SINGAPORE: As a tiny city-state with a population density that ranks third in the world, Singapore isn't particularly suited for conventional agriculture and free-roaming livestock.
But Gaia Foods needs no farm to feed a world hungry for some sinewy grub. All it needs is a laboratory, faith from investors and a couple more technological breakthroughs.
The lab-grown meat developer was founded by Mr Vinayaka Srinivas and Mr Thanh Hung Nguyen, researchers who met at Duke-NUS Medical School in December 2019.
The pair is trying to create structured beef and pork products - think beef steaks and pork chops - by growing animal cells on scaffolds, or thin plant-based surfaces, so that it mimics the texture of meat cuts as opposed to minced meat.
“We think we can produce meat in a cleaner, green and animal-friendly manner that people can consume without all the guilt,” said Mr Srinivas, highlighting the benefits his industry peers have touted since the first lab-grown hamburger was unveiled in 2013.
Mr Srinivas said they want to launch their first product in three-and-a-half years at S$15 to S$20 a kilogramme - which is close to prices of traditional meat today - at restaurants. The plan is to go mass market in five years.
Right now, the cost of production is at an exorbitant S$6,000 per kilogramme, largely owing to the expensive animal serum and pharma-grade nutrients used to grow and feed the animal cells respectively.
But Mr Srinivas and his partner are confident they can bring the price down. Experiments are ongoing to develop a similar serum from plants and yeast, as well as cell feed from nutrients extracted from plants.
Gaia Foods is staffed by just the two of them and three interns currently, but if they meet their fundraising goal of S$3 million by the end of the year, they could hire 10 people to accelerate the development process.
So far, the founders have been relying on their savings and US$125,000 in seed money from alternative protein investor Big Idea Ventures.
Currently, the local alternative protein scene is dominated by the likes of first-movers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, whose sausages and beef patties are now commonplace on supermarket freezers and restaurant menus.
But homegrown talents are taking advantage of the growing popularity of these meat substitutes, launching their own companies to create their version of no-kill poultry and seafood.
Long-established food manufacturers are also getting into the game, including Growthwell, a vegetarian food provider known for its wheat gluten-based mock meat products under brands like OKK. Last year, it announced it was partnering Israeli start-up ChickP to launch a chickpea protein-based seafood alternative products.
Even a number of international counterparts have anchored themselves here, drawn to Singapore's position as a gateway to the rest of Asia, where a growing middle-class is expected to drive up meat demand by 78 per cent by 2050, according to a 2018 report by Singapore-based consultancy Asia Research and Engagement.
In December, San Francisco-based Eat Just, which launched its lab-grown chicken in Singapore, said it would make Singapore its Asia-Pacific headquarters. In the same month, Californian dairy-substitute maker Perfect Day announced plans to open a research lab this April with the Agency of Science, Technology, and Research, or A*STAR. Next Gen, a plant-based protein maker, opened its headquarters and research centre here in October last year.
Singapore is well-poised to become one of the world’s alternative protein hub if the growth trajectory continues, said industry players, including companies, investors and observers.
It boils down to several reasons: Singapore’s intellectual property laws, skilled talent pool, accessibility to a multicultural palate, geographical proximity to agriculture exporters in Southeast Asia, as well as policymakers’ support for the food technology industry. Singapore authorities recently granted the world’s first regulatory approval for cellular meat.
“What we are saying (to the rest of the world is) we are a forward-looking country,” food security expert Dr Paul Teng said on Singapore becoming the first country to allow lab-grown meat for sale.
“This might be a way to encourage companies to relocate here … because are recognised for our high safety standards," said the adjunct senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Authorities in Singapore have been vocal about their support for building a vibrant food technology scene - which includes developing alternative proteins - as part of a larger national strategy to ramp up local food production and improve the country’s supply of food.
For example, in 2019, the Government announced that it would invest S$144 million in food research under a new scheme called the Singapore Food Story R&D programme. It also has a fund-like scheme called Startup SG Equity that invests in start-ups and venture capital firms, including those in the agri-food technology line.
Big Idea Ventures’ Andrew Ive said he chose to set up his second office in Singapore due to the public economic agencies’ support of the alternative protein scene.
“I think there’s a really cohesive vision and strategy … in Singapore,” said the founder of the US$50 million venture capital fund and accelerator. He had spoken to people from the likes of Temasek and Enterprise Singapore (ESG), as well as others in Israel, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen before making his decision, he said.
Ants Innovate’s founder Professor Hanry Yu said the close ties between academia, the Government and the private sector is the main draw of Singapore, giving companies access to publicly-funded research and grants.
“Other countries’ (researchers and businesses) tend to be working in silos,” Dr Yu said. “Singapore has been the place that pushed for building ecosystems, and I don’t believe we (companies) can single-handedly (build) the industry.”
Eat Beyond, a Canadian publicly-listed fund, announced last December it was backing two Singapore cell-protein start-ups - cell-based milk maker TurtleTree and cell-protein contract manufacturer SingCell.
It is likely to add “one or two more” companies from Singapore to its current portfolio of seven, Eat Beyond's chief executive Patrick Morris told CNA.
What caught his attention about Singapore was the country’s aim to significantly increase local food production so that it makes up 30 per cent of food demand by 2030. Right now, Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food.
“(With the) 30-30 plan, we can expect to see a vast amount of technology surrounding vertical farming, cell agriculture, agriculture, intelligent supply chains,” he said. “That’s a real driving force behind Singapore, and that’s a reason that we saw that potential for them to be leaders in the movement for alternative proteins.”
Research centres here attest to the growing interest in alternative proteins as well. About 20 to 30 firms have expressed interest to use Givaudan and Buhler’s joint plant-based innovation centre ahead of its opening in April, executives from the two Swiss companies said.
“We currently have the good problem (of) rather than the problem of nobody’s coming in. (It’s) how do we prioritise (who comes in first),” said Buhler’s Southeast Asia & Pacific head of technology Dominique Kull.
Meanwhile, Singapore Polytechnic’s Food Innovation & Resource Centre has run 10 plant-based protein projects so far, said its acting director David Chai. Half of them sprung up in the past 12 months, a testament to the increasing attention businesses are giving to alternative proteins. The facility also helped Eat Just to manufacture its cell-based chicken nuggets.
The centre has mostly been contracted by local food manufacturers currently selling traditional meat and who are keen to expand into the plant-based field. Some are also looking to blend plant-based proteins with their meat products, and a few are start-ups looking to test their concepts.
This plant-based protein work now makes up between 5 and 10 per cent of the centre’s portfolio, and it expects the ratio to go up, especially after it procures an extruder - a machine that turns plant proteins into meat-like structures - by the end of this year.
“There’s a lot more interest in (alternative proteins),” Mr Chai said. “Today, a lot more mainstream consumers are interested because of the story behind sustainability.”
ARE WE TOO LATE TO THE GAME?
The hype around the alternative protein industry’s money-making possibilities has grown. A 2019 Barclays report said the alternative meat market could be worth US$140 billion in a decade, and capture about 10 per cent of the US$1.4 trillion global meat industry, up from just 1 per cent today.
Economic benefits to Singapore specifically have not been forecast, but a Food Frontier report may offer some clues.
The Australian think-tank’s 2019 report estimated that by 2030, the plant-based meat sector could generate A$2.9 billion (US$2.2 billion) in retail sales, A$1.1 billion in manufacturing and create more than 6,000 full-time jobs in the country. This is exponentially more than the A$150 million in retail sales, A$29.9 million in manufacturing and 265 full-time roles it supported in 2018 and 2019.
Despite the optimism surrounding the alternative protein sector, local companies are up against some immense competition.
“The plant-based space, in that space you can see the Impossibles, the Beyonds - the other big players are already out there (and) very aggressive,” Dr Teng said.
As for cellular meat, Dr Teng pointed to Dutch player Mosa Meat and its American counterpart Memphis Meats, which are far ahead in their fundraising and pulled in US$86 million and US$181.1 million in funding, according to data from Crunchbase.
“(It is) a lot more than what our local companies have received,” he said. By comparison, cell-based seafood maker Shiok Meats, probably the best-known cultivated meat maker in Singapore, has raised US$20.4 million so far,based on Crunchbase's numbers.
With its rising middle class and their growing appetite for meat, China could also be a formidable contender in the lab-grown meat space, said Mr Ive.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if China, in the next 18 months, deregulates also,” he said. “I’m starting to believe that China is starting to look at cell-based as a way of providing protein for its population.”
And then there are the conventional meat titans that are ploughing in huge amounts of resources to get a slice of the pie. In the past two years, Tyson Foods, Hormel, JBS and Cargill have launched their own alternative meat products.
Cargill and Tyson Foods both participated in Memphis Meats’ US$161 million fundraising round last January. It was Cargill’s second investment with the company; it has also put in at least US$100 million with pea-protein producer Puris.
READ: Cargill to challenge Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods with new plant-based burger
However, for such a nascent industry, some think the alternative proteins market still has room for many new entrants.
“I think this is such a huge space. It’s not like one country is suddenly going to provide meat to the whole world,” said Ms Elaine Siu, an advisor and former managing director to The Good Food Institute Asia-Pacific, an advocacy group for plant-based and cultivated meat development.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Money too is not bounded by international borders, said investors and start-ups.
“Smart money will flow to where the best and most innovative ideas are,” said Mr Terence Tan, Ants Innovate’s general manager. The firm is closing its seed round of funding by the end of this quarter, he said, declining to disclose the exact amount - which in the single-digit millions - but highlighting that it is led by a local food business.
His company, he said, had received inquiries from investors in the US, Europe and other parts of Asia, and he is hopeful that the company will be able to raise much more after it pilots its cell meat product by the end of this year.
“(That) the funding scene in Singapore is not as attractive … some people had alerted us about it,” said Mr Andre Menezes, Next Gen’s co-founder and a former general manager of Impossible Foods’ distributor in Singapore, Country Foods. It plans to launch its chicken product and close its next fundraising round in March.
Mr Menezes declined to reveal how much they are raising currently but said it is "substantially bigger" than the US$2.2 million it got in seed funding.
“(But) we’re not setting up a Singapore business. We’re setting up a global business out of Singapore … (and) the investors did understand the fact," he said. "We had no issue in terms of being able to defend our valuation."
WILL CONSUMERS BITE?
The greater challenge, industry players agreed, lies in getting the consumers’ buy-in.
According to data from Euromonitor International, Singapore's year-on-year retail sales growth of "free-from-meat" frozen meat substitutes - which is how most plant-based protein brands like Quorn, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods sell their products right now - grew by 26.7 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while traditional meat grew only by 7.4 per cent.
But these frozen meat substitutes raked in only S$900,000 in retail sales last year, while conventional meat made more than S$1 billion.
Meanwhile, "free-from-meat" chilled meat substitutes, a category dominated by tofu, drew in S$98.7 million last year.
Sales of traditional meat are also expected to grow more quickly than frozen meat alternatives in the coming years, Euromonitor’s data showed, at 19.5 per cent compared to 17.4 per cent between 2021 and 2025.
“One of the initial weaknesses from these global brands lies in its product variants where most are targeting beef (when) pork is still the main type of meat consumed in Asia as compared to beef,” said Ms Aileen Supriyadi, a senior analyst at the market research firm.
“Furthermore, Asians are highly proud of their dishes, making it highly important for meat alternative players to make products that can be incorporated into these dishes,” she added.
And when it comes to lab-grown meat, even though most brands are still in the development phase, the industry might need to spend more time convincing the public to try their products.
A YouGov Omnibus survey conducted last December, which polled 1,068 Singaporeans, found that 42 per cent of them would not eat cultured meat. Another 14 per cent were still undecided.
Among those who said they would avoid lab-grown meat, the top three reasons were a preference to eat “real” meat since it is available, worries about the possible side effects, and simply disliking the idea of “eating something artificial”.
Although the technology has been declared by cell-meat makers as a solution to zoonotic diseases, climate change, workers’ safety and animal cruelty, 25 per cent said they disagreed that eating it is better for the environment than conventional meat, while another 42 per cent were undecided.
“People’s perception is the biggest fear we all have,” said Mr Srinivas. His company, with Ants Innovate and other local cell-meat players, came together at the end of January for the first time to discuss how best to market their creations in the future and tackle regulatory hurdles overseas.
“We don’t want to be the next GMO,” he emphasised, referring to the bad reputation genetically modified food has got among consumers, despite most credible science-based bodies and the World Health Organization affirming its safety.
Messaging, legislation and money aside, keeping the alternative protein industry going could perhaps boil down to one solution: Giving diners a bang for their buck.
“If we have a product that tastes as good, if not better than the conventional animal products, and it costs the same if not less … that is how a product would win no matter what,” said the Good Food Institute's Ms Siu.
“That would drive the whole scene much, much faster than anything else.”