun, Accelerator Programme Director of Bits X Bites, Ms Verleen Goh, Co-founder of Alchemy FoodTech and Gerard Chia, New Protein Capital.

Especially in China, the supply chain for food is ripe for disruption and food security, food safety and food nutrition are the key areas of focus. The Chinese government is pushing for change by tapping on policy levers: The 13th 5-year plan to modernise agriculture, the implementation of dietary guidelines to halve meat consumption by 2020 and the investment of $147 million in food science research since 2010.

These were some of the insights into the area of Food Technology shared by the speakers at the recent Kopi Chat Deep Dive — Disrupting Food? : Can start-ups lead the way? at THE HANGAR by NUS Enterprise on 15 November. Speakers of the panel discussion included Prof Liu Mei Hui, Faculty A/Dean, NUS, Mr Eric Sun, Accelerator Programme Director of Bits X Bites, Ms Verleen Goh, Co-founder of Alchemy FoodTech and Gerard Chia, New Protein Capital.

Throughout the entire event, there was a start-up showcase comprising exotic and delectable delights for sampling by food tech start-ups and NUS students. Students from the NUS Food Science & Technology programme exhibited their creations, tofu whey wine and probiotic beer while other start-ups displayed products ranging from bandung mead to Lembas (similar to a protein supplement, not Elvish bread)!.

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Alvin Chong, the founder of Lembas (named after Legolas’s elvish bread), a product similar to protein supplements.

BLOCK71 Singapore highlights some of the key takeaways that emerged from the session.

Q & A

What are the latest trends in food tech?

We are hitting an inflection point where multiple disciplines such as food science, computer science, agri-science, etc, are coming together to find solutions for the industry. We have seen a lot of these interesting technology coming from outside of China, particularly from Europe, Israel and in the US. For example, we have come across start-ups using machine learning to accelerate the R&D for engineering plant-based meat alternatives. We have seen blockchain tackle one of the big challenges in the food industry, namely, the lack of transparent and interoperable data. We also have seen RAMAN spectroscopy, combined with computer science and hardware design, to create a rapid contaminant testing device to disrupt food safety industry. We are excited about these technologies. — Eric Sun

In the context of Singapore, there isn’t a place where we can put people together to cross-pollinate. There should be a food tech incubator for people to come together and exchange ideas and expertise, to define food trends. — Dr Liu Mei Hui

If we don’t take a proactive approach to source for deals and ask the right questions, we will see people come to pitch projects on vertical farming, food deliveries, algae-base products etc. However, we see a lot of innovation around food safety, improving food traceability, extending the shelf life of foods and unique solutions to urgent industry problems like reducing the mortality in Shrimp Farming and new techniques to reduce the negative effects surrounding sugar and salt consumption. — Gerard Chia

Food industry in Singapore is very old, everyone is still eating the same foods. While they can be unhealthy and environmentally unfriendly, the volume of food consumed is immense, which means there are a great deal of opportunities to implement innovative solutions. Find out what are the problems and think about how to solve it because at the end of the day, it is about differentiating yourself from the other start-ups. — Verleen Goh

How big is the food tech market?

It’s difficult to put a figure on the investment dollars flowing into “food tech” as it is actually composed of many sectors. It’s safe to say, however, that the market is sizable. Importantly, I would like to remind everybody the social and environmental impact of food tech. That is also hard to value, but it’s perhaps just as important if not more. — Eric Sun

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A student from NUS Food Science and Technology programme explains the creation of tofu whey wine to a curious visitor.

What do VCs look out for in a food tech start-up?

We always ask if what a start-up brings could be a potential solution to an immediate industry need. It is difficult to size the market and put a valuation on it. More often than not, one solution could have various applications across different industries. We do ask for projections to try and make sense of a start-up’s valuation even if it can be quite fluffy. — Gerard Chia

We typically invest in companies after the proof of concept stage. It is important to not communicate the value of the technology in a vacuum. We have seen a lot of start-ups in China who do not know how to position their brand and communicate the value proposition of their product to the consumer. If they can’t do that, it will be very hard to commercialise. Our accelerator works closely with start-ups to build their story, the value proposition of their products, and also help them to pilot their products in the real world. — Eric Sun

What are the milestones that start-ups have to reach in order to commercialise?

People should identify the problem they want to solve and try to find the correct people to help them along the way. You can approach us at NUS Food Science, we might not have the solution but we can point you to other people who might have it. The timeline is product-specific. I would say at least one year from the pilot product with R&D to hitting the market but accelerators can help to speed it up. — Dr Liu Mei Hui

Ask yourself if the market really needs your product. If yes, don’t worry too much about a Go-To-Market Strategy because the market is there. There is a reason why most investors out there are your large corporates. Work on building up the science before any sort of business development. Please don’t try to mimic something that seems to work in the Western market and create an Asian spin-off. There are many gaps in the industry, budding entrepreneurs need to take a step back to appreciate the missing links. Most entrepreneurs are often focused on doing something that’s trendy and interesting. — Gerard Chia

Thanks to The Coffee Roaster (TCR) for providing quality coffee and keeping our guests awake throughout the session! TCR Cafe is one of the highest volume specialty cafes in Singapore and also one of the leading coffee academies specialising in corporate workshops and events.

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NUS Enterprise nurtures entrepreneurial talents with global mindsets, while advancing innovation and entrepreneurship at Asia’s leading university.

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