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Tapping into food innovation opportunities in SE Asia [Interview]

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Venture capital can play a critical role in turning bright ideas into commercially viable products. Andrew D. Ive, founder of Big Idea Ventures, a global fund, discusses overcoming startup challenges, and how venture capital is helping startups in Southeast Asia to tap into emerging opportunities.
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Big Idea Ventures is a venture capital fund with startup accelerators in New York and Singapore, investing in and accelerating top performers in the new food space.

“We aim to support the world’s best entrepreneurs,” explains Ive. 
“We’re building an ecosystem of the most innovative companies, corporate partners, great experts and business mentors throughout the value chain. We think that the future of food technologies will only be successful by bringing together the right ecosystem of innovators, partners and thought leaders”.

Tapping opportunities in SE Asia

Big Idea Ventures works in all regions, with a key focus on investing in alternative protein and breakthrough food innovation. While Southeast Asia is at an earlier stage of innovation than other regions, it is catching up fast, and thus offers exciting market entry opportunities. Between 2012 and 2016, new vegetarian and vegan product launches increased by 140% and 440% respectively in Southeast Asia alone.

“Plant-based meats is a promising category as people look to cut down their meat consumption and have great tasting, well priced, healthier plant-based versions of the product they’ve grown up loving,” says Ive. “There is increased demand for vegetarian and vegan products, and we believe that plant-based chicken and duck may be a significant opportunity”.

One of the companies in BIV’s portfolio, Karana, recently launched Asia’s first indulgent whole-plant-based meat brand with its first product — ‘pork’ made from young jackfruit. Another company, Gaia Foods, is Southeast Asia's first biotech company focused on producing cell culture-based red meats that are widely consumed in Asia.

Another portfolio company, Worth The Health (WTH) Foods, has created plant-based Filipino-inspired favourites using local and sustainable ingredients. Meanwhile, China-based Zhenmeat is targeting Chinese consumers by creating meatballs for hotpot and traditional ‘meat’ mooncakes. Innovative companies are also using fermentation technologies to produce novel ingredients, including protein, fats, gelatin, etc.

Southeast Asia is also now at the forefront when it comes to regulatory approval for cell-based meat, with Eat Just receiving approval to commercialise its cultured chicken bites in Singapore.

“The Singapore government in particular is committed to developing the alternative protein ecosystem,”  says Ive.

The country recently launched its 30-by-30 initiative, which aims to produce 30% of its nutritional needs locally by 2030. This will help the local food ecosystem, reduce food miles, and help Singapore to protect itself against external supply chain disruptions.

Supporting inspired ideas

Ive and his team look for entrepreneurs and startups that are not only tapping into these trends, but also for ones that are passionate about bringing big ideas that will help to solve significant challenges.

“While unique IP is important, the other side of the equation is just as critical — a strong and passionate team who will not quit until they deliver their big idea to the world,”  says Ive.

As with any market, understanding the consumer profile is key, and Southeast Asia is no different. A startup looking to succeed has to understand who exactly they are serving, what appeals to these consumers, and how to get the product to them.

“Startups may encounter regulatory hurdles, especially for products that contain novel ingredients,” says Ive. “These startups need to work closely with the local government agencies to seek guidance on the regulatory requirements”.

Finally, a food tech startup should always start with the consumer as their focus.

“Bring a great tasting product that consumers love to market, at a price that is attractive, then you will be successful,” says Ive. “Companies should try to bring something new to their market, an aspect which gives their consumers a better product than previously available while delivering the tastes and flavours they’ve grown up loving in a more sustainable way”.
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