Growing more food with less: R&D partnerships give S’pore firms a leg-up

A*Star and industry partners in local R&D ecosystem fast gaining an edge in agri-tech innovations to help secure nation’s food supply

Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), innovation, agritech, food security
(From left) Archisen founders Vincent Wei and Sven Yeo beside their vertical farms, which grow crops like lettuce and kale in the start-up’s research and development facility in Commonwealth Capital Building. PHOTO: ARCHISEN, GRAPHICS: NG WENG CHI

Mr Sven Yeo has long been concerned with putting food on Singapore's tables because of the country's lack of natural resources. But it wasn't until earlier this year that he realised how important it was to buttress the nation's food supply.

Photos of snaking queues and emptied shelves at supermarkets flooded the Internet after Singapore raised its disease alert level to orange and Malaysia announced a nationwide lockdown.

While the flow of food supplies between Singapore and Malaysia continued despite the lockdown, the panic underscored the importance of strengthening the nation's food security.

"I think for many years Singapore has been touted as a place with high food security," says Mr Yeo, 35, co-founder of Archisen, an agri-tech firm that builds, designs and operates indoor farms using an Internet of Things (IoT) approach.

"But the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of our dependence on food imports. On top of that, panic buying behaviour exacerbated the situation."

To find new ways of growing food within the country's urban landscape, companies like Archisen are partnering with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and relevant public agencies to come up with novel concepts and innovations that maximise homegrown food production.

From mind to market

Collaborations among government agencies, such as the Singapore Food Agency and A*Star, institutes of higher learning and companies in the agri-tech space, are part of efforts to achieve Singapore's "30 by 30" goal. The aim is to produce 30 per cent of the country's nutritional needs locally by 2030.

Singapore currently imports more than 90 per cent of its food consumed.

"There is room to improve our food security and mitigate potential disruptions like climate change and pandemics," says Dr Ralph Graichen, senior director at A*Star's Biomedical Research Council.

"We need to leverage technology to grow more with fewer resources to overcome constraints of space, climate and manpower," he explains.

A*Star's work with Archisen is one example.

Since 2018, A*Star's Bioinformatics Institute (BII) has been working with the 10-man company to improve its yield of lettuce and kale. These are among a variety of local vegetables that the start-up harvests and sells to leading retailers in Singapore through its flagship brand Just Produce.

Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), innovation, agritech, food security
Archisen harvests and sells a variety of local vegetables such as kale and lettuce (above) to leading retailers through its flagship brand Just Produce. PHOTO: ARCHISEN

BII researchers helped the agri-tech company to develop a yield prediction module to incorporate into its intelligent farm management platform known as Croptron.

Operating like the "brain" of Archisen's urban farming system, Croptron gathers data such as nutrient media and climate conditions using sensors planted at multiple modular farms.

With the prediction module, the platform is able to use artificial intelligence to analyse the data and recommend the optimal conditions needed to maximise the yield and quality of crops.

Says Dr Lee Hwee Kuan, a BII researcher who worked with Archisen on the crop yield prediction module: "The start-up was interested to engage us because of our wide portfolio of technologies and capabilities, including bioinformatics, analytics and artificial intelligence."

Archisen is currently supporting the operations of a 7,000 sq ft farm in Commonwealth Capital Building at Buroh Lane. The farm has been the site of the start-up's urban farming activities and can produce up to 100 tonnes of vegetables a year.

Hungry for change

Such partnerships between research institutes and agri-tech start-ups are increasingly important, observes Dr Graichen.

In 2018, another local start-up Eatobe started working with A*Star's Biotransformation Innovation Platform (Biotrans) to access the research institute's know-how and research capabilities.

The Biotrans team discovers novel, sustainable biotechnology and produces high value-added ingredients for food and consumer industries within A*Star's Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI).

Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), innovation, agritech, food security
(From left) Dr Zhong Wenhe, Dr Benjamin Ng, Dr Chong Hui Qing, Ms Christal Kuan, Ms Sherilyn Cheng and Eatobe founder Patrina Phua at the start-up's pilot test kitchen. This is where Eatobe houses its pilot scale processing equipment to translate laboratory parameters to industrial application for quicker commercialisation of its ingredients and products. PHOTO: EATOBE

What's brewing in Eatobe's lab? A plan to help our bodies digest and absorb nutrients in whole foods, like grains, nuts and seeds, to address the problem of nutritional gaps and nutrient deficiencies.

Led by founder Patrina Phua and a team of three PhD scientists, the start-up has come up with a way to pre-process these ingredients using enzymes and bacteria.

One of their goals is to supply their grain, nut and vegetable ingredients to major food companies like Nestle and Mondelez to promote nutrient absorption on a larger scale. They also plan to roll out consumer products in the form of snack packets of nuts and grains as complete protein substitutes for animal-derived protein from the likes of milk and meat.

In partnering with A*Star, Eatobe's objective was to produce a prototype of a dietary source of vitamin K2 - a form of vitamin K linked to bone health. According to Eatobe, their product is the only food source of vitamin K2 other than natto and can be sold as a food ingredient or ready-to-eat product.

"This collaboration empowered us to quickly test the feasibility of different research problems, experiment with different equipment and discuss unresolved research gaps with our A*Star colleagues," says Ms Phua.

Eatobe was able to produce its prototype of the food source six months after the partnership and went on to secure additional investments to fund its research activities with the technology developed during the partnership.

The company is now exploring ways to produce vitamin B and functional protein from sustainable sources such as aquatic plants and mushrooms.

Sophie's (food) choice

When Eugene Wang discovered that his daughter, Sophie, was allergic to shellfish, he spent sleepless nights trying to find a protein source suitable for her.

Eventually, he stumbled upon the idea of turning microalgae into protein powder, which can then be used to make protein-rich plant-based products. Thus Sophie's Bionutrients was born.

The start-up, founded by Mr Wang, now has plans to convert microalgae into food items such as protein flour and plant-based milk.

There's a sustainable twist to this process.

It does not cause environmental damage, depletes fewer resources than the process of extracting animal-based protein and has a much shorter production cycle than animals reared for food.

For example, the start-up's strain of microalgae can be harvested in just three days compared to the 1.5-year production cycle typically needed for beef. The microalgae is also fermented in soybean residue and spent grains, creating a closed-loop system that reduces waste and pressure on natural resources.

Mr Wang shares that the company's collaboration with A*Star has helped to speed up the development of its technologies and come up with more ideas for its business. A*Star researchers co-developed and provided guidance on the start-up's microalgae strain selection process, growing technologies, and nutrient extraction processes.

Ms Yvonne Chow, junior principal investigator, SIFBI, says: "While Sophie's Bionutrients understood the product market well, they were not familiar with fermentation.

"As a one-stop fermentation bioprocess development platform to serve the food industry, our Biotrans team was in the best position to help them establish a process to suit their needs in the shortest time."

Drawing on Biotrans' technical expertise, the start-up was able to adopt more sustainable and cost-saving production methods and maximise their microalgae yield.

"These technologies are all extremely unique. None of the other companies in the world can put these together in the way we do," Mr Wang declares excitedly.

Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), innovation, agritech, food security
Sophie's Bionutrients founder Eugene Wang (above) beside flasks filled with microalgae. PHOTO: SOPHIE'S BIONUTRIENTS

With a fresh crop of advancements in the agri-tech sector, there is reason to be optimistic about Singapore's journey towards increasing food security and resilience.

"There are tremendous opportunities in public-private collaborations to leverage world-class R&D for the rapid development of urban agri-tech solutions," Dr Graichen says.

"We are excited by innovations among high potential start-ups in this area as they help to reduce our reliance on food imports and develop Singapore into a leading food and nutrition hub in Asia."

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Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), innovation, agritech, food security

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