Conversations with Matthew Zhao

By Sherry Tan

Dr. Matthew Zhao is currently a Food Scientist at Big Idea Ventures with prior experience as a Food Technologist at the Food Innovation Resource Centre in Singapore Polytechnic. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree (Honours) in Food Technology, and went on to complete a PhD in the same field. In this article, he shares his experience working at Big Idea Ventures and gives insights on the Food Science and Technology sector.

A typical workday would include the understanding of various techniques of Food Science and Technology (FST), and addressing technical challenges faced by portfolio companies. I often work with these companies to solve the innate challenges that they face — for instance, how they can resolve an issue by obtaining the right ingredients; reviewing processes; and ensuring that food produced is safe for consumption, and has the right texture, flavours and nutritional benefits. In addition, I read up on new innovations that are out in the market to observe how other companies plan to carry out the upcycling of food waste and waste valorisation. This helps me to understand the new innovations in a global context, and find a way to reach out to them to discuss potential collaborations.

I have been working with many companies to address the problems they face. From the industry point-of-view, we usually focus more on practicality rather than theory. My experience covers a variety of areas ranging from looking at products produced in a kitchen to products produced on a manufacturing scale, and even those found in retailers and restaurants. Industry experience is built up by exploring different solutions, reading research papers and converting theory from academic journals into something practical. This was different from completing my PhD, which focused more on theoretical studies, specifically how one could use theories to explain the question at hand. As PhD students back then, we created many experiments and collected data to come up with a suitable hypothesis. 

After completing my PhD, I was very fortunate to be able to work in a consultancy firm that had great equipment and facilities, which allowed me to tap on those resources when aiding other companies in addressing technical challenges. I gained a lot of experience by looking at the processes, giving shelf life evaluation, understanding the structures of the food products and utilising skills learnt from my PhD studies.

Big Idea Ventures (BIV) is very different from a conventional research/food industry company. BIV is a venture capital firm where we explore and invest in companies that focus on innovative technologies. 

The work culture at BIV is fast-paced because projects come in very quickly and a lot of planning goes into solving the issues. At BIV, teamwork is strong with many teams helping one another. We have built a conducive environment where it is easy for one to ask for support whenever it is needed. When a colleague is extremely busy, he or she will not be left alone to handle all the stresses as work will be split across your team to ensure that the project is completed efficiently. As BIV is a small enterprise, team members work closely with one another, which may not be as common in other organisations. We treat one another as friends, not just mere colleagues and we often have gatherings after work. Although we hardly meet these days due to COVID-19, we still organise video calls to chat about things outside of work. Therefore, I do feel that the culture at BIV is conducive towards growing different personalities, which adds on to the individual experience as well. 

I also like that we have a diverse team made up of people coming from different parts of the world, who each adopt different approaches to handling the same issue. This allows everyone to learn from each other. I have some colleagues who manage the programmes for BIV, while others look at the financial aspects, among other areas. So we learn from one another and try to push things forward. 

In terms of what we could improve on, I think working remotely has possibly hindered our efficiency, so I think it will be important to find a place for us to meet together to work.

Definitely. Over the recent years, many companies have been growing and building their capabilities, innovations and technologies to create new products. I believe that this will increase in the next few years due to the popularity of plant-based and soy-based products. For plant-based products, one can look into micro-algae, plant protein such as soy tea, fermentation, etc. There will also be hybrids of soy-based and plant-based products working together to create more nutritional foods. 

Singapore also has a huge initiative called ‘30 by 30’ to ensure that we have sustainable sources of nutritional food in terms of proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Singapore supports many companies that focus on those areas. We will likely grow further as a research hub, attracting others to venture into Singapore and tap on our resources and capabilities. 

I think there has always been an impression when people mention plant-based alternative protein products, the first thought that comes to mind is local vegetarian food that is often deep-fried and starchy in texture. I too was also initially skeptical about how plant-based products can taste as good as meat, but I have tried many different products and have been amazed by the innovations. I also believe that plant-based products can still provide you with the required nutritional needs. 

The flavours and textures of alternative protein products have been changing rapidly, moving away from the traditional plant-based products we have been seeing locally. Plant-based products in Singapore have evolved to suit Asian cuisine, for example not simply just producing meat patties and sausages, but also dumplings and even luncheon meat. We can see a huge shift in the notion of what plant-based products should look like and we will definitely see Asian products adopting plant-based products in the future. Therefore, I would suggest that people try alternative protein products with an open mind. It is not necessary to become purely vegan/vegetarian overnight but one can become a flexitarian and progress over time. 

Postharvest was my main area of concentration when completing my PhD. In Singapore, we import all sorts of fruits and vegetables, and the supply is rather constant. This piqued my interest in the origin of these fruits and vegetables, such as the manner in which they are grown and imported to Singapore. When I was completing my PhD in New Zealand, I realised that Singapore was very fortunate to have a good supply chain which allowed us to always import fruits and vegetables. For example, tomatoes in New Zealand are not in season all year round and people usually buy them in the summer. In the winter, the cost of tomatoes rises because they have to be imported from overseas for sale. Postharvest is about how one stores and treats the product, for example by looking at different coatings to lengthen the shelf life of the fruit. When researching about the kiwi fruit, I learnt that growing fruits was not simply about having soil and vine, but it was also vital to look into the techniques to increase the soluble solute content to make the fruit taste sweeter and get the right flavours. 

Exploring the aspect of postharvest for my PhD provided me an eye-opening experience and made me much more appreciative of the fruits and vegetables that we have in Singapore. Many local companies in Singapore today are venturing into urban farming and vertical farming. They are building a lot of technology in order to be more energy efficient, so that they can grow a variety of vegetables using urban farming techniques. I believe that when these companies reach a point where the demand is met, they have to also start considering postharvest to ensure that products will stay fresh for longer periods of time. Different fruits and vegetables have different biochemistries behind them, hence we have to examine them closely and find ways to extend their shelf lives. 

Postharvest has given me insight into how we can better manage supply chains and value-add to the products by helping them obtain a good shelf life while making them safe for consumption. Many companies do not look at fresh produce but rather processed products. Postharvest and supply chain knowledge comes in handy when companies want to import products from overseas. For instance, it takes approximately 28 days to ship products from New Zealand to Singapore, and we have to understand how to maintain the supply chain and ensure that the product remains safe, and that their textural properties are not affected. 

There will be increasingly more innovative products being pushed out in the field of Food Science. In the area of alternative proteins, the trend will continue. Numerous companies are using fermentation technology to create unique proteins for daily usage. Another important area is supply chain management, because if one were to ship products to countries with weak infrastructure, food waste will be generated. We are looking to create products that are more sustainable, require less resources for its creation, while also ensuring that supply chains will not be interrupted.  The valorisation of food waste is also an up-and-coming area. Globally, a lot of food waste is being generated and companies are looking to upcycle it and value-add to it. Another area would be functional ingredients, specifically how to provide better functionality such as gelling properties and binding capabilities, and providing nutritional needs to consumers. In this area, 3D printing has huge potential which could allow one to personalise his or her nutritional needs. 

In the context of Singapore, we would have to think about our aging population. As we grow older, our diet changes and the desire for food will not be as strong as it used to be. Thus, it is important to think about how we can innovate in this area. We could create something for the elderly that is easy to swallow and digest, but also not slimy or watery as it is not beneficial for them. Therefore, in addition to providing them with the right nutritional needs, we also have to find a way to provide some texture to the food that they are consuming, and help them to look forward to their meals. 

Singapore has been doing a lot in this area. We are constantly sourcing for talents to push things forward. The various local research institutes have also collaborated with different parties to try to translate the research into something practical. Singapore has also been establishing different innovation hubs and bringing in multinational corporations (MNCs) to set up their centers here. For example, companies such as Oatly have entered the local market to build their manufacturing line, proving that Singapore has been able to bring in some big players by providing a large amount of support to these companies. We have a structured way of bringing in companies to ensure that they are beneficial to local businesses. Our local businesses need to tap into such resources to grow further. 

If you are constantly curious about what food is made up of and where we derive our nutrients from, Food Science is definitely a field that will open doors to satisfy that curiosity. Food Science is not as fundamental – you are not working with Chemistry or Physics, but rather something that you would be able to relate to more easily in daily life. The rationale behind questions such as “How do you make sure products stay crispy for long periods of time” will be understood once you enter the field. You will understand how food is made and as a result, be more appreciative of it. 

Moreover, if you like application sciences, Food Science will be a good field to venture into because you will have the opportunity to learn and apply that knowledge to your personal dietary habits as well. I do not regret going into this field as it has truly given me many fresh perspectives about how we can create more nutritional and functional products. 

The main motivation comes from helping BIV’s portfolio companies commercialise their products. When I wake up, I think of how I can innovate and provide the portfolio companies with good solutions. Whenever the products are commercialised, I am able to see them on the shelves of retail companies which gives me a huge sense of achievement.

A really good day at work would be having managed to collect good data, allowing me to interpret them well and ensuring that things run smoothly. Unfortunately, that is not always the case because the data collected sometimes does not give any insights, and one would have to think it through and restructure it again. 

Of course, a good day at work also starts with colleagues. I am fortunate to have a team of colleagues in BIV who are very pleasant to work with. The founders of the portfolio companies that we work with are also interesting. They are extremely innovative and it certainly allows for good discussions to take place. 

Another area that would make a day challenging would be finding the right industry partners. Even with everything in place when collaborating with different industry partners, one might not work well with them and as a result, we have to continue searching for a compatible one. Ideally, you want to find a partner you can work well with to complete the trials and develop the products, but that is not usually the case. Other than the cost of ingredients and processes, we also have to look at many different aspects to make sure that the product will reach the market. 

Occasionally, when I plan for trials to launch, they do not run smoothly and the end goal is not achieved. This requires rethinking and understanding the root cause of the problem – it could be due to a formulation issue, a processing issue, or a storage issue. It can be quite challenging because there is no guarantee that the root cause will be discovered within a day. With these trials, time is of the essence as you cannot stop the trial and wait for the next day. One has to push forward, think of a solution on the spot. If one knows that the chances of it working is slim, one has to decide whether to proceed or come up with another approach. Time wasted often equates to a waste of financial resources. The upside is that when working as a team, one can always seek others’ advice to make a swift decision. 

Typically, we work with the portfolio companies to have an in-depth understanding of their problems and processes. For some of the companies, I take note of how we can assist them in their production aspect. I am more experienced in the processing side and I will give my thoughts to see how things can be pushed forward. 

It is a team effort as we rely on everyone’s inputs to increase efficiency. Often, production trials are very tricky and a lot of planning is required to enable processes to run smoothly. If it does not work well, we have to take a firm stand and not proceed further to save costs. We have to start planning ahead and think of the next step to take. Collaborations can be tricky because you ought to make sure that when they run trials for you, they are able to meet what you are looking for, and you are able to meet what they are looking for. Every member’s input is valuable when one needs to come to a conclusion.

There is no set list of requirements that we look out for when it comes to partnership, but typically we get an understanding from both sides and see how we can come into the picture as well. If the portfolio company is looking for ingredient suppliers, we look for a partner that is well-versed in the ingredient aspect. If the portfolio company is looking to distribute their products across different channels, we look for a collaborator that is well-versed in the distribution side. Some of the companies are in the Research and Development (R&D) stage and hence, they have to find a partner with an innovation center to see how they can assist each other and create their trials. 

The important thing is to listen to what the potential collaborators are looking for and consider how you can work with them so that they can help to distribute your products. We have to be able to trust them as well. Sometimes the partnership works, but other times it does not. Even when you think it might work, tension may arise and impact the dynamics of the relationship. We do our best to ensure that there is mutual trust so everyone can work well together.

Project management skills are crucial. From time to time, you may have to be the middleman to facilitate different areas of a project. For example, you might need to know how you would like to engage people, or how you would like to facilitate different companies together. Presentation skills are vital as well, to know how you would want to present your ideas in front of a large audience. You have to be confident in your own ideas and convey the right message to the audience. 

I believe that these are the kind of soft skills not taught in university. For me, I developed these skills while pushing myself to speak in seminars and on panels, which helped me grow my confidence. These are soft skills that would be good for one to hone, because even if one can be very creative, if he or she does not have the skills to convey those innovative ideas to others, that would not be ideal. 

If you are interested in the research and academia track, it is always handy to have a PhD as a qualification because it trains you to think like a researcher. But it is not a necessary qualification, and having a bachelor’s degree will be sufficient. 

Experience is important, and as you gradually build it up, things can be solved faster. You should take it one step at a time – obtain your degree first, which would provide you with internship opportunities where you can expose yourself to the work culture. During such internships, it would be reasonable for one to make some mistakes which would allow you to learn and grow.  There is no perfect answer and it is better to ask silly questions or give silly answers than to keep quiet and only rely on theoretical knowledge. You will need to be daring and overcome obstacles rather than have the mindset of following a very systematic way of firstly getting a degree,  progressing on to a masters’, and then study for a PhD. The key thing is to study for a degree first, then decide whether a PhD would help you in your future career. It is also fine if you would like to do a PhD first and think about your career pathway afterwards. Enjoy your period of study because once you start working, you will miss those times which cannot be relived again. 

I would love to be more involved in FST. I try my best to be in different parts of the process — to not simply look at the groundwork, but also look at the bigger picture and subsequently, note how we can streamline different innovations that will address questions. 

Additionally, I would like to expose myself to a multitude of conferences and look at strategies that big companies have been adopting which we can then use to help our portfolio companies in the future. It is beneficial to create an ecosystem for the start-up companies and aid them in value-adding to the MNCs, as the MNCs are the ones that change the market on a larger scale. The exposure to bigger networks will definitely bring me one step closer to what I am looking for in the next five years. 

Be brave and try things that are considered out-of-the-box. Do not limit yourselves because if you never try, you will never know. You may think a certain path is what you would want for your future self but eventually realise that it is not right for you. It is okay to change your career path.