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Singapore Food Bowl participant Crust is brewing beer from leftover bread sourced from restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Photo credit: Crust Group

On #FLWDay, meet the Singapore Food Bowl startups tackling Asia Pacific’s food waste problem

September 29, 2020

Last week, AFN talked to SingCell and Smoocht – two of the innovative foodtech startups participating in Singapore Food Bowl, the food security and sustainability program being run by agrifoodtech impact fund and accelerator GROW.

Supported by government agency Enterprise Singapore and Dole Packaged Foods, Singapore Food Bowl was launched by GROW with the aim of building “a more resilient, sustainable, and decentralized agrifood ecosystem” for the future.

[Disclosure: GROW and AFN share the same parent company – AgFunder.]

In addition to addressing the supply chain chaos caused by Covid-19, Singapore Food Bowl is tasked with helping the city-state achieve its ’30 by 30′ goal of sourcing 30% of its nutritional needs domestically by 2030, up from less than 10% today.

Getting there means the incubation, acceleration, and commercialization of technologies in controlled environment agriculture, vertical farming, and alternative proteins – as well as solutions that eliminate food waste and digitize supply chains to improve efficiency in the agrifood ecosystem.

To mark the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste (or #FLWDay for short) AFN recently held a roundtable discussion with three other members of the Singapore Food Bowl cohort, each of which is focused on reducing food loss and waste. They are:

    • Crust Group (Singapore) – Tackling food waste by using leftover bread from hotels, restaurants, and cafes to brew into co-branded craft beers and other beverages.
    • Mi Terro (China) – Turning spoiled milk into an odorless, temperature-regulating fabric that can be used in place of cotton for clothes, bedding, and biodegradable food packaging.
    • Organic Technology Holdings (Australia) – Repurposing organic waste and off-cuts to create high-value products like pet foods, aquafeed, flavor additives, and health supplements.

From each company, AFN spoke to:

    • Robert Luo, founder and CEO, Mi Terro
    • Travin Singh, co-founder and CEO, Crust Group
    • Akshat Talwalkar, co-founder and chief scientist, Organic Technology Holdings (OTH)

AFN: What problem is your company trying to solve, and how does your technology offer a solution?

Akshat Talwalkar (AT): Quite simply, the world is running out of food. Over the next 30 years, 50% more food will be required to feed 9.7 billion people. But due to land, yield, and climate constraints, there aren’t enough resources to grow it.

OTH develops licensable industrial technologies that produce more food without having to grow more food. Our technologies employ a proprietary quick and gentle process that upcycles low-value processing by-products into highly functional edible food and flavourings for humans as well as for companion animals, marine, and other animals.

Travin Singh (TS): Food production has a huge impact on the planet, responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and yet, we waste a third of all the food we produce. Crust, built around our belief in sustainability, provides unique circular economy solutions to the challenge of food waste. Fresh surplus ingredients are reincarnated into Crust beverages and other products, granting them a new lease of life and thus helping to minimize food wastage.

Robert Luo (RL): Food waste creates 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, which equals 37 million cars driving on the road at the same time. Also, 128 million tons of milk are thrown away every year globally. The world doesn’t need another food delivery service, it needs a solution to solve food waste.

At the same time, fashion and packaging companies are searching for high-quality, affordable, and sustainable alternatives to replace plastic. Mi Terro is the world’s only biomaterial company that ‘upcycles’ and re-engineers food waste into biodegradable fibers to replace plastic in the fashion, medical, and packaging industries.

We are not turning food waste into food. Instead, we are giving food waste a new life by repurposing it into fiber and film that can replace plastic in the fashion, medical, bedding, and packaging industries.

AFN: What gives your company its competitive edge and differentiates it from others trying to solve the same problem?

TS: Crust promotes the circular economy by upcycling local waste for local consumption. We use locally sourced ingredients through local farmers rather than importing, which cuts our carbon footprint drastically and in turn helps the environment and farmers in each market we operate in.

Also, we repurpose our spent grains from brewing back to the environment, as feed [and] fertilizers. While Crust directly reduces food waste by using surplus bread to brew craft beers, we also aim to spread our message of maximizing our resources to other companies and individuals in order to enact change in the broader food system.

RL: Mi Terro has the world’s only technology that re-engineers spoiled, expired, and bad milk. Our fiber is 100% biodegradable, cheaper, and requires 60% less water than organic cotton. Our technology can potentially apply to any type of protein-based food waste, not limiting to dairy products.

AT: In comparison to the typical idea-driven tech start-ups, we are wholly market driven.

Our technologies have been developed after travelling the world [and] meeting global food companies, [developing a] careful understanding of their needs and what product quality their suppliers are unable to meet. We know global food companies want high-purity protein and oil concentrates that are consistent in quality – features OTH is able to deliver.

This industry driven approach, where OTH has already secured product approval and confirmed volumes from global customers, means our technology can be readily deployed by regional processors. Techn commercialization is thus significantly faster [for us] than for other startups in this space.

AFN: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a company, and how did you overcome it (or how are you planning to)?

AT: Initially, getting people to see there’s a problem. OTH has been fine-tuning its technology, processes, outputs, and value proposition for a few years now, and for most of those years people didn’t want to believe there was a problem with food supply and food security. Now, as the problem is becoming acute throughout the world, OTH is being approached by global food and ingredient companies looking for new and novel products in unbelievably large quantities.

The scale of these volumes and their increasing urgency will be a formidable challenge [for us] in coordinating the setup of large production plants in multiple regions across the world and their associated supply chains. Fortunately OTH’s business model of partnering with processors and end offtake customers will help in managing this effectively.

RL: Our biggest challenge is sourcing low-cost food waste. We overcome this problem by forming joint ventures with milk plants.

TS: Covid-19 has been the biggest challenge. Just like many other businesses, we shifted to a direct-to-consumer platform from B2B, and had to pivot quickly and set up our own delivery channels [and work with third-party logistics] to be able to meet demand.

Also, it was during Covid-19 that we started restructuring our brand away from being a brewing company and into an R&D-based company. This was a huge learning curve for us, but because we were spending more time at home, we could focus more on product development. That restructuring work took us three months and now that we are already raising our pre-Seed round, we are forming an R&D team within the company for continued innovation.

AFN: How does your business model and mission align with Singapore’s ‘30 by 30’ food resilience initiative?

RL: We are repurposing protein-derived food waste, whether it’s dairy-based or plant-based, into sustainable and cost-effective products.

TS: Covid-19 made us realize that the old, inefficient ways are no longer feasible and that we need to adopt business practices that are ecologically harmonious. Our vision is to maximize our resources, and our mission is to reduce global food waste by 1% by 2030. Crust’s business model accordingly focuses on closing the disconnect between food waste and people going hungry, reducing the carbon footprint on human consumption, and keeping our innovative solutions as local as possible.

AT: Ten years is not a long way away. In a more traditional sense, increasing the amount of available food means growing more of it, which is not really an option for Singapore due to its obvious scarce resources. However, if 30% of a chicken or fish — or 40% of a pig — is wasted, and that 30% to 40% can be upcycled into edible protein concentrates and oils, then we believe OTH will be able to greatly contribute to the overall availability of highly nutritious functional food in Singapore.

If you’re an accredited investor who wants to join AgFunder in building a more sustainable food future, find out more about investing in the GROW Impact Fund here.

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