By Adriale Pang
On 20 September 2022, Advisory hosted Discover+: Food Security, the 63rd edition of the Discovery+ series. Speakers on the panel included:
- Rohit Behl (Moderator), Director of Strategic Partnerships, Umami Meats
- Gary Loh, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, DiMuto
- Brandon Chong, Partner and Chief Financial Officer, Bloom8
- Peter Barber, Co-Owner and Chief Executive Officer, ComCrop
Attendees included students at various levels of education with a desire to know the different career paths in Food Security, and how to best position themselves for such roles. Below are some key points shared during the session:
Since the 1960s, Singapore has been trying to achieve water security with our four national taps. Now in the 2020s, turning our attention to food security has become crucial as we face increasingly unstable supply chains.
The causeway may be open now, but we clearly saw how fresh chicken imports could come to a screeching halt at any time. We may be a pre-seed startup with mere grams of fish biomass successfully cultivated and stored in the deep freeze, unable to singlehandedly solve the problem. Yet, people immediately looked to us and cultivated meat as the silver bullet to solve supply chain and trade woes. Politicians have also acknowledged that this will not be the first type of meat that we will face issues with. We have the opportunity to not only bolster our food security, but also develop foods that are healthier than their counterparts growing in the wild. This is also increasingly pressing against the backdrop of longer life expectancies.
If I had a chance to be a youth again, I would totally study agriculture now, because it is fun, dynamic, and you are solving real problems. My advice would be to explore as much as you can. It is so much more interesting and fulfilling to earn a degree or attend vocational training in this field now, as compared to the traditional fields like economics or chemistry.
As embedded players in the industry, it feels like we are on the cusp of a revolution, especially with how fervently the Singaporean government is committed to this, and that is exhilarating. The Economic Development Board (EDB), Enterprise Singapore, and Singapore Food Agency (SFA) have been doing consultations across the world to learn more about the industry.
The increasing momentum points to how this is going to be an amazing career choice in Singapore. We still face roadblocks but they are constantly being removed. Singapore is the first country where all these nascent technologies are being approved, and these clearly demonstrate the government’s commitment.
The new agritech offerings from Republic Polytechnic, NTU and NUS are in themselves all Singaporean meta-solutions to this challenge of food insecurity that affects Singapore in unique ways.
I truly believe that the “30 by 30” food production target is just a start. We need to be so good that we become a net food exporter – the Holland of Asia. It is all about building an entire ecosystem of diverse players contributing to agritech – be it through research, finance, sales and more. We need to develop not just individual companies, but also the next generation of outstanding people, in order to invent the next method or technology, or something entirely new that we cannot even fathom yet.
Even something that seems as routine as approaching a venture capitalist (VC) is being turned on its head. You can now enter a school laboratory and play with the chemistry of something you are thinking about. You can then approach VCs and say “Hey I’ve figured this out, and I’m going to turn it into a business”. This proof of concept is worth more than its weight in gold – so much more convincing than boring PowerPoint slides.
Prior to entering the industry, I had spent decades in corporate life, and the boring presentations just drove me up the wall. What I love about startups is that we can just talk about our ideas in the lift, in the car, or write it on a napkin, and it gets done.
Your parents may disapprove if you tell them you want to be a farmer, but it is so much more than that. Remember that Singapore is an agritech nation, not an agrarian nation. It is about being an environmentalist, a food scientist, and an entrepreneur.
If this is a career path that you are interested in, let me assure you that it definitely has a future. If you are proficient at what you do and can come up with creative ideas to solve problems, there are definitely incredible career and entrepreneurial opportunities here in Singapore, and the opportunities arrive here earlier than anywhere else in the world.
Stockpiling is an important but insufficient solution.
The world is changing, and it is changing very rapidly. Everyone is familiar with the disruption of Ukraine’s grain exports, but we also have issues in Sri Lanka, Romania and India, with the latter suffering from a drought then a flood.
We may be able to increase our food production capacity with new factories in Tuas, to better weather disruptions like Covid-19, but it cannot be the only way to solve our problems.
One other solution is to have a digital twin – a virtual representation of where all of our food comes from. While we target “30 by 30”, we also want to be able to track the complete life cycle and movement of the remaining 70%, which are our imported food supplies, starting from farms, to shelves, to plates.
The pandemic forced us to learn to be on our toes and agile. We need to have visibility of the entire supply chain in order to be responsive. Having visibility means knowing exactly where our food sources are, tracking the movement of food right from the start, and being able to confidently forecast into the future.
Sometimes in supermarkets you are told that there are no strawberries or blueberries available due to seasonality, but truth be told it is often not an issue of the lack of supply, but rather the inability to visualise where the potential suppliers might be.
One experience I had in the past was being a fruit importer, where I sourced avocados from multiple countries and brought millions of dollars worth of the fruit into China. I thought that as the largest player, I would make a handsome profit. Yet, because I failed to achieve complete visibility over the movement of my goods, I ended up suffering a loss instead.
Hence, the visibility a digital twin offers is critical.
Tap on the wide range of resources offered by tertiary institutions across Singapore. To quote an example, Republic Polytechnic has many relevant resources. They have been establishing agritech teams and task forces, delving into a wide range of options, be they vegetables, meats or food technology. They also offer a Diploma in Biotechnology and a Specialist Diploma in Agritechnology and Agribusiness (see: https://www.rp.edu.sg/sas/industry/agriculture-research-and-innovation-centre/education-and-training).
Republic Polytechnic’s diploma is also extremely comprehensive, covering everything from cultivation, to diseases, finances, sales, business, and even blockchain. This course would be suitable for those who are keen on understanding the agriculture industry from a macro point of view.
In recent years, NTU also introduced a new undergraduate course in alternative meats, and jointly offers the Food Science & Technology degree with Wageningen University from the Netherlands. A lot of food science work is being done in NUS too, with the example of NUS Enterprise setting up the NUS Agritech Centre in September 2021.
On another note, do talk to your professors and seniors – networking can begin from the wide networks within your school. Read up as much as possible about this newly-emerging ecosystem before entering the industry. Food science could be a useful field for you to explore. Keeping abreast of the market landscape and new developments by reading industry reports is also crucial for those keen on joining the industry.
Courses are great, but get hands-on experience as well, especially with schools often promoting work attachment. It is good to intersperse your seminars with practical experience. See how things are done in the real world, learn what you can, figure out what you can do better, then be brave and start your own company from there.
Cast your pride aside and get your hands dirty. Companies like ours do not judge people based on their socio-economic background. If someone comes in willing to learn, we encourage them along the way. If they show aptitude in plant science and agronomy, we will focus on developing their talents there, but if they are content with hands-on farming or packing, that is fine too!
The first port of call is definitely Enterprise Singapore, because the government organises its grants such that Enterprise Singapore is the main issuer, and hence likely your first point of contact.
We are very privileged that Singapore has an efficient funding system, and the first angel in Singapore tends to be the government. Around $30,000 to $50,000 worth of funding may be provided, depending on the project.
Startup SG offers a wide range of support, including loans, mentorship and infrastructure. There is also theme-specific funding, such as SFA’s Singapore Food Story R&D Programme.
SGInnovate has launched initiatives like Deep Tech for Good and The Digital Feed, and is emerging as a platform for agritech businesses to collaborate and scale up.
Jobs in individual disciplines like logistics and marketing remain essential. However, the jobs that are up-and-coming are those that require an interplay of disciplines, such as plant science, nutrition, and artificial intelligence. People in these jobs try to answer such questions – How do you manipulate a plant such that it can produce more, and healthier, food than its counterpart growing in the wild? How do you improve automation in order to better produce food and track it from farm to table?
We are going to need many more people who are passionate about food. Singapore has many modern labs and accelerators, but we need more bioprocess engineers, biotechnicians, biochemists, and bioengineers.
One of the most severe bottlenecks for start-ups is that we have a hard time scaling up, because we lack the people capable in operations. We need people who can work at scale, and people who can meld technical expertise with operations.
We need people who can apply the STEM disciplines into their work, including computer science and biology. Even lessons from medicine are relevant – such as how to structure fish tissue, or introducing Omega-3 naturally into a cell culture. As we scale up, we increasingly need people who can operationalise such scientific developments.
To grow this industry, more people will be required to take on jobs with regulators and the government, as well as compliance teams in non-profits.
The investment potential of the industry will correspondingly grow, and there will be jobs with venture capitalists specialising in agritech, as well as more generalised private equity firms.