$68m fund to turn labs into food factories of the future

It will help grow mostly firms that focus on plant-based proteins

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Straits Times journalists Cheryl Teh and Yeo Sam Jo try future foods such as chips and cookies made from cricket flour, alcohol made from soya bean waste, and edible cups and packaging.

A total of US$50 million (S$68 million) is up for grabs here for those who can produce proteins of the future, be it cricket nuggets, lab-grown burgers or tofu that tastes like steak.

The effort is a boost for Singapore's food ambitions, which centre on high-tech solutions to help make it more self-sufficient in terms of what it eats, while aiming to export solutions to other cities feeling the bite of climate change.

The latest move seeks to grow firms that focus on plant-based proteins to produce meat clones.

Singapore Food Agency chief Lim Kok Thai emphasised the country's potential to leverage science, technology and innovation to overcome land and resource constraints, and to grow more with less sustainably.

"We want to expand agriculture production in high-tech, controlled environments. The future of farming will be more like manufacturing," he said, speaking at the opening of the 2019 Food Industry Asia Food for the Future Summit yesterday at Marina Bay Sands.

Giving the initiative a push is the new fund by American venture firm Big Idea Ventures, which is backed by the likes of Temasek and meat giant Tyson Foods and has already put money into Shiok Meats, a local start-up working on lab-grown seafood.

In the coming years, food production will struggle to keep up with more hungry mouths, who will need about 60 per cent more food by 2050. And already, global warming is threatening yields from the land and sea.

So Singapore is concentrating efforts on increasing the nation's food output, with the ambitious goal of producing 30 per cent of what people need to eat by 2030, from less than a tenth now.

To support this effort, the Government has pledged funding of up to $144 million for food-related research and development programmes, as well as $80 million into cell manufacturing, which will be a cornerstone of lab-grown meat. It is also opening up an experimental farming plot in Sungei Kadut to test out ideas, and ramping up related courses.

The new fund aims to help innovative farming by providing a platform for companies dealing in future foods to gain experience and grow.

The fund was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the summit, and will have offices in New York and Singapore to tap the North American and Asian markets.

The goal is to eventually invest in more than 100 companies over the next four years, which must be based in either of the two locations, said Mr Andrew Ive, managing director of Big Idea Ventures.

He told The Straits Times that the company would invest mainly in companies with the technology to create plant-based proteins, as they have a lower carbon footprint than meat and do not involve killing animals. Each firm will start with US$250,000 in seed funding, with the top 25 per cent of performers getting an additional US$3 million to grow.

"Food matters, and we have some big challenges over the next decades," he told ST. "I think plant-based foods will ultimately be a big part of the solution, to make sure we have enough food for the future."

Farmers in Singapore have already taken up the challenge, by building indoor LED-lighting vegetable farms and multi-storey aquaculture systems which can boost yields by up to 15 times, for instance.

Others are working on lab-grown meat, as well as vegetable substitutes which look and taste like meat.

Mr Yuvanesh TS, director of the Asia Insect Farm Solutions, however, is putting his money on insects.

"With crickets and cricket flour as an alternative source of protein, we can produce much more protein than traditional sources, such as cows and pigs, with much less," he said. "This will take several years, but we are working hard now so innovations like ours can become mainstream food products."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2019, with the headline $68m fund to turn labs into food factories of the future. Subscribe