Singapore-based Growthwell Foods is something you don’t often come across in the world of alt-protein startups: it’s a family business.
The company — which specializes in plant-based seafood and meat alternatives — was launched in 2019 by executive director Justin Chou, who effectively ‘re-founded’ the traditional East Asian vegetarian food business which his father had started in 1989.
In its new guise as a modern, tech-driven startup, Growthwell has secured the backing of major investors including Temasek and Creadev, and has brought several products to market under its soy and konjac-based Happiee! brand.
In another departure from the conventional family business template, Chou decided to appoint outsider Manuel Bossi as Growthwell’s group CEO in April this year.
Read AFN‘s recent interview with Bossi (MB), below, to find out what attracted him to the opportunity, the pros and cons of family-business setups in the food industry, and the company’s future plans for funding and more.
AFN: How did you first join Growthwell, and when was it decided that you would take over as CEO?
MB: I’ve been in the FMCG industry for over 20 years, working at companies like Ferrero, Nestlé, Mondelēz. As part of my own personal growth journey, I started exploring food and the benefits that eating can have on your health and wellness. I decreased the amount of meat and became a ‘flexitarian,’ cutting down mostly red meat initially, then subsequently other forms of animal proteins. My interest in alt-proteins started when I took a short career break in the first half of 2021. I was in Thailand mentoring founders at incubators and accelerators such as Space-F, and there were quite a lot of companies [working on] alt-protein and foodtech.
It was during that period that I got introduced to Growthwell Foods and by October of the same year I had joined the company. [The attraction] for me was a combination of doing something substantially different to what I’d done before: joining a smaller, startup company with high growth, doing something real, closer to products, and going back to what I did at the beginning of my career. As you grow into larger roles you get farther and farther away from that, and I missed it.
This growing exposure into alt-protein helped me keep an open mind when I was contacted by Growthwell Foods about this potential role.
As they were about to complete their Series A fundraising, they knew that to scale internationally, they needed to bring in an external CEO – somebody not necessarily from the plant-based or startup space, but somebody with expertise in FMCG in several different markets. The founder Justin [Chou] is a super bright guy. [He said I] could be his deputy CEO and shadow him for about six months to ease into the leadership role. This way, the family, the board, and investors would have time to get to know me.
In hindsight, it was good to have those six months as an in-depth induction into the company, to enable a smoother transition before coming on board as group CEO in April 2022. When you look at family-run companies that bring in external CEOs, the main reason they fail is primarily because of the lack of a good induction. If that isn’t done well, everything falls apart.
AFN: As you mentioned, Growthwell emerged from a family-run legacy food business, making it a little different to most other foodtech startups. So why did you agree to go there, rather than a more typical startup situation?
MB: At Growthwell Foods, we have many similarities to existing plant-based startups; however, we have some key differences too, which I believe set us apart from our competitors.
We are a company that has quite a lot of history in Singapore. A company that has had a family behind it for about 30 years.
It’s also a highly product-driven company, which means there’s a great platform to build from. If you figure out the product then you can focus on building management, funding, and marketing capabilities. For me having the product was a huge plus, as I knew I would not be spending the next two years in R&D.
That being said, I’m used to working in family businesses due to my experience with Ferrero and I know there are two sides of the coin.
Growthwell Foods tends to be a little more conservative and a little more risk-averse, because it’s family money at the end of the day, not just investors’ capital. Thus they tend to be a little slower in decision-making, which is something I will help change a little in my role – driving a little faster decision making and go-to-market.
But there is also a great positive in that, which is the long-term orientation of the business, where family ownership brings stability and is anchored on a vision and mission which is very long-term. This is what I sometimes missed in public companies that are so driven by quarterly revenue.
Foodtech and alt-protein is still a very young industry. What we’ve seen so far is a lot of trials from consumers: mainly, flexitarians willing to experience these new products. We’re still at the beginning of the curve, and we need to change that into a habit, turn those trials into repeats. And that takes time. So to have a company like Growthwell Foods, which has a strong foundation in a plant-based future because of their roots as a family business, gives me a lot of confidence.
AFN: Beyond the decision-making process, how might things change at Growthwell under your leadership?
MB: I’ve joined Growthwell Foods to take their existing knowhow and fantastic products and scale that very rapidly. Right now, we’re doing a lot of recruiting and scaling our team very quickly. At the same time, we’re scaling our relationships with distributors and commercial partners in different countries to move at a much faster pace than what the company would’ve done in the past.
Something a rapidly scaling company must do is develop a culture. You have so many people joining the company at the same time who’ve never worked together. Therefore, creating a winning team and culture in the company is one of my absolute priorities to operate effectively. Also in this area, there’s an objective of growing Growthwell Foods into a global company. Singapore will always be the HQ, but it will be more multicultural as we expand globally into new markets, which also means that the cultural makeup of the company will change and become more international. Company culture and team building will be a key focus for me for the rest of 2022.
AFN: What plans are in store for the years ahead in terms of growth, geographical expansion, and new products?
MB: We launched four products [under the Happiee! brand] in 2021: Chickiee Nuggets, Chickiee Popcorn, Fishiee Sticks, and Fishiee Patty. [These] differentiate ourselves from our competitors, which are more like ingredients; most are unfinished products.
When you look at [conventional] fishfingers, or popcorn chicken, these products are relatively high in carbs, high in sodium, and not even that high in protein. So by moving into that category, it immediately makes it relatively easy for us to introduce a plant-based alternative that is much healthier and better for you.
[In the long term, we’re] introducing more variations, more seafood alternatives; for instance, plant-based calamari rings, which for us is a great category. It’s a large market, with lots of interest from restaurants, and we have a lot of knowhow in using konjac, which is great ingredient because it not only allows us to mimic the texture of fish, but it’s also high in fiber and low in calories. So again, it allows us to introduce something nutritionally quite interesting.
Also, in Q3 we’re launching a second new portfolio brand, Gomama, that offers Asian-oriented, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook plant-based meals. You can expect dim sum, gyoza, siew mai, pau, and wantons as part of its product line.
Then the third portfolio brand [planned for] later this year is our Chick’P milk. We invested in ChickP, an Israeli foodtech company, which is the first company in the world to isolate a 90% concentration of chickpea protein. We will use that capability to compete in the alt-dairy market and introduce a beverage that is nutritionally more similar to milk versus oat and most other plant-based milks in the current market. We can pack quite a lot of protein into it, an amount that is comparable to cow’s milk with high calcium content. We’re looking at launching it in Q4 in China.
From a geographical perspective, we’re launching into a new market every quarter this year. So Q2 was Malaysia, Q3 will be the UK, and Q4 will be China.
AFN: What are the challenges for your company in the wider economic and geopolitical environment?
MB: Raw material [costs] are going through the roof. There’s war in Europe and there have been lockdowns in China. But these problems are not unique to us – everyone will have these issues, and we just need to get through them together.
Raw material price forecasts for the next couple of years look tough but they will [eventually] go down. It’s a matter of staying true to your mission, looking at financials but not getting overly obsessed. That’s why the family-business makeup behind us is important. An old Ferrero mentor used to tell me that profit is great, but it’s more like a gift you get at the end of everything you’ve done. It’s not the objective, it’s not why you get up in the morning. Profit is a consequence of great work and staying true to your mission.
Our mission at Growthwell Foods is really to have an impact on peoples’ lives and bring plant-based nutrition to 1 billion people worldwide. [Regardless] of raw material costs, this category is bound to grow simply because the animal agriculture way of producing protein is so inefficient, where only 3% of the calories you introduce into the cow get turned into calories for human consumption. Hence the investment case is obvious – costs will go down, and we just need to get to the right kind of scale and have the right products and pricing. Margins will be there, and consumers will be healthier and happier.
AFN: When do you expect Growthwell to close its next round of funding?
MB: We don’t have a specific timeline in mind, but we are aiming to achieve a nine-figure [US dollar] sum. This investment will be mainly focused on our China expansion, brand-building, and a small capex investment.