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COVID-19 crisis could boost awareness about alternative proteins: Q&A with Andrew Ive, founder of Big Idea Ventures

Singapore is becoming Asia’s food tech hub, with a strong commitment to build an alternative protein ecosystem.

Andrew Ive has deep passion for food tech and alternative proteins—and a lot of experience. He once led the world’s largest food company incubator, Food-X, based in New York City, which has helped hundreds of food startups get off the ground. After Food-X, Ive was engaged in other food tech institutions, Abbot’s Butcher and FoodTech accelerator among them, until he decided to establish his own Big Idea Ventures two years ago, aiming to help solve the world’s biggest challenges by supporting entrepreneurs.

Big Idea Ventures launched its first fund, New Protein Fund, in March 2019 and is currently raising USD 50 million to invest in plant-based food and cell-based meats. The fund is backed by the likes of Temasek and Tyson Foods and will be closed by August 2020, according to Ive. “We have two stages of investment: USD 200,000 for seed-stage startups through the accelerator programs, and between USD 750,000 and 2 million for those who perform well,” Ive told KrASIA.

Andrew Ive, founder and general partner of Big Idea Ventures. Photo courtesy of Big Idea Ventures.

Big Idea Ventures holds two accelerator programs every year in New York and Singapore to identify startups that will disrupt the global food industry. The firm has invested in several young companies globally, one of which is Singapore-based cellular agriculture startup Shiok Meats. Ive believes that Asia has massive potential to challenge the alternative protein industry in Europe and the US, and that COVID-19 might actually speed things up.

KrASIA recently talked to Andrew Ive to hear his thoughts.

KrASIA (Kr): Why do you focus on plant-based proteins? How important is this for society?

Andrew Ive (AI): Many studies suggest that animal factory farming is one of the largest contributors to climate change and global warming, which we need to solve now. In our opinion, bringing great-tasting, inexpensive, plant-based meat, seafood, and dairy to consumers around the world will help reduce the demand for animal factory farming, and will reduce its impact on the climate. The food system is very connected, so when something bad happens in the food system, it can have other consequences like diseases. Plant-based foods generally do not have the same challenges as animal factory farming, which sometimes use antibiotics or additional hormones. We believe plant-based food is a better and safer way of getting protein for humans, and it has a better outcome for Earth.

In addition, animal factory farming requires a lot of land, water, and other inputs while plant- and cell-based protein can be manufactured in smaller spaces more efficiently. So it provides more security for countries who rely on their neighbors for food, like Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and others. Given the current challenges with lockdowns and closed borders, it must make some nervous about their food security. Therefore, by producing plant and cell-based protein, populations are able to get a more reliable source of protein.

Kr: What are the opportunities of the alternative protein industry in Asia?

AI: Historically, plant-based foods have always been present in Asian countries, so its not necessarily a new thing. Entrepreneurs today are becoming more creative and are bringing new kinds of plant-based foods to consumers. We’ve seen American-style products coming to metropolitan cities throughout Asia, like Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, or Jakarta, with the introduction of products from Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and so forth. But we want to back companies that bring culturally relevant plant based foods to Asian markets, not American-style products.

For example, our portfolio company Karana makes plant-based pork dumplings that taste like a very traditional dish that you would have in China. This is relevant because through the creativity of entrepreneurship, it is possible to make tasty traditional foods that don’t have animal protein in it. Interestingly, I read a report that suggested that China will potentially be moving towards more plant-based meat alternatives due to COVID-19. Thus, the awareness and popularity of alternative proteins might happen faster in Asia.

Kr: Do these startups have different risk profiles from startups in other sectors? How do you find companies worth investing in?

AI: I’ve invested in a lot of different companies across sectors before, including software, marketplaces, and more. It is very difficult to predict which companies are going to be successful, it depends on the founders and the team involved in the business, regardless of the sector. We called our company “Big Ideas” because we support companies that have two things: First, they need to have idea, product, and technology that is big enough to positively impact the world. So we’re not looking for companies that are going to do well in just Singapore, Indonesia, or the US, but for companies that have potential to make an impact globally. The second thing we look for is a great team. We believe that the magic ingredients to create world-class companies are a strong vision and a team that can realize that dream.

Plant-based dumplings made by Karana, a Big Idea Ventures portfolio company. Photo courtesy of Big Idea Ventures.

Kr: How do market perspectives of alternative proteins differ between America and Asia?

AI: There are different reasons why people consume plant-based meats in America. Some people do that for their health, others want to protect animals and save the climate. But I think the most important reason to consume plant-based food should be for its good taste and affordable price. Because that’s the only way to get people to consume this food continuously, and this is very crucial for Asian markets.

Moreover, a lot of changes towards plant-based food is driven by the younger population and Asia has more millennials than America. They are more conscious of the consequences of eating animal protein, I believe Asia is moving increasingly towards plant-based food innovation.

Kr: But the price of alt meats is higher than regular ones, how do companies adjust that?

AI: If there’s a price difference at the moment, it’s just because of volume. As you manufacture anything in larger volumes, you improve your efficiency, and your ability to source large quantities of raw ingredients. When plant-based and cell-based meats have become less expensive than animal products, we’ll see an increasing consumption volume.

Kr: Why did you choose Singapore to host your Asian accelerator program? And what are your thoughts on the food tech development there?

AI: Singapore has little land for agriculture and it imports most of its food, so the government wants to ramp up locally produced foods, one of which is through alternative protein. There are many reasons why Singapore is becoming Asia’s food tech hub. I’ve been working with the government for about three years now, and they have a strong commitment to build an alternative protein ecosystem by bringing the right entrepreneurs to the country, supporting research and development, and providing them with well-designed infrastructure. Moreover, Singapore has very strong protection of intellectual property, which is crucial in this business.

Kr: Will the COVID-19 crisis affect the growth of alternative protein in Asia? Do you think we’ll see more startups in this segment after the pandemic?

AI: This crisis could be an interesting moment for the industry as more potential investors are now looking at plant-based and cell-based protein. They recognize that the market needs more alternatives to the traditional animal factory farming and the products we’re going to create will be even more in demand by consumers.

I believe we’ll see more breakthrough innovation in the region as we’ve invested in many great companies. There is Gourmey, for instance, the first company that is reinventing foie gras. This French delicacy is controversial due to its force-feeding procedure. Believe it or not, the largest markets for foie gras—outside of France—are China and Japan, so Gourmey tries to fill the demand and makes foie gras from the eggs of ducks instead of from the ducks itself, which is much friendlier to the animal. There are already a bunch of food tech startups focusing on this segment and I believe the number will increase. We have received 60 applications for our upcoming Singapore accelerator batch, where we only accept 12 startups.

Kr: What sustainability goals do you hope to achieve with the New Protein Fund?

AI: We want to invest in 100 startups and hope that at least 40% of them can bring their products to the global market. I would like to go down the grocery aisle in different places like China, Japan, or Indonesia one day, and look at great-tasting, culturally relevant plant-based foods, knowing that a significant percentage of them are companies that we helped to start and grow. Every time somebody buys plant-based beef, it means that an animal didn’t need to be bred for that product. It will eventually lead to a better climate, better animal welfare, and a healthier population.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.