Innovation in Food Technology Singapore

Innovation in Food Technology Singapore

John Cheng has extended Cheng Yew Heng’s sugar company and expanded to help startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the broader food market.

SUGAR producer Cheng Yew Heng has come full circle in recent years, reverting to its beginnings as a candy maker. However, the firm’s circle has undoubtedly expanded beyond the bounds of sugar and confectionery under the cautious supervision of John Cheng, third-generation company owner and director. Through clever alliances, it has been able to repackage its confectionery selection.

Beyond that, Mr Cheng launched the Innovate 360 Innovation Hub, a food accelerator aimed at assisting food-tech firms and catalyzing innovation. Cheng Yew Heng may invest in and work with the ecosystem’s companies.

Along with the accelerator, Mr Cheng launched Feed 9 Billion, an open platform dedicated to assisting in the discovery of solutions to global hunger, and foodculture.sg, a website dedicated to assisting SMEs in the food industry in selling and marketing their goods online. He was nominated for The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2021 earlier this year.

Mr Cheng had the concept for Innovate 360 some years ago as he was examining methods to develop Cheng Yew Heng’s fledgling retail firm.

“I was in the process of developing retail channels. We reasoned, why not use startupsfi? I’d accompanied Enterprise Singapore on a tour of Europe in search of innovation. I reasoned that entrepreneurs may be able to build things for us… It’s a win-win situation. They will have access to our facilities and network, and we may become distributors for them.” Innovate 360 was the first of its type in Singapore when it opened in 2018, he claims, featuring production facilities, test kitchens, labs, and coworking spaces.

“We distinguish ourselves by providing market access. Additionally, we are paying it forward. Throughout the first 12 years of my business career, I relied on a variety of partners, including polytechnics and universities, to help create my enterprise… I pondered – how can we assist more entrepreneurs in scaling and being integrated into their businesses? We would reimagine our company and our presence in the process.”

Cheng Yew Heng was started in 1947 and initially sold a variety of candies including Hawthorne and sour plum. Due to competition from China, the second generation concentrated on rock sugar and red and black sugar. Today, the third generation continues to make and market the firm’s staples of rock sugar, red sugar, and black sugar. Jewel Rock Sugar Sticks are offered alone or in bundles with Hook Coffee or The 1872 Clipper Co Tea. Hook Coffee is an Innovate 360 startup.

MR Cheng asserts that he did not anticipate joining the company. He studied business administration at Singapore Management University and interned at a bank after his graduation in 2007. He was dragged into the company by his ill father.

“For the first couple of years, I spent a lot of effort automating and modernizing the firm. I have no prior knowledge of sugar or production. It was a struggle, and I enlisted the assistance of several partners and organizations to assist me in comprehending and learning.”

Since then, the firm has expanded to include operations in China, Hong Kong, and Japan. It operates out of a factory on Chin Bee Drive that was remodeled in the late 1990s to increase its floor area from 30,000 to over 90,000 square feet.

A portion of the room was converted into the first Innovate 360 unit. Innovate 360 @ SMC Nutrition Hub is the second unit. Two further food factories are currently under construction that include Citrine Foodland and Foodfab @ Mandai

Innovate 360 now has 40 firms, including combynation, which makes kombucha; Turtletree Labs, which develops lab-based milk; and Asia Insect Farm Solutions, which develops protein from unconventional sources such as insects. Innovate 360 is home to businesses in four distinct “verticals”: food sustainability; consumer packaged products; deep technology; and agri-tech.

“Not every one of the 40 companies need office or manufacturing space. However, we assist them in a variety of ways, including market access, connections, and complimentary programs… This location is in high demand since it serves as a one-stop shop.

Since our inception, we have completely filled the area without advertising. Hopefully, during the next three to five years, we will have between one and two million square feet of space available.”

The assistance includes a mentoring program. Shuichi Sato of Phoon Huat and Michelle Cheo of Mewah Group are among the mentors.

Mr Cheng notes that Innovate 360 businesses are often “ready to scale,” which implies they already have a product and are searching for manufacturing space. However, some others want R&D support as well.

SUSTAINABILITY is a recurring theme in Mr Cheng’s endeavors. “While we passionately believe in giving back, we are not as invested in CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives. At the time of my father and grandparents, sustainability meant cost-cutting. We recycled every garbage generated by the plant. Nowadays, the more enticing phrase is upcycling. Sustainability was all about cost savings.” For example, Cheng Yew Heng’s packaging is biodegradable.

“Innovate 360 enables us to expand our sustainable impact. The majority of companies integrate varying degrees of sustainability into their operations.”

He launched Feed 9 Billion in 2018 as an open food ecosystem comprised of entrepreneurs, corporations, universities, and government agencies dedicated to advancing food sustainability and innovation. Its objective is to assist the United Nations in achieving its goal of feeding the world’s 9.8 billion people by 2050. While global resources are available to feed 1.5 times the world’s population, over 800 million people continue to lack access to healthy food.

In collaboration with the APAC branch of The Good Food Institute, the organization has developed a Good Food Startup Manual that details the processes necessary to launch a plant-based or clean meat business. The guidebook is free to download and includes tips from clean meat specialists and businesses. Innovate 360 is a key partner of Feed 9 Billion.

YET another project is the foodculture.sg portal, which was created this year to support local companies’ e-commerce sales. Initially motivated by Cheng Yew Heng’s aim to develop in e-commerce, the concept has evolved into a multi-brand venture.

“Cheng Yew Heng required the travel retail industry in Singapore, but this was damaged by Covid. Rather than just creating a website for our Jewel brand, we decided to aid startups and our relationships, such as our suppliers and consumers. As a result, we established foodculture.sg. We need to assist businesses in becoming digital and expanding outside Singapore. For this initiative, we collaborated closely with Enterprise Singapore.”

The platform’s aims are threefold: to assist food SMEs in selling items online; to connect with consumers through digital marketing; and to eventually go worldwide by connecting them with distributors.

Meanwhile, Mr Cheng’s initiatives have benefited the firm by increasing its image in the domains of innovation and sustainability, which could help it recruit a younger workforce. However, modernizing Cheng Yew Heng’s firm was initially a difficult task. Among the changes he introduced were a five-day work week, down from a five-and-a-half-day work week earlier, and an employee benefits scheme that included leave days.

“I quickly realized how conventional the industry was. I previously worked at a bank with several processes and procedures. I decided that the best course of action would be to assist the organization in becoming more contemporary. I spent several years attempting to comprehend the industry and enrolling in many courses to educate myself. That is where I met individuals and expanded my network, which has been critical in assisting me in establishing what we have today.”

Mr Cheng indicates that he has started to prepare for succession and the fourth generation. “You must instill entrepreneurial spirit in the future generation… You must always think entrepreneurially and creatively.

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