90% of the food we eat in Singapore is imported. In order to have better food security, the Singapore Food Agency aims to achieve their “30 by 30” goal which is to produce 30% of our nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030. Currently, many start-ups in the food tech industry, such as the ones under Innovate 360, are using new and innovative ideas to achieve this goal.
Food tech is an emerging industry that uses technology to find innovative solutions for food related needs. Through their inventive spirit, consumers can enjoy products that are not only healthier but is also good for the environment. In Singapore, food tech start-ups are one of the ways we can enjoy locally produce food!
Innovate 360 is a food accelerator that helps food tech start-ups to successfully grow by providing them with necessary skills, facilities, and fund-raising to help scale their business. Additionally, these start-ups are exposed to Innovate 360’s vast network and experience.
ISawTheScience was privileged to have a peek at the development of Innovate 360 and its start-ups from its founder, John Cheng. He is also the director of Cheng Yew Heng, a sugar manufacturing company in Singapore, and a key driver in Singapore’s food innovation ecosystem.
What was it like for you as a kid growing up exploring the sugar factory?
When I was growing up, trying to explore the sugar factory was like a wonderland. Basically, it was fascinating visiting different processes and understanding how we manufacture (sugar). I never really knew much of the processes until I got into the business when I was much older. Before that, it was really just very interesting to see and smell. When you come to our factory, you can actually smell the sugar.
Did your experience growing up in the factory influence how you see the food tech industry?
When I was growing up, I kind of watched how a lot of our processes were done very manually. Some of the things that I wanted to do when I went into the business was to try to modernise this business and that was through automation. While automating, I met a lot of people in the industry who knew more than me. So, I tested with them and that kind of influenced how I went into the tech side, which, really, is all about collaborating with people. You know, business is about people at the end of the day, but it’s also tapping on the scientific knowledge of the experts in the industry to be able to help my business. With that knowledge at our accelerator, Innovate 360, we have all the expertise to collaborate and help start-ups.
What sparked your interest to start Innovate 360?
So, I started Innovate 360 in 2018 for the company to pay it forward, but also to find new products that we could sell through our distribution. So initially, it was really to find ways to help ourselves. At the same time, we wanted to look at innovation and create an impact through start-ups and that was one of the ways we see fit. That is how innovate 360 started.
Why do you think food tech start-ups are important to Singapore’s future development?
Food tech start-ups are important to Singapore’s food system and to Singapore’s future. They not only bring a very disruptive kind of business model, but also help to create new businesses or create some sort of new and bigger impact to what we are trying to achieve, which is a higher opportunity for more people in Singapore trying to create 30% of the nutritional needs by 2030.
In the future, do you see these new food products being used in local hawker centres?
For a lot of start-ups, when they create a new product, it tends to be limited in quantity. Because of that, they normally only focus on the premium market and because of that, people always have the conception that it’s expensive, but sustainability doesn’t need to be just for the rich. Sustainability should be for everybody. I hope that our start-up products will be for the mass market eventually. Once the scale is reached, then we are able to lower costs as well. I hope the start-ups quickly find themselves in the market. It takes a lot of consumer awareness, knowledge and demand that will help them to drive future demands and then, production and that will lower their cost. To answer your question, I guess it will eventually be at hawker centres. So maybe, the next time you have char kway teow, then it will be char kway teow with plant-based egg or even cell-based cockles.
With your experience in both business and innovation, what is your message to aspiring entrepreneurs in Singapore who are eager to start their own food-tech start-up?
My advice to aspiring start-ups is — always try it, go for it but know your consumers, know who you selling to, know what you are trying to do at the end of the day and with that, improve Singapore’s food system and you would be able to be successful start-ups.
I really hope that aspiring start-ups think about getting into food entrepreneurship. They would think about their customer, what problems they can actually solve, and then, from there, they will have a very supportive ecosystem here. Chances are that they will be very successful as well. And I think it is about today’s goal — it is really about collaborating with others. If you don’t have some knowledge on how, it’s always good to work with someone who has.
Written by Julaila Latiff
Illustrated by Eric Lua