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Q&A: EDB executive director Lee Eng Keat on Singapore’s role in agri-foodtech innovation

November 5, 2019

Lee Eng Keat is executive director for agrifood of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB). We caught up with him ahead of the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week in Singapore later this month to find about how Singapore is positioning itself as an agri-foodtech hub in Asia and globally.

How is Singapore keeping itself competitive in terms of governmental funding and support for agri + food tech startups?

We believe that Singapore is well placed as a staging point for startups to position themselves for Asia, based on an ecosystem approach consisting of 3 key pillars:

1) Talent (Capabilities)

Despite our size, we are a highly diversified economy consisting of different types of industry and home to global leading corporates who have been leveraging Singapore as a base to position for Asia through high-value manufacturing, R&D and charting market expansion strategies. In fact, more than 40% of Singapore’s export economy is driven by production in sectors such as semiconductors, biopharmaceuticals, and specialty chemicals.

To enable this diversity, Singapore has to be a very attractive environment for global talent to live, work and play in the heart of Asia – whether it is good schools for families, amazing F1 parties, food from all over the world, getting in and out of Singapore into the region or quite simply finding kindred spirits among the scientific community to bounce off ideas at One North – this is a great place for talent to be at now and shape agri-food innovation for Asia. INSEAD also ranked us as the best country in Asia for talent competitiveness. 

2) Innovation Enablers

Startups are the lifeblood of innovation. To help companies with complementary resources to demonstrate their technologies, we are taking steps to invest in ecosystem enablers. 

a) Accelerators & Incubators

We have been working with Enterprise Singapore to attract a base of globally renowned accelerators and their incubation funds into Singapore. Some of the players that have announced their Singapore programs include AgFunder, Big Idea Ventures, Hatch and Trendlines. 

In January this year, Enterprise Singapore appointed seven co-investment partners. This will catalyse more than S$90 million worth of investments to develop Singapore-based startups in the Agrifood tech sector. Besides co-investing, Enterprise Singapore and the seven partners will provide hands-on assistance, such as introductions to new business partners and providing support to enter new markets. We believe that this should help startups in the agrifood tech space fast-track their commercialisation process. 

b) Infrastructure – AFIP & Aquaculture Feed Trial Capabilities

Another enabler is Infrastructure. Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry, Dr Koh Poh Koon, had announced the set up of the Agri-Food Innovation Park (AFIP) in March 2019. AFIP is envisioned as a reference site for high tech farming operations to test and iterate technologies and explore cross-value chain synergies. The first phase of 18 hectares will be ready from Q2 2021, with the potential for expansion. We are in active discussions with companies – ranging from indoor plant factories, insect farming companies, and aquaculture production to set up there.

Another example of Infrastructure is the availability of feed trial facilities for aquaculture nutrition players. We are working with the various agencies and institutes in Singapore to expand our capabilities here. We believe this addresses an unmet need in the industry for a trusted location in Asia to understand the biology of warm water species and demonstrate the efficacy of novel feed technology and formulations.

c) Infrastructure – R&D institutions

Besides the hardware, we are also looking at the software – the National Research Foundation announced the Singapore Food Story R&D program – which is a S$144M multi-year program that will bring public research institutes and key private sector partners together to solve agri-food challenges, including in the areas of novel proteins, urban agriculture, aquaculture, and food safety. Agencies will be announcing grant calls in the near future.

3) Networks to scale

Asia is an attractive market opportunity but is a complex environment to tackle alone.

Startups can tap into the base of expertise among the ecosystem of corporates in Singapore, such as CPG firms, agri-commodities players and food services companies, to explore partnerships to build new value propositions for Asia.

The above 3 points stack upon the strong business environment fundamentals – Singapore is consistently featured as among the easiest places in the world to do business by the World Bank.

What are your thoughts on Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal? What is the EDB’s role in getting the country there?

Our food supply chain has continually evolved over the years to supply us with nourishment from all over the world efficiently. This machinery will now need to scale to meet the demand of an increasingly affluent and urban global population of 10B by 2050, of which 50% are in Asia. However, there are developments that are threatening this traditional agriculture paradigm and the global food value chain:

  1. Resource constraints, due to the diminishing availability of arable land and water. For instance, it has been estimated that up to 20% of China’s arable land is too polluted for use.
  2. Supply shocks, due to increasing magnitude and frequency of unforeseen events such as weather events or disease outbreaks – Asian Swine Fever has resulted in a reduction of the pork supply in China, and we are hearing stories of significant increases in prices to the world’s largest pork consumer.

As a small country that imports more than 90% of its food, we are also inadvertently concerned about these developments and its implications on our food supply resilience.

We are excited about emerging technologies that will enable Singapore, and in fact other urban environments in Asia, with alternative approaches to thrive and feed ourselves in the future decades. These include Urban Agriculture, Aquaculture and Alternative Proteins.

EDB’s role is to work with global leaders to create an ecosystem to develop and demonstrate the best technologies for Asia to nourish itself sustainably and help these companies scale their solutions into Asia. Helping these companies establish themselves in Singapore will contribute towards SFA’s overall food security goal. It will also help Singapore improve its food resilience by staying ahead of the curve in having the know-how on how to develop and apply these novel technologies.

Where do you see the AgTech investment scene in the next 10 years? What are the challenges the sector is facing locally?

AgTech investing has only started picking up in the late 2000s, with the emergence of pioneering strategic funds such as Syngenta, then-Monsanto and followed by pureplay financial investors such as  Cultivian and Finistere Ventures. Despite the importance of food, it is still early days for Singapore and the rest of the world. This means also that many technologies are driven by relatively young companies, and have yet to be fully validated in Asia yet.

We believe Singapore has a headstart based on our track record and existing food ecosystem, talent base and established quality branding. This can be applied towards helping startups and companies understand Asia opportunities and find suitable partners that they can work with. At the same time, by helping companies demonstrate their technologies we would also help the Asian market understand the opportunities offered by these Agri-Food technologies. 

We are seeing good momentum.  Beyond the young companies, we see that the larger enterprises are also picking up on the trend both globally and here in Singapore. For instance, we are seeing interest from ingredient companies step up to pre-position capabilities such as the formulation of plant-based protein for the growing alternative protein opportunity in Asia.

However, with disruptive technologies comes a greater need to build new capabilities and also understand food safety and other regulatory considerations. On this end, we are working with regulatory agencies in Singapore to build up networks and platforms to be able to engage with innovative agri-food tech companies based on a science-based risk-mitigating approach.

Over time, we want to play a role to help companies bring these technologies abroad to impact Asia’s food value chain.

What is your message to the global startup scene? Why should they set up base in Singapore?

Asia’s rising middle-income consumers will need alternative solutions to feed itself in the coming decades. Singapore’s enabling ecosystem can provide a Global Asia value proposition to address this opportunity – for western startups to use Singapore as a base to grow in Asia and for Asian startups to connect and engage with western corporates to export their solutions to the rest of the world. 

In this regard, we are very excited to partner with Rethink Events on its 2nd edition of the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Week! Look forward to catching up then.

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