In the not-too-distant future, Eugene Wong envisions Singaporeans eating nasi lemak with crispy deep-fried grasshoppers instead of ikan bilis. The nasi lemak itself would come out of a pod resembling cup noodles – agitated in a microwave-like device that turns its freeze-dried contents into fluffy coconut rice and sambal. And then, at Christmas, families could sit down to a lovingly cooked dinner featuring a labgrown piece of chicken.
The mild-mannered 51-year-old is not a doomsday prophet (at least for those who live to eat) but a venture capitalist with an appetite for what one might consider crazy food. Even as Singapore ramps up its efforts in the agri-technology food space with a slate of high-profile projects from vertical farms to cultured seafood, Mr Wong has been at it for the past four years, funding food technology startups that he says will dictate the future of food.
Once a ‘normal’ venture capitalist who started out investing in F&B ventures – the founder of Sirius Venture Capital was one of the earliest investors in Ajisen Ramen in China and led the public listing of Japan Foods Holding – known for having the largest collection of ramen brands in Singapore (including Ajisen and Afuri). He also seed-funded Taste Paradise and e-commerce site Reebonz, not to mention having investments in the whole vertical chain of F&B including kitchen equipment manufacturer Q’Son, Neo Catering Group and pork processing company OJJ Foods. Before he started Sirius, he “stumbled” into a private equity venture capital firm where he was 30 years old, after spending 12 years in the navy. He learned the ropes of investing and now manages his own fund, with about 12 startup companies currently in his portfolio.
So the obvious question is: Why grasshoppers?
Four years ago, I felt that the global technology disruption would come into the food space. I was a board member in the AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority) for seven years and my view is that Singapore needs to be food self-sufficient. We don’t produce anything but with technology we can be self-sustaining. So I invested in an Israeli startup Hargol, which farms grasshoppers. There are already a billion people in the world who eat insects as a staple – Thailand, Zimbabwe and Mexico. You can even find grasshoppers in Japan but it’s very expensive, over US$100. It’s a clean, alternative source of protein. With an ageing population, growing heart problems and high cholesterol issues associated with meat, insects are a viable solution.
The problem is, will people eat it? It’s actually quite tasty, like a crunchy snack, if you can get over the face and the wings.
My younger son says there is no way grasshoppers will make it in Singapore that’s why we’re producing it in powdered form as a supplement and making gummies out of it. We are currently producing about one to two tonnes. The demand is quite high but we can’t produce enough. The biggest problem is how to farm grasshoppers because they grow in the wild. So growing them in a confined space is a big challenge. I’m also pushing Hargol to do more studies on its health benefits because people are not going to eat it just for the protein. But they will eat it if it has proven health benefits. We have some anecdotal examples but no scientific proof to back it up, so that’s what we are working on.
You’ve also invested in another Israeli company, SuperMeat, which is working to produce lab-grown chicken. And another company called Genie, which freeze-dries restaurant quality meals into pods that can then be ‘warmed up’ in a machine to produce a gourmet meal at home without any cooking.
There was a day when I was out grocery shopping with my son and I asked him if he could choose between lab-grown chicken that looks and tastes like the real thing, versus a freshly-killed bird, what would he pick? He said it would be the lab-grown chicken. Why? Because animal cruelty is one thing which the younger generation is very concerned with. It’s one of the reasons why veganism is catching on so strongly, especially in Europe. And Israel (where he is investing substantially in foodtech startups) is the second biggest vegan country after India. And I believe that if the Genie (the name of the freeze-dried meal invention) takes off, you won’t need a kitchen anymore, because with this and Deliveroo and hawker centres, you don’t need to cook at home, and you save space. And how food is cooked, delivered and what new ingredients are on the table will change how we eat and make us healthier.
(Related: Heston Blumenthal on sustainability)
But aren’t you leaving out the whole joy of eating?
My theory is that because of our lifestyle, food will be classified in three ways. One involves eating on the run (where healthy protein snacks come in); another is when you’re meeting people for quick food and drinks and there’s a need for quick healthy food; and then the third which is where you can enjoy a fine dining meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant – that won’t go away. But the way the world eats will change, so there is a need to source new ingredients and ways to produce food. The key is that if the world cannot get sustainable ingredients, then we are in trouble.
What drives you to do this?
Health, sustainability of the food supply and also the protection of the environment. Lab-grown meat hasn’t been produced yet and at the end of the day whether it will be affordable and taste the same has still to be found out. But if it does work, it will greatly change the way animals are farmed and killed. I don’t have the answer but I know it’s a worthwhile venture to invest in.
You don’t seem to be a conventional VC where financial returns are everything.
Some call us ‘vulture capital’. But what makes a good VC is that you need to believe in the entrepreneur and help them to grow. You’re like a farmer, you’re planting the seed and nurturing it. Unlike other VCs in Singapore, we invest our own balance sheet, we don’t manage money. I don’t have business partners so that means I can decide when to exit, and also I can make the decisions who to invest in. Over the years, I’ve seen how growing the investment for a startup can change the lives of their families when they do well. But I have also seen entrepreneurs whose lives have been destroyed by a bad venture. So as a good VC we try to guide them, so the probability of failure is reduced. So that is what I like doing.
What has your track record been like and how do you pick your investments?
A lot of it is instinct. I’ve been in the industry for a long time. For example with Hargol, I didn’t even meet the guy, I spoke to him over Skype and wired him the money. Of course, this kind of faith investing isn’t perfect. In the last four years, two out of my 12 companies went bust. So there will be error. But overall, it’s not a bad result.
What’s the ideal investment that you’re still looking for?
Sometimes as a VC I have many wild ideas. I remember watching a Star Wars movie when the Jedi character was running away – she put something in a bowl, added water and it became food. So I saw that and I wanted to invest in something like that. So you have a crazy idea and you meet an entrepreneur who shares the same thinking and you get excited and invest. I think for my next venture, I’m looking for someone who can take water and turn it into wine. That would be really cool.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.