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Image credit: GROW

Meet Singapore Food Bowl’s foodtech innovators – SingCell & Smoocht

September 21, 2020

For the past few weeks, the team at GROW — the agrifoodtech impact fund and accelerator backed by AgFunder — has been busy running Singapore Food Bowl.

The program — supported by government agency Enterprise Singapore and Dole Packaged Foods — has been put together by GROW with the aim of building “a more resilient, sustainable, and decentralized agrifood ecosystem” for the future amid the supply chain chaos caused by Covid-19.

In addition to bringing Singapore closer to its ’30 by 30′ vision — the country’s objective of sourcing 30% of its nutritional needs domestically by 2030, up from less than 10% today — GROW’s Food Bowl program is targeted at delivering impact at all points along Asia Pacific’s food value chain, from smallholder farms to consumers in homes and restaurants.

Over the next few weeks, AFN will run mini-profiles of the 12 startups taking part in Singapore Food Bowl. Today, we’re taking a look at the two ‘Innovative Food’ teams participating in the program – SingCell and Smoocht.

Innovative Food startups raised more in H1 2020 than they did in the whole of 2019. Read more here

Innovative Food is an AgFunder-defined category which includes startups working on cultured meat, plant-based and fermented proteins, and novel ingredients.

The two Innovative Food startups in Singapore Food Bowl come from different ends of that spectrum (though both hail from the city-state.)

SingCell aims to become a contract manufacturer for the nascent cultured meat industry. Using technology initially developed by Singapore’s national scientific research agency, it wants to help cellular ag companies reduce their costs and scale up production so that ‘lab-grown’ meat can become a viable alternative to animal products.

Smoocht is a novel ingredient maker creating alt-dairy products – initially from rice, but with other source materials in the works – targeting non-vegans. It’s also hoping to launch brick-and-mortar stores where its plant-based products can be enjoyed in a cafe-style setting.

AFN spoke to Khai Chien Ong, co-founder at Smoocht, and Karolis Rosickas, co-founder at SingCell, to get the lowdown on their startups.

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

Karolis Rosickas (KR): We have proprietary tech in culturing stem cells in large-scale bioreactors and we can do a better job in terms of scaling up manufacturing capabilities for [cultured meat] companies in comparison to them doing that in-house. As a result of this higher scale and higher efficiency of our process we can also achieve lower costs of manufacturing in comparison to companies doing it in-house.

A few [of our competitors] aim to position themselves more as a contract manufacturing play, but the reality is this industry is so nascent that those business models and service models are still evolving. But, broadly speaking, we have world-leading experts in using stem cells, we have patented tech what relates to methods in culturing those stem cells, and we have demonstrated superior performance of that tech. [We are] also thematically well-positioned in Singapore because it’s likely to be the first country where cell-based protein products will be approved, so we’ll have a head start.

Khai Chien Ong (KCO): Our team is unique in the space as we are offering a plant-based option at the intersection of what matters to the ‘SHE’ [socially, health, and environmentally conscious) crowd and the ‘mainstream’ crowd. It is not uncommon now for mainstream cafes to offer a couple of plant-based options in a nod to the SHE crowd, but options are limited and lack imagination, besides their identity and brand not being built on ‘SHE-ness.’ On the other hand, many plant-based cafes have as their target audience the vegans, vegetarians, and SHE consumers, and are not looking to appeal to the mainstream.

Smoocht is working on a ‘plant-imagined experience’ – a ‘Mylk-Bar,’ which provides a great way for those in the SHE’segment to introduce and enjoy a dose of plant-imagined desserts with their friends. Mylk-Bar is carving out a unique space right at this intersection, offering desserts that are SHE, and equally appealing to their friends in the mainstream.

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

KCO: The number one challenge has been building the right team with the right skills that can coalesce around this vision and ideal. Over the past nine months, we have assembled the right combination of ‘plant imagination’ — the capacity to reimagine and recreate outstanding desserts that are plant-based, and the operational capacity to deliver them — and back-end team capabilities like branding, marketing, and distribution strategy. We launched our first concept cafe, IG@WellSmoocht, six months ago and are now working on launching Mylk-Bar in the next six months. We are continuously seeking to grow our core team, which is an ongoing challenge.

KR: The critical component to such a business as ours is first to have superior tech, and we believe we have demonstrated that. I guess for us, the challenge now is to convince the customer they should be working with us, given we are still relatively early-stage. That means entering long-term relationships with clients and finding ways to collaborate that are lower risk, both to us and to them, so we can both progress. In this early-stage B2B space, we need to build trust and credibility with potential clients, and that takes time.

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

KR: I’d say we’re directly aligned. [The ’30 by 30′] strategy is based on three verticals. One of those is alternative proteins. And we are actually manufacturing those.

KCO: Part of our SHE identity is to find the nexus of how we can grow together with our local community, and vice versa. Food security to us is not merely about increasing production or availability. It is also about reducing wastages, and in engaging the local communities to work together meaningfully, sustainably, and profitably. Otherwise, [purely] economic considerations will still come first for businesses.

We source super-locally, and our value-add is in ‘plant-imagining’ how to present local ingredients in a new light, to encourage more plant-based desserts and meals to be consumed, which require much lesser resources to be produced, vis-a-vis animal based food. We are experimenting with local sourcing of ingredients like pandan leaves, mint, hibiscus, over-ripe fruits, and so on from local community gardens and wet markets.

Smoocht’s signature series of R’ice Cream [vegan ice cream made with rice milk] is our first proprietary product with the aim of using Asia-sourced staples in creating more ‘plant-imagined’ desserts.

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.

[Disclosure: AgFunder is AFN‘s parent company.]

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