Singapore agri-food start-up hopes to feed astronauts with microalgae

Sophie’s Bionutrients co-founder Eugene Wang shows President Halimah Yacob a sample of plant-based crab cakes. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Entrepreneur Eugene Wang's dream is to some day see Singapore feeding astronauts sustainable, tasty and nutritious food as they explore space. His astronomical ambitions, however, are rooted in a microscopic solution - microalgae.

These tiny greens are packed with minerals and vitamins, and are 60 per cent protein. In comparison, soy - the most protein-rich plant - comprises 30 per cent protein.

Microalgae, an erstwhile underrated superfood, is fermented inside a bioreactor and within three days, edible protein flour can be extracted and used to make various plant-based foods.

"We can design a small bioreactor and harvesting system, and fit it into a spacecraft. Singapore can come up with a wonderful space food programme for space missions," said Mr Wang animatedly.

But before that happens, the chief executive of food-tech start-up Sophie's Bionutrients wants to feed the Republic.

Now that the company has perfected its process of converting microalgae into edible protein, Sophie's Bionutrients is preparing to build its first production facility in Science Park 2 that will be up and running by the second half of next year.

The 464 sq m facility will have industry-scale bioreactor tanks that are between 2,000 litres and 20,000 litres, along with other equipment such as spray dryers.

The company is currently working with four strains of microalgae, sourced from overseas. One of the strains it is working with is chlorella, which is commonly used in supplements.

The biggest bioreactor in the lab is 250 litres.

The new facility - which will harvest the protein from a 20,000 litre tank - will have the capacity to produce 10 tonnes of protein flour a month, said Mr Wang.

The company's chief operating officer Barnabas Chan said: "To produce a tonne of soy protein, you need 5ha of land. For us, it's about 0.02ha of land."

President Halimah Yacob on Thursday (Dec 10) visited the start-up at the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation's (Sifbi) lab at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star). Sifbi is the start-up's research and development collaborator.

Speaking to reporters after the tour, she said it is important to look at all options in alternative food sources, so that Singapore can meet its goal of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs within a decade.

"The vagaries of weather, climate change and having to reduce carbon emissions makes it difficult for us to just look at traditional methods of growing food."

Madam Halimah added that opportunities should be created for more alternative protein start-ups to emerge and help the country develop food resilience.

The President also highlighted how Sophie Bionutrients uses industrial food waste such as spent grains, molasses from sugar refineries and okara from tofu manufacturers to feed the microalgae while it is fermenting. The food waste provides nitrogen and carbon for the microalgae and multiply every 12 to 18 hours.

After three days, protein will be extracted from the product - a green mush - and converted to edible protein flour.

Sifbi was set up last year to boost local production capabilities of novel food ingredients, as Singapore explores sustainable and alternative food production to combat food security challenges.

Last week, it was announced that Singapore was the first in the world to approve cell-cultured meat for sale as food, developed by Californian start-up Eat Just which will be manufacturing its cultured chicken bites here.

Other start-ups here have developed prototypes of cell-cultured seafood, pork and milk as well.

Sophie's Bionutrients has tapped Sifbi's know-how in fermentation, bioprocess engineering and flavouring the microalgae proteins.

The start-up's white, odourless protein flour will eventually be supplied to milk companies in the United States to create plant-based milk.

Its brown flour - which smells like seaweed and has an umami flavour - will be used to create a "chicken essence" drink with a Taiwanese company, with protein flour replacing chicken in this plant-based tonic.

The flour will also be used in plant-based "crab cakes" by Singapore's food manufacturer Ha Li Fa, which supplies BoBo fishballs and fishcakes. The product will be sold in Singapore late next year, and is awaiting halal certification, said Mr Wang.

Next year, the protein flour will be sold to food companies at about US$30 (S$40) per kilo, said Mr Wang.

He hopes this price will be driven down to US$2 per kilo within five to 10 years, as production scales up and massive 300,000 litre tanks are used. This way, his protein can feed developing countries as well.

The firm will also produce protein crackers in 2022, to be sold to companies that make plant-based burgers.

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