This series provides insights into the global array of companies participating in this challenge as innovators or sponsors.
The 13th of this Spotlight Series focuses on Enterprise Singapore, one of the sponsors of this program. Ahead of the grand Finale on the 7th of October, we will profile the other innovations and sponsors of this challenge.
Singapore seeks mantle of futuristic food hub with vertical farms and automated fish barges.
(Singapore) Singapore, a largely urban island nation less than half the size of London, is on its way to becoming a global leader in the food production systems of the future.
The government is trying to attract the brightest minds in agriculture and agtech to create a hub of cutting edge food technologies such as indoor vertical farms and floating barges that raise fish in recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS).
Singapore is virtually starting from scratch when it comes to growing its own food because it doesn’t have a traditional agriculture sector to fall back on. While most Southeast Asian nations invested heavily to modernize their agriculture industries during the last half century, Singapore achieved robust economic growth by pouring resources into banking, manufacturing and shipping. Now the island state is leveraging its prowess in finance and manufacturing to become a hi-tech food producer.
RAS aquaculture farms and vertical farms that grow leafy greens and vegetables in multi-storey, climate controlled buildings have yet to prove they can reliably operate on a commercial scale much less turn a profit. For these technologies to succeed, they need access to financing, modern manufacturing techniques and an ecosystem that attracts top notch scientists.
That’s where government agency Enterprise Singapore (ESG) comes into play. As a statutory board under the Ministry of Trade and Industry, it is tasked with developing local enterprises. This includes creating a vibrant startup ecosystem to groom more tech startups. With support from other government agencies, ESG is at the center of Singapore's efforts to bring together the international experts, bankers, manufacturers and supporting industries required to position Singapore as Asia’s leading agri-food innovation hub.
“ESG wants to make magic happen by having the right connections,” said Eugene Toh, Director of the agency’s Agritech division. “We wanted to see if we can create that space by bringing the right people, and the right technologies, and the right business models, and then we see what happens.”
The government’s goal of producing 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs domestically by 2030 aims to create a supportive environment for that to happen. This will only succeed with the use of advanced technologies that use very little land.
There are early signs that ESG’s efforts are starting to pay off. Archisen, which received an equity investment from The Yield Lab Asia Pacific, uses modern sensors and data-powered IoT to run one of the world’s most modern indoor farms. Another The Yield Lab Asia Pacific investment is Umami Meats, which has created a replacement to fetal bovine serum (FBS is highly expensive, and requires animals to be killed) which is core to current cell based meat production. Umami’s innovation is disruptive to the current use of FBS, and by using crop waste, is circular in design, creating serum-free media and marine cell lines for cost competitive and scalable seafood applications. Another successful startup worth mentioning is Singapore Aquaculture Technologies, which recently completed a Series A financing round worth S$9.2 million (US$ 6.8 million) to build smart floating RAS barges.
Aquaculture Innovation Centre (AIC) is a consortium-modelled Centre of Innovation (COI), funded by Enterprise Singapore and supported by Singapore Food Agency. AIC operates through co-operation and co-sharing of expertise, facilities, intellectual properties, and resources among 11 research institutes, agencies and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to serve the needs of the local aquaculture enterprises for improving farm productivity. The centre, helmed by Dr Lee Chee Wee, Centre Director, is a strategic industry partner and service provider.
“ESG has been instrumental in supporting the aquaculture industry in Singapore through the AIC,” Dr. Lee said. “The mission of AIC is to close the loop in sustainable, super intensive aquaculture for Singapore through better nutrition, rapid detection of disease and genetic selection of stress resistant animals in coming years.”
With modern research centers like AIC in place, ESG focuses on nurturing the broader agriculture and aquaculture ecosystem to ensure that the individual parts can thrive. For example, it’s still a challenge to convince young people to choose a career in modern agriculture over finance, said Toh.
The use of agtech industry venture capital funds and attracting accelerators such as The Yield Lab Asia Pacific and their Global Aquaculture Challenge, are two strategies Singapore is pursuing to create a domestic pool of skilled talent. The Global Aquaculture Challenge picked a short list of eight companies with innovative technologies from 180 applications.
After the better part of a year of working with The Yield Lab Asia Pacific and its network of the best thought leaders in Aquaculture, the winners will be announced October 7th with prizes in excess of $1.6 million including a cash Grand Prize.
“It’s an important plank in our strategy to ensure that we have accelerators where we can foster innovation by bringing in different players and experts,” Toh said of the challenge. “That’s one area where we can have a compendium of ideas looking at what is relevant to Singapore and vice versa, seeing what Singaporean companies can contribute to the world.”
Another leg of ESG’s strategy of creating a food technology hub is creating a welcoming environment for the world’s agtech investors to set up in Singapore, and to use it as a base to look at the region.
“That requires getting a lot of the supporting elements right,” Toh said. One example is educating Singapore’s financial institutions on the nuances of agtech investment, which typically requires a longer period of time to achieve return on investment, he said.
ESG, through its investment arm SEEDS Capital, has skin in the game with more than S$90 million budgeted to invest in local start-ups and foreign companies with cutting edge technology willing to base their operations out of Singapore.
Innovative Singapore-based enterprises or high growth startups can also leverage its Enterprise Financing Scheme (EFS) to finance their growth through venture debt and warrants; the risk-sharing scheme enables the enterprises to access financing more readily from participating financial institutions.
6 Oct 2021.
Matt Craze and Oriana Aguillon, Spheric Research.