Singapore’s new calling: Become the innovation hub for Asian agriculture

Without the baggage of a traditional agricultural economy, it’s easier to reinvent things.

Singapore has never been an agricultural nation due to its scarcity of land, but the country now boasts of strawberries that are grown indoors commercially, shrimp meat that is cultivated in labs, and alternative protein that is extracted from plants.

There are compelling reasons for the city-state to develop these technologies and techniques. Singapore, which currently imports more than 90% of its food supply, understands the urgency for developing and increasing local food production capabilities given expanding populations all around the region, erratic weather patterns, and an uncertain geopolitical landscape. In March 2019, the government announced an ambitious plan to ramp up its local food production to 30% by 2030 to improve food security—a significant step up from the current output, which stands at under 10%.

“Today, it is no longer just about tackling hunger. We need to grow better and healthier food in an environmentally conscious manner. Nutrition is the new frontier,” said Ted Tan, deputy chief executive of Enterprise Singapore, at the recent Future of Food Asia conference.

Ted Tan, deputy chief executive at Enterprise Singapore.

Venture capitalists said that Singapore is the perfect place to develop and distribute both agriculture and food technologies in Asia due to its strategic location, strong R&D environment, and a supportive government.

Elaine Siu, Asia-Pacific managing director at The Good Food Institute, said that she has been excited to see how the alternative protein industry accelerates in Singapore, where Shiok Meats, Life3 Biotech, and Karana are among the startups developing these future foods. Life3 aims to produce meat alternatives based on legume and vegetable extracts while Karana works with chefs to use jackfruit to replace meat in some dishes.

“Without the baggage of a traditional agricultural economy [such as heavy investment in a conventional meat industry] and with a government that puts its money where its mouth is, Singapore is in a very unique position to lead Asia, if not the world, in both plant-based and cell-based protein innovation,” she added.

Singapore’s reputation translates into trust

Singapore’s skilled workforce and R&D capabilities are well known and also serve it well in other technology sectors.

Michael Dean, co-founder and chief investment officer at online venture capital investment firm AgFunder, said that Singapore has proven its capabilities in the fintech and medtech spheres. The country is a foundation for innovation, with two of its universities ranked among the top 50 in the world, and research institutions in the food and agriculture sector. “We believe Singapore is uniquely positioned at the heart of the ASEAN region and is the perfect place from which to develop and distribute both agriculture and food technologies,” he added.

Openspace Ventures said that agrifood-tech innovation is often driven by advanced science around materials, biology, IoT sensors, software, and the usage of data. “Singapore as the hub for R&D in the region is well placed to attract further talent and investment. The production capacity can be efficiently built in nearby ASEAN nations but Singapore has a key role to play,” a company spokesperson from Openspace told KrASIA in an email.

Abhinav Mehra, vice president at venture capital firm ID Capital, said that the quality of facilities, infrastructure, and talent in Singapore, as compared to other bigger markets in Southeast Asia, make it well-suited to develop the agrifood-tech sector.

“What Singapore presents is that it provides startups with the right research environment to launch an innovative and disruptive food product for the first time,” he told KrASIA at the sidelines of Future Food Asia conference in early June.

His views were echoed by Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder of Shiok Meats, who said, “Singapore is a good test bed for most agrifood tech companies. It is a good place to have a base and try out prototypes, and then expand further into Asia.”

Sandhya Sriram, CEO and co-founder at Shiok Meats.

And as brands introduce their products across borders, being from Singapore sometimes has its cachet. Verleen Goh, co-founder and “chief food fighter” at Alchemy Foodtech, which develops active food ingredients that fight diabetes, said that Singapore is also known for its high level of food safety, which translates to trust in food innovations from the country.

“We are able to hire relatively easily talented researchers as Singapore is very strong in the sciences. We are also able to raise funds as Singapore’s startup landscape is growing especially in the field of foodtech,” she told KrASIA in an email.

Verleen Goh, co-founder and “Chief Food Fighter”
at Alchemy Foodtech.

Reliable intellectual property framework

Enterprise Singapore said that a reliable framework for intellectual property and standards, as well as a pro-business environment, helped to create a solid foundation for technology transfers and product development in the agrifood-tech sector.

Alchemy’s Goh agreed, pointing out that Singapore’s intellectual property landscape is ideal for startups and innovation. “On top of being a member of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system, Singapore’s patent examination process is also among the fastest in the world with typical results decided in 12 months,” Goh said.

Concentrating and streamlining the relevant procedures in one city gives startups the opportunity to be more nimble. “There is no better place in Asia where you can localize R&D, file for patents, and get access to the huge ASEAN markets. Therefore, Singapore is very strategically positioned to be the hub for agrifood tech in Southeast Asia,” ID Capital’s Mehra said.

Currently, Singapore ranks 10th out of 50 global economies in the US Chamber International Intellectual Property Index.

The importance of strong government support

In January this year, Enterprise Singapore’s investment arm, SEEDS Capital, appointed seven co-investment partners to catalyze more than SGD 90 million worth of investments into deep tech and early stage agrifood technology startups. Enterprise Singapore said it has supported over 60 agritech companies in 2018, including companies providing agriculture and aquaculture products.

ID Capital’s Mehra said that government support is important in nurturing new startups in the agrifood-tech sector. He also lauded Enterprise Singapore’s decision to provide grant money to non-Singaporean companies. For instance, it sponsors the Future Food Asia Award, which is organized by ID Capital. “We have seen startups who have won the grant money developing more partnerships using Singapore as a hub for both R&D and as a gateway to the ASEAN markets,” Mehra noted.

He did not provide examples, but Sophie’s Kitchen, the 2017 Future Food Asia Startup SG Grant winner, was reported as saying that it may consider setting up an R&D center in Singapore or even relocating its headquarters from the United States. It already has a registered company in the city-state.

“The support given to foreign agrifood tech startups is definitely a good move as the sector is still at its early stage and therefore needs a few foreign players who can show the type of solutions that can be built, and hopefully local startups can start innovating,” Mehra said.

Abhinav Mehra, vice president at ID Capital.

Enterprise Singapore has supported local agrifood tech startups with grants, introducing them to automation and robotics technology providers and customers, and sent them overseas on learning trips to study food innovation trends.

However, Shiok Meats’ Sriram hopes that the Singapore government will provide more support to deep tech companies beyond grants. “A clean meat company like ourselves not only needs a kitchen, but we also need a stem cell lab and expensive equipment, amongst others,” she added.

She said that Shiok Meats encountered major roadblocks at first, as it could not rent any lab space to conduct experiments and prove its hypothesis. In the end, it managed to rent a space at the NUS Marine Institute at St. John’s Island, located about 6.5 kilometers south of Singapore’s main island. “We used to take a boat every morning to go try out our experiments. Then, when it got too difficult and it was not feasible to do this every day, we had to find another lab space in the mainland,” Sriram said. They found a temporary shared lab, but it was not ideal as they could not grow a team there. Things are now looking up as Sriram said Shiok Meats will set up an R&D center at a 90,000-square-foot shared facility in a few months’ time, thanks to Singapore’s first food incubator, Innovate 360.

Nurturing local startups via global accelerators

Global accelerators play a critical role in nurturing local agrifood tech startups. Alchemy’s Goh noted that in Singapore, the number of VCs and accelerators focusing on agrifood-tech has increased a year after the government announced that the sector would be a focus within the city-state’s technological developments. “It goes to show the support of the government in this area, and also the interest of investors who are looking for more investment opportunities in Singapore and the region,” she added.

Those developments are already manifesting in meaningful ways. Earlier this month, AgFunder and Rocket Seeder launched a new Singapore-based Agri-FoodTech Accelerator, GROW, with the backing of Enterprise Singapore. “We aim to create a vibrant ecosystem that will not only foster innovation developed within the ASEAN region but also invest in and introduce the most exciting agrifood-technologies we are seeing globally,” AgFunder’s Dean said.

Michael Dean, co-Founder and chief investment officer, AgFunder.

Another accelerator program supported by Enterprise Singapore, The Yield Lab, has already anchored its Asia-Pacific operations in the city-state and will gather its first cohort
of startups from the region in the fourth quarter of this year.

If the current pace of agrifood-tech development in Singapore seems promising, just wait and see what the field may look like in a year or two.

Has all this support translated into success?

There’s definitely plenty of support provided by the Singapore government to develop agrifood technologies, but has it borne fruit? Yes, according to venture capitalists who count local agrifood tech startups—such as Shiok Meats, Alchemy Foodtech, Karana, vertical farm Sustenir Agriculture, and AI Palette, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict the next successful consumer product—as promising.

Openspace Ventures said that the Singapore government has adopted a long-term approach to industry development and building a supportive network around talent, capabilities, and business efficiency. “The government puts its own capital to work to facilitate further foreign capital,” a company spokesperson from Openspace said, adding that new sectors such as agrifood tech will be given everything they need to develop.