“My food pyramid was… a New York slice,” confesses Vikas Garg, recalling his childhood staple of a cheese-laden wedge of pizza. Today, the founder and CEO of abillion – an online ecosystem for the global plant-based movement – is an advocate for a vegan diet and lifestyle.

Born in India to a vegetarian family, he moved to America when he was four. In 2008, he decided to go vegan.

It was around that time that his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and his dad, heart disease. “How did two seemingly healthy people who neither drink nor smoke get so sick?” he asked. “I started thinking about cholesterol and saturated fat and the role food plays in our health.

During that time, scientific research on the effect of our diet on conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart health also started surfacing. It was a wake-up call for me.”

(Related: Shiok Meats CEO Sandya Sriram says it’s time to start rethinking the way we consume meats and seafood)

Garg also acquired his first pet dog in 2008. “My dog was a huge emotional support for me when my dad’s heart problems hit a climax in 2009, and it is with my pet that I had the most emotionally complex relationship,” shares Garg. “This confluence of factors – the traumatic health issues faced by my parents, and my new awareness of animals as sentient beings – put me on the path of becoming a vegan.”

One might think that it’s no big deal for a vegetarian to turn vegan, but the reality could not have been more different. He would go to his favourite restaurants and realise that there was nothing he could eat. Veganism is a philosophy that extends far beyond food choices. He had to give up the leather jackets and dress shoes he loved. It also became challenging for those closest to him. “My girlfriend, who is now my wife, came from a very red meat-eating family in Colorado. She never signed up to be a vegan.”

The challenges Garg experienced during his journey towards veganism were an inspiration when he decided to start his own business. “I could have started a hedge fund or a venture fund. But did the world need someone like me to start another fund? What if I could take everything I learnt and do something different?” says the hedge fund manager who relocated to Singapore from California in 2014.

In 2017, he quit to build a tech product that would impact positive social change through encouraging more sustainable consumption. He literally started from scratch by enrolling in a three-month coding boot camp. “I was the oldest and worst student in class!” A lean team was put together in July 2017 and by November, a nascent form of abillion was launched.

(Related: Meet the entrepreneur who grew a tech start-up from zero to $100 million in five years)

“I could have started a hedge fund or a venture fund. But did the world need someone like me to start another fund? What if I could take everything I learnt and do something different?”

Vikas Garg on the inspiration behind abillion

By 2019, the platform had secured US$2 million (S$2.6 million) in seed funding – the largest for a social impact start-up in Singapore. And that engineering team with just a couple of guys Garg recruited from coding boot camp is now a 10-strong, cherry-picked bunch of talents from big tech companies the likes of Alibaba, Amazon and Grab.

From a review platform that gives voice to those actively seeking vegan options, abillion has also branched into data research. Leveraging on an exponentially growing amount of consumer information about sustainability, it currently has over 300,000 users from over 140 countries from which 10,000 members review and discover plant-based items daily.

“The vegan movement has evolved in leaps and bounds because of people’s incredible access to information. Our user reviews help them find the best options available. Also, by sharing their feedback, we help businesses address consumer demands and trends,” adds Garg.

Beyond an accelerator for consumer products and platforms, abillion is also exploring the next steps of becoming an incubator for start-ups and investors of changemakers in the vegan ecosystem. “The long-term goal is to be the global platform and ecosystem for conversations and transactions in the vegan ecosystem. We want to do for the vegan marketplace what Etsy has done for the handicraft consumer space. And, although I’d like to think that abillion has helped to change the vegan landscape, we’re just doing our work.”

This is just the beginning for abillion, says Garg. “When I created this business, I knew I’d found something that I could spend the next 30 to 40 years getting right. It is a platform that allows me to do different things. At the same time, it constantly connects me to my values and the ecosystem I belong to. Beyond that, it is also something that also allows others to build on for decades to come.” And that is a truly sustainable business model.

(Related: How UBS is leading the way in the sustainable finance arena)

The Peak is working with Money FM 89.3 to interview The Peak’s Next Gen personalities on radio. Listen to Vikas’s segment below.