When it comes to food innovation, Singapore is the place to be. What makes the city state this attractive to startups and corporates?
On March 7, 2019, as locals wrestled with mixed, post-colonial feelings about a national celebration of Sir Stamford Raffles’s arrival in Singapore 200 years earlier, the city-state’s minister of Environment and Water Resources announced an ambitious new goal for the country’s continued independence moving forward: By 2030, Singapore would produce 30% of its food within its own borders.
Fast forward two years to April, 2021, and the crescendo of novel food news in the city had gotten so loud that the American editor-in-chief of The Spoon, an online publication dedicated to tracking investment and innovation in food and food technology, began one of his weekly updates by telling subscribers: “I’m not sure how to break this to my wife, but the family needs to pack up and move to Singapore. Because let’s face it, if you want to experience the future of food today, Singapore is the place to be.”
Many of the world’s top food companies and startups agree. In the past few months alone, American giant Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) and Swiss multinational Givaudan launched new research and development labs in Singapore, as did smaller companies from Hong Kong, Mainland China, and Germany, among others.
Not all of this explosive growth can be chalked up to the government’s “30 by 30” goal — the city was modernizing its aquaculture and experimenting with vertical produce farms long before 2019 — but companies and investors who spoke with MAG/NET said the government does deserve much of the credit for these food innovation boom times. They say Singapore is earning this new business through a combination of two levers of power: Traditional government incentives and forward-thinking regulation.
Reached in Singapore, Carrie Chan, CEO of lab-cultured seafood startup Avant Meats, told MAG/NET that in her company’s early days in Hong Kong, that city was a perfect place for a startup. “Hong Kong is a great place to go from zero to one,” she said, citing the fully furnished lab and office spaces the city has set up in its Cyberport and Science and Technology Park developments. But she says that eventually Avant outgrew the constraints of Hong Kong’s biotech real estate and talent markets, and began to look at the UK, the US, and a few other places in Asia for possible expansion.
Singapore offered both a favorable location (Avant wants to stay close to the huge Asian food market), and incentives that in some ways surpassed Hong Kong’s. “The government there is helping us with everything,” Chan said. “The financial assistance is similar to Hong Kong in some ways, and the Economic Development Board (EDB) is helping key hires with visas, and supporting us in finding local talent.” And while Temasek, the massive, government-owned investment company, has not yet invested in Avant, Chan says it has been very helpful in introducing the company to potential business partners and connecting them to the larger food innovation infrastructure. “Anything we need, the government has been there,” Chan says.
Still, in the end, Avant landed on Singapore not because of head count tax credits and business connections, but because the government there was taking food innovation especially seriously. In early December of 2020, American food startup Eat Just announced it had been granted the “World’s First Regulatory Approval for Cultured Meat” in Singapore, and began selling lab-cultured “chicken bites” in a local restaurant soon after. For Avant, which has been developing lab-grown versions of fish maw, sea cucumber, and other seafood, “this provided a clear path to revenue,” Chan said. Hong Kong and Singapore may have similar incentives for food innovation lab space and labor subsidies, but Avant wants to be where it can sell its products.
Behind both the incentives and the regulation is a dizzying array of government agencies that from the outside can sound like a mess of bureaucracy. At the center of it all is A*STAR, Singapore’s Agency for Science and Technology Research, an umbrella R&D agency which houses SIFBI, the Singapore Institute for Food and Biotechnology Innovation. A*STAR has also partnered with Temasek Holdings to set up a Food Tech Innovation Centre (FTIC), which SIFBI’s Executive Director, Dr. Hazel Khoo, tells MAG/NET, “will address Singapore food-tech start ups’ rising demand for affordable life sciences labs, pilot scale facilities and co-working platforms.”
To handle food safety issues, there is also the newly created Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH), which Dr. Khoo calls, “a national scientific public-private partnership platform under the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme, jointly established by the A*STAR, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA), and the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).”
And Dr. Khoo says that for food innovation companies working on the cellular level, like American animal-free dairy startup Perfect Day, there is also A*STAR’s Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), which is collaborating with Perfect Day and Singapore’s EDB on a new R&D lab for cultured animal proteins.
That’s a lot of acronyms, but according to Avant’s Carrie Chan, “it’s a very synchronized environment here. All the agencies know what they are working toward and they’re all doing it together.”
Andrew Ive, CEO of New York venture capital firm Big Ideas Ventures, agrees. “There is a plan, a budget and dedicated highly professional team across the government who are committed to real progress. They are building the foundation of a new industry.” Ive, whose firm specializes in food innovation investments, says momentum toward that foundation is still strong. “We have companies in our portfolio and outside of our portfolio who are seriously considering relocating key aspects of their business to Singapore. Many of them are in cell-based technologies – given Singapore's decision to be the first country to deregulate in this category.”
This is not to say there aren’t other countries working on attracting talent and investment in food innovation. Ive tells MAG/NET, “Sweden has been innovating around food sustainability, Israel in food tech, and Thailand, Japan, Korea and other places also have the potential to be strong hubs of food innovation moving forward.”
The Spoon, whose editor jokingly toyed with moving his family to Singapore to be near “the future of food,” recently ran an article headlined: “UAE: The Next Big Food Tech Hub?”
But by attracting so much attention and investment early on, Singapore may be setting itself up to make big gains beyond food as well. In fact, Avant’s first market-ready product isn’t actually lab-grown seafood at all, it’s “Zellulin, the world’s first cell-based functional protein ingredient for skincare.” Zellulin was developed in Hong Kong, but as global food innovation companies set up more and more R&D labs in Singapore, the next big thing — food or not — may come from the Lion City instead.
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