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Local start-up brews alcohol from unwanted soya whey

(From left) SinFooTech chief executive Jonathan Ng and Senior Ministers of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat and Koh Poh Koon trying out Sachi - an alcoholic beverage fermented from soya whey, a by-product of tofu that is currently disposed
(From left) SinFooTech chief executive Jonathan Ng and Senior Ministers of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat and Koh Poh Koon trying out Sachi - an alcoholic beverage fermented from soya whey, a by-product of tofu that is currently disposed of - in the SinFooTech plant in Tuas last week. The first-of-its-kind beverage is said to taste like Japanese sake with a fruity undertone.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

A Singapore start-up has come up with an eco-friendly twist to brew alcohol - by using unwanted soya whey collected from tofu factories.

The drink, the first in the world to be made from soya whey, is said to taste like Japanese sake with a fruity undertone, though it is lighter at 7 per cent alcohol by volume.

The brainchild of entrepreneur Jonathan Ng and PhD student Chua Jian Yong, the product called Sachi is fermented from soya whey, a by-product that is currently disposed of in drains. This incurs additional water treatment costs borne by manufacturers, said Mr Ng.

The duo, who are both 28, began researching soya whey over three years ago and set up food technology company SinFooTech in 2018.

Currently, the fermentation technology - which was patented in 2018 - can produce about 30 litres of alcohol in around one or two weeks. SinFooTech is now working to produce one tonne of alcohol a week as it seeks to prove the viability of its technology and commercialise the product.

Mr Ng and Mr Chua have forked out close to $500,000 since starting operations in March 2018.

But they also received support from the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Enterprise Singapore and Singapore Customs, for example, in the form of grants and link-ups with partners and suppliers.

For instance, the firm's licensing fees, paid to Singapore Customs for the production of alcoholic beverages, are pro-rated at around $7,000 per quarter. This arrangement, as opposed to a $28,000 yearly contract, reduces the commitment period, and lowers cost of exit and failure.

It also does not need to pay excise duties on its research products if these are not sold commercially. The cost savings are about $90,000 over six months, said Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Chee Hong Tat.

Such flexible arrangements could be helpful to business owners who are taking risks through experimentation, he said. "We think it is important to lower the entry costs for start-ups and companies to get them to try new ideas, and to lower the costs of exit and failure," he said during a visit to SinFooTech's factory in Tuas last week.

SinFooTech is an example of how a circular economy, where waste products are repurposed to generate further economic activity, can give rise to opportunities.

Mr Ng and Mr Chua are now gunning to expand their technology overseas.

"We want other countries outside of South-east Asia to make use of our technology to produce more food with the same amount of resources, and to align themselves with the concept of the circular economy," said Mr Ng.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2020, with the headline 'Local start-up brews alcohol from unwanted soya whey'. Print Edition | Subscribe