3rd-Gen Sugar Maker Helps Foodtechs Make Global Impact

John Cheng, founder of Innovate 360, explains how the accelerator is empowering over 80 startups to tackle food security and sustainability issues.

By SGN | 13 Oct 2022

Photo: The Straits Times

“When I was a little boy, I used to follow my father to the factory and he would say, ‘Don’t worry. If you don’t do well in school, you can always come to the factory and ‘knock’ rock sugar.’ That was something I didn’t want, so I went to study,” John shares with a smile.

The factory in question belongs to Cheng Yew Heng, a 75-year-old sugar manufacturer in Singapore founded by John’s grandfather. Its name, a combination of his surname ( Cheng) and the characters for ‘friendship’ (Yew) and ‘prosperity’ ( Heng), expresses the company’s desire to build relationships with staff and partners and achieve success together. 

After graduation, John started a career in banking, but he ended up joining the family business in 2008, during a period when his father’s health was failing, shortly before he passed away.

Over the next few years, John became the face of the business and oversaw its modernisation drive – implementing systems and processes, refreshing its branding, introducing B2C product lines.

“As a next-generation business owner, finding your passion is very important,” he remarks. “Sometimes you are thrown into a business that might not resonate with you.” For John, that passion was in innovation – discovering newer and better ways of doing things.

During this process, the company’s belief in building relationships evolved into a love for widespread collaboration, be it partnering educational institutions to improve manufacturing processes or tying up with another heritage brand to create retail bundles that pair rock sugar sticks with tea sachets. “Collaboration helps us leverage other people’s strengths to fill the gaps in our knowledge and capabilities,” John says.

John joined the family business when his father’s health was failing. (Photo: The Straits Times)

Incubating foodtechs of the future

John shifted his focus entirely to launching Innovate 360, a platform for nurturing food startups. Initially, its purpose was twofold. “Innovate 360 was a way for us to pay it forward and help other businesses while tapping on startups to create new products to distribute through our channels,” he explains.

Soon after, John noticed how most of the startups coming to Innovate 360 shared a concern for sustainability. One of the earliest applicants was Shiok Meats, the world’s first cell-based crustacean meat company. 

“They came to us wanting to grow shrimp meat in the lab. We didn’t know much about this field,” he recalls. “Six months later, I got to try the world’s most expensive siew mai, which cost $5,000 per kg, at Grand Hyatt. We were mindblown.

John was amazed when he first tried siew mai made with cell-based shrimp by Shiok Meats.

As more cutting-edge scientists and founders approached Singapore’s oldest sugar company to help create the food of tomorrow, John realised the immense opportunity for making meaningful impact. Innovate 360 started to invest in these startups and developed a 12-month accelerator programme, with a pool of about 30 mentors of varied expertise.

Startup innovation has also benefited the family business. Though Cheng Yew Heng has always minimised waste – making jaggery from a byproduct of rock sugar production and reusing raw sugar packaging to ship finished product – Innovate 360 startups have helped to further green its operations by tapping cleaner energy sources, improving water management, and adopting biodegradable packaging.

Providing infrastructure to scale

“The biggest challenge we help startups overcome is scaling up,” John notes. “You can come up with a great idea. But to scale, you need big factories, you need contract manufacturers, you need logistics, you need distribution.”

Because of their extensive links across the food industry, Innovate 360 is in an influential position to provide infrastructure for startup innovation, connecting founders with suppliers, distributors, customers, co-manufacturers, corporations, and other ecosystem builders.

They linked up Karana – a producer of alternative meat made from jackfruit – with a company that makes dumplings in Singapore, and now Karana’s plant-based meat dumplings are served in restaurants in Singapore, Hong Kong and the US. 

Furthermore, Innovate 360 is building facilities to house startups and cater to their various requirements. Each property has a different focus, ranging from F&B to lab tech to nutrition to manufacturing.

The incubator’s doors are always open to founders, even those who don’t join their programme. “We support each startup however we can, based on their needs. That’s why we are the perfect platform for a lot of foreign companies to enter Asia,” John says, adding that their roster includes startups from Israel, America, India and Australia.

This year, to extend their reach and expand their capacity for impact, Innovate 360 launched a $30 million Asia Food Sustainability Fund. “It is very rewarding to see startups grow, and to continually learn from them,” he remarks

“It is very rewarding to see startups grow, and to continually learn from them,” John says.

Gearing up for global impact

According to John, technology is critical in tackling food security issues, especially in dense urban spaces like Singapore.

“With innovation, you are able to raise the efficiency of food production – growing vegetables with less resources, for example – while combating climate change. It can also improve human nutrition, through the introduction of probiotics and protein-rich foods.”

He envisions Singapore as a hub of impact-driven and impact-making foodtech startups. “Out of 9.8 billion people in the world we need to feed by 2050, 5.5 billion are in Asia. And here in Singapore is where you can really create impact,” John says. “It’s the gateway to Asia. We have strong government support, it’s easy to connect with big corporations and family offices here, and people trust the Singapore brand.” 

Innovate 360 startups are increasingly making waves beyond Singapore’s shores. Examples include Confetti, whose vegetable chips made from ugly produce are retailed in the US; HaruPlate, which is venturing into Malaysia with its wholesome baby sauces and jams; and Hegg, a plant-based egg alternative that is available in Hong Kong and the US.

John envisions Singapore as a hub of impact-driven and impact-making foodtech startups.

With an eye on the global market, the accelerator intends to expand across Southeast Asia and East Asia, empowering even more foodtech startups to create a better world and improve lives through technology.

“It’s about bringing everyone together, tapping on everybody’s strengths, collaborating with partners to help our startups succeed. That’s what I believe so strongly in and what I am truly passionate about.”

About John

John is the founder of Innovate 360, a foodtech startup accelerator. He is also the chair of Feed 9 Billion, a platform that raises awareness of food sustainability and promotes innovation through public-private collaborations.

Connect with him here.

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