Updated 9 Sep 2021 / By SGN
Vikas Garg, Founder and CEO of abillion left his high-flying career at one of the world’s largest hedge funds in 2017 for a new mission — to inspire a billion people to go vegan in the next decade. He’s never looked back since.
An innovation inspired by frustration
Raised vegetarian since birth, Vikas started his vegan journey in 2008. With a vegan diet, his dining options appeared to be further restricted, which was pronounced as he travelled extensively in his previous career.
“I’ve been here in Asia for six years. Part of the reason why I started this app was out of my own frustration.”
“I used to go on a lot of business trips to Tokyo with my old firm. My clients would then take me to Indian restaurants because I’m Indian. I love Indian food, but I don’t want to have Indian food in Tokyo!” Vikas laughed.
“So that got me thinking. It’s not that vegan options don’t exist, it’s just hard to find them.”
Kicking off his start-up journey in Singapore
After a highly successful financial career in the States, Vikas moved to Singapore in 2015, where he joined Dymon Asia Capital as Managing Director.
Yet Vikas could not deny his desire to contribute more meaningfully to society for long. After two years, he quit his job to pursue his dream of building a sustainability-focused start-up from scratch.
“I was ready to start my own company. I felt there was an opportunity to align my own values and what I care most about in my life with my work,” says Vikas.
“I wanted to create something that helped animals because I love animals, and have been a part of the animal rights movement since a young age. With my company, I wanted to help people close this gap from where being sustainable feels like a sacrifice, to where being sustainable is just doing the right thing.”
Adapting to life as an entrepreneur
His first stop was a three-month coding bootcamp, where he met abillion’s Employee No. 1 – coder Jonathan Ng, where they bonded over a love of food. The duo spent the summer of 2017 at Vikas’ dining table building the app and launched abillionveg – now known as abillion – in May 2018. Today, Jonathan is the Technical Product Manager at abillion.
Yet launching the app was only the beginning. Accustomed to working in large corporations, he learnt to build a company’s reputation and product awareness from scratch in an industry category that was still finding its feet.
I went from being an investor and a banker to being in tech. As a product builder, there’s always that voice inside your head about whether other people really care. You have to remind yourself that it’s working and growing…and growth is also an elusive target because it’s always moving.Vikas Garg, Founder & CEO, abillion
Talent attraction proved to be a key challenge facing the team in the early days – a transition that was particularly humbling for Vikas, who was accustomed to the abundance of talent that naturally flowed to established financial institutions.
“I came from a very privileged career background. Every place I worked at had a great brand and reputation. There were always amazing candidates at the door and the HR team would take care of recruiting.”
“In the first two years when we started up and we were still in the product development phase, it was a really humbling experience,” he recounts.
His perseverance paid off. Today, abillion has raised a total of US$7M in funding over 3 rounds and boasts over 300,000 users across over 140 countries. Last year, abillionveg announced US$2 million in seed funding, which broke records as the largest seed round for a plant-based startup that year in Singapore. abillion is currently in its Series A funding round with the target set at US$10M.
Empowering change, one review at a time
abillion was founded as a data-driven technology company with a mission to empower consumers to transform societies with the reviews they submit. Much of what abillion does starts with its app, empowering its 300,000-strong users across over 140 countries to find healthier, more sustainable options when shopping for food, beauty, and fashion products.
However, Vikas is clear in asserting that this app is not just for vegans. In fact, 65% of its users are flexitarians and omnivores looking to reduce their meat consumption. Such consumption habits are what he hopes to encourage in Singapore and beyond.
“Experiencing Singapore’s food and culture hailing from every corner of Asia has made living in the city truly special. I hope to add a layer to this tapestry by raising awareness of vegan food options with user ratings and reviews.”
Vikas believes that while data has been a driver for business opportunities, it can also be used as an instrument to push for positive societal change. It takes the spirit of door-to-door activism and transforms into a tool for empowerment through technology.
I didn’t just create this platform to be another online community or review site. I created it because I believe we can use data for good.Vikas Garg, Founder & CEO, abillion
Any time a review is generated, anywhere in the world, abillion identifies and uploads contact information about the business. abillion then automatically sends these businesses valuable consumer insights and their own reviews. These reports are accompanied with educational information about the plant-based movement, including information on top vegan dishes from competitors in the area.
“It’s all about informing these businesses with consumer information that helps them transform their menus, which then creates awareness. We’re serving a consumer advocacy function and as we scale, I believe we are going to see change,” Vikas asserts.
A billion reasons for doing better
abillion also donates a dollar every time a member chooses a sustainable option and reviews it on the app, in hopes of inspiring more to adopt healthier and more environmentally friendly habits.
As of September of 2021, this has amounted to nearly US$800,000, with abillion setting its sights on reaching US$1M by the end of the year. In Singapore, abillion is a strong supporter of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES), which rescues and rehabilitates Singapore’s wildlife. ACRES was enrolled as abillion’s partner charity in April 2019, and has received US $17,000 to date.
Trust is a big factor in the vegan and sustainability community. We spend a lot of time building bridges between abillion and organisations that are highly respected in our space around the world.Vikas Garg, Founder & CEO, abillion
“We did what we were supposed to. [We] focused on building the product and a community of early adopters around that,” Vikas says. “I spoke at a lot of events, used social media to get the word out, and built a community that I spent most of my time talking to.
Building inclusive sustainability
However, leading a sustainable lifestyle also brings to the fore the issue of class privilege.
Not everyone can afford to consume consciously, but creating the right incentives can encourage more to come on board. Vikas believes that a big part of helping consumers live more sustainably starts with making the scene more financially sustainable.
“In the last few years, the trend has been to charge more for sustainable options. A perfect example is the surcharge most coffee places charge for soy or oat milk. This has to stop,” he stresses.
Despite the hurdles, Vikas remains hopeful that more Singaporeans will get on board with conscious consumption to lead more sustainable lifestyles.
“We think that 20% or more of Singapore’s population will be vegan by 2030. As for the rest of the world, our goal for abillion is to inspire a billion people to go vegan by 2030,” he says.
Steadily moving towards a sustainable future
The green movement in Singapore is growing, with more and more people becoming conscious of their consumption habits. Local sustainability movements like Earthfest and Green is the New Black are popping up, and sustainability start-ups have taken off.
In recent years, sustainable foodtech start-ups such as cell-based alternative protein start-up Shiok Meats and plant-based protein start-ups Next Gen Foods and Karana have also set up their bases in Singapore.
Vikas has high hopes for Singapore, and expresses that his experience working and living here has been a transformative one.
“It’s been over five years since my wife and I along with our dog moved from California to Singapore,” Vikas shares. “Living in Singapore is like experiencing the best of Asia all in one place. Building a global platform with my teammates that’s making the entire world more sustainable from Singapore has been a highlight.”
“Achieving our sustainability goal will mean healthier, more [environmentally conscious consumers] and a more equitable world where nobody has to go hungry or kill for food.”
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Vikas Garg, originally from India, moved to Singapore in 2015 with his wife and dog to pursue a career with one of the world’s largest hedge funds. In 2017, he founded abillion, a sustainability platform empowering consumers to go vegan one review at a time.
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