Interview: Food Tech Matters Partner GROW on the agri-foodtech sector in Singapore and its challenges

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6 min read
AUTHOR: Tilly St Aubyn

Food Tech Matters Partner GROW tells us about how Singapore is becoming a hub for agri-foodtech innovation, the hurdles the industry faces, and how they invest in great start-ups.

Based in Singapore and established in 2019, GROW is South-East Asia’s first agri-foodtech accelerator with an impact focus. Co-founded by AgFunder and supported by Enterprise Singapore, they help start-ups expand into new Asian and international markets through their fund and accelerator programs. Their main objective is to support founders that are looking to drive change with new sustainable agri-foodtech solutions.

What does the agri-foodtech sector in your country look like?

Singapore is fast becoming the emerging place to be for agri-foodtech innovation. Whilst the sector is still in its early stages, having only really ‘started’ in 2019, activity has ballooned over the last two years and what we now have is a very vibrant ecosystem.

To bring this to life, several well-known start-ups have chosen to locate either their headquarters, R&D, or production facilities here. They include Oatly, Eat Just, and Perfect Day to name a few. This is against a backdrop of international agri-commodity and consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms such as Cargill, Nestle, Danone, Dole and PepsiCo, having their regional headquarters in Singapore. We therefore have a genuine ‘farm-to-fork’ ecosystem.

The Singapore Government is also very proactive with driving the agri-foodtech agenda. Singapore became the first country in the world to approve the sale of lab-grown meat last year. GROW is working closely with Enterprise Singapore, the lead government agency for enterprise activity, to help catalyse the (agri-foodtech) ecosystem further through our various start-up and scale-up programs.

What is the most important progress made in agri-foodtech in your region?

Singapore has a vision to be the region’s agri-foodtech hub. Last year, the country announced its 30 by 30 initiative to produce 30% of its food domestically by 2030, up from the current 10%. Despite the focus on the 30%, the country is also very aware of strengthening the remaining 70% which it imports from overseas.

Singapore takes a whole-of-government approach to catalyse the agri-foodtech ecosystem. In 2019, Enterprise Singapore anchored five agri-foodtech accelerators in the country, GROW being one of them. Enterprise Singapore had also appointed nine key investment partners and created a 30 by 30 R&D programme of S$144M ($106M). Collectively, this has stimulated a lot of attention and interest in this space and created a really thriving environment for local and international founders to kickstart their ventures.

Which areas of the agri-foodtech sector are in particular need of innovation?

It really depends on who you ask and which part of the value chain you’re looking at. The agri-food value chain is extensive and broad. Areas of particular interest to us include:

· Sustainable packaging and alternatives to plastic: we need to address the excessive material being used on farms and at the point of purchase.

· Novel ingredients, native foods, functional foods: we believe there is lots that can be done to increase the diversity on our plates.

· Climate smart farming practices and regenerative agriculture: we have pushed the boundaries with our current farming practices and we must now look for better ways to farm.

· Alternative and functional proteins: with the growing middle class in Asia, there will be an increase in demand for protein that reflects the local palette.

What are the challenges currently faced by the agri-foodtech industry?

As agri-foodtech gains momentum in Singapore, we can identify three challenges ahead:

1. Access to capital: investing in agri-foodtech is still in its early days in Asia. There is an opportunity to do more in creating awareness and helping the investment community deepen their understanding of this space.

2. Internationalisation and navigating the diversity of Asia: we see start-ups increasingly interested in expanding into Asia. It’s important to note how diverse each market in this region is and how fragmented the smallholder farmer network is across Asia. To be a successful agri-foodtech business in Asia and navigate the complexity with confidence will require an understanding of the diversity. GROW is filling this gap by being a trusted partner to agri-foodtech companies, serving as their gateway to Asia so they can “land” in Singapore and “launch” into Asia.

3. Infrastructure: this is more applicable to alternative proteins. With the increased interest in plant-based and cell-based proteins in Singapore, more and more start-ups are looking to do business here. Yet the challenge for start-ups in this space is locating facilities and infrastructure that can help them scale commercially.

What are the most important characteristics you look for when investing in start-ups?

There are three characteristics we look for when investing in start-ups:

1. Founders. Do they have an infectious (compelling, ed) vision? Are they adaptable and coachable? Do they have grit?

2. Uniqueness. What is different about the start-up? Is there a unique capability that makes them the best within their respective category?

3. Value. How do they create and capture value? What are they doing to deliver exceptional value to their customers? How are they capturing value for themselves?

Which start-ups have you worked with/accelerated and why?

Over a short period of two years, we have accelerated over 50 start-ups and are currently supporting another 16 companies with a newly launched program. We have worked with and accelerated a very diverse group of start-ups across the agri-foodtech value chain, from idea stage, to early stage and scale-up stage. We have a portfolio of programs for different stages of companies; some companies we invest in and accelerate, whilst others we purely accelerate and internationalise.

The reason for such diversity is because we believe we need to take a holistic view of technologies across the value chain and across all forms of food production. GROW is an impact-focused accelerator and we are driven by a mission to help shape a sustainable and resilient agri-food system globally.

Do you invest globally or in specific regions?

We invest in and accelerate start-ups from around the globe. As we are based in Singapore, which is well positioned to be a gateway to the rest of Asia, we have a particular interest in agri-foodtech companies that are looking to do business in this region. In addition to being an accelerator, GROW has initiatives and programs to help boost the agri-foodtech start-up ecosystem in Southeast Asia.

What is your advice for start-ups beginning in this industry?

Business is inherently people focused. To be successful, be human-centred. Know your users, customers and buyers. Develop an intimate knowledge about them and build your business around them. Get out of the studio, kitchen, or office, and get onto the farm to talk to the farmers; connect with your end users. Get personal with the people you are building your start-up for and with. It will be very rewarding and deeply impactful.

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