Portfolio Highlight: Alternative-Protein Innovator, Sophie’s BioNutrients

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Congratulations to Sophie’s BioNutrients, accelerated by Brinc in Spring 2021, on its recent selection as a semi-finalist in the Better Nutrition category of World Food Forum’s “Startup Innovation Awards,” powered by Extreme Tech Challenge.

The WFF’s global startup competition, to showcase innovators harnessing the power of technology to drive the sustainable transformation of agrifood systems, supports tackling the issue of global hunger and achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Brinc takes this opportunity to speak with Eugene Wang, co-founder and CEO of Sophie’s BioNutrients, the first FoodTech company to use microalgae and patent-pending technologies to develop 100% plant-based and sustainable protein alternatives. We discover the joys and challenges of his founder journey, and his take on the urgency to scale the alternative-protein industry…

1. Congratulations on being selected as a semi-finalist in the Extreme Tech Challenge x World Food Forum’s “Startup Innovation Awards,” in partnership with the FAO. What key message would you like to deliver on this prominent industry stage?

Eugene Wang: Microbial fermentation is still relatively new and unfamiliar to most investors; and microalgae fermentation is even less known and understood by most people. Therefore, it is important for us to use any opportunity to tell the world why the technologies we are developing are important for the future of protein production — a future that will boom in three to five years’ time. Decoupling protein supply from arable land while reducing the environmental footprint is an essential part of our mission. We see this WFF award nomination as a wonderful way for us to spread education and awareness for what we do, why and how we do it.

2. As we look back from your initial 2017 launch until now, tell us about your biggest pivot in your startup journey…

EW: The biggest pivot is definitely our move to Europe [announced in May this year], even though we are still a Singapore-based company. There are three main reasons why we need to do our work in Europe:

(1) Talent: The first COVID vaccine was developed in Europe. Why? The most biotech talents are in Europe — not just ones with degrees, but also ones with vast experience.

(2) Ecosystem: This also has to do with the first reason. In Europe, you can easily find companies who can help you design your biotech process, or to make or rent the equipment you need, or set up a plant. 

(3) Borderless: Unlike Asia, you don’t need to wait for weeks or even months to get a piece of machine shipped, such as from Germany to the Netherlands. A borderless Europe means equipment and talents can flow quickly within the continent. That saves a lot of time, money and bureaucratic red tape. For Sophie’s BioNutrients, we managed to scale up our technologies to commercial scale within just three months after moving operations to Europe.

3. Growth and scaling anything “alternative” is always a challenge. Regarding your company’s expertise – using your proprietary strain of microalgae to produce food-grade alternative protein – what are the immediate hurdles that must be overcome in order to scale?

EW: The first hurdle is the protection of our IPs. The strains of microalgae we developed are difficult to be protected as patents. Therefore, we have to guard them as trade secrets.

The second challenge is the lack of fermentation facilities to produce what we need. Not only is the capacity that we have on this planet not enough, but the ones that exist also are not with the correct designs for what we need. Most of the current fermentation facilities are designed for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries — whose needs are very different to that of the food industry, and producing alternative proteins.

The last issue is a need for more support. There is just not enough support from both governments and corporates for this very important future technology. Startups alone cannot make this future technology successful. We need everyone to play a part in this sustainable future for all. Unfortunately, this inability to collaborate is even more prevailing in Asia — which also has the highest populations.

4. Food-supply challenges run parallel to global environmental issues such as climate change, the degradation of marine ecosystems, industrial agriculture, etc. On this topic, what’s the pressing issue on your mind?

EW: The pressing issue is the fact that we need to urgently find ways to reduce the footprint of our food production. Take soy as a pressing example: Did you notice that its pricing is increasing almost every year, slowly but surely? I am sure this will happen even faster in the next few years. Why? We have clear evidence of ongoing climate change on our planet, and because of that, freshwater supply is already a huge issue. Planting soy also needs a lot of land space, that’s in a location where climate is ideal. How many more Amazon forests do we have on planet Earth? Not to mention the fact that our animal farming operations are increasing in size due to increasing populations and an increasing demand for protein. These animals are mostly fed with soy. Just add up all the parts, and you’ll quickly see the conclusion that what we are doing now with our food supply is just never going to make it.

5. Making positive impact is an important mission at Brinc — and this starts with people. From your experiences in the foodtech industry, what changes must be addressed?

EW: One of the most fundamental issues I’ve seen, especially in the foodtech Industry, is a lack of diversity. We need all hands on deck to make things happen. And yet, looking at most of the well-funded foodtech startups, I see a distinct shortage of female and minority entrepreneurs to be included in this global mission. I believe wonderful ideas can come from anyone. If we keep searching for ideas from only one group of people, that’s not making much of a positive impact at all.

6. Two recent announcements, both dairy alternatives, involved partnerships with foodtech pioneers (such as NewFish) and international collaborators (such as Cawthron Institute (NZ), Wageningen University & Research (NL) and the Danish Technological Institute). How important is cross-collaboration in your field, where proprietary trade secrets are also vital?

EW: Cross-collaboration is vital! Every company has its own trade secrets. But, most of these secrets are also based on common knowledge and known technologies. Without collaborations, new ideas will be much harder to be developed internally and grown externally. 

7. Earlier this year, your company used your protein to co-launch a new plant-based health tonic with a Taiwanese company. Can you tell us more about this Asia-focused product?

EW: The nutritional supplement that we developed with Hsin Tung Yang was a plant-based version of a very popular chicken-based tonic in Asia, known as “chicken essence.” That market, in China alone, is valued at USD5 billion annually. With more people looking for healthier and animal-free ingredients, Hsin Tung Yang believes there is a growing market for this plant-based version of the traditional chicken essence. They chose our proteins because they believe the nutrients provided by microalgae is far superior than any other new alternative proteins in the market today.

8. Sophie’s BioNutrients has further exciting developments in the pipeline that can’t be fully revealed yet. What can you share of what’s in store?

EW: One is (a collaboration) with a global food company to bring our innovation into people’s daily lives via a plant-based cheese. This will be the first retail product that features microalgae as the key and only protein content — which is a huge milestone for the entire industry.

Another project is to send our fermentation projects to the International Space Station to see if we can find new ways to make our technologies more efficient. Stay tuned!

9. As you move well ahead in your company’s post-accelerator life, since graduating from Brinc’s Spring 2021 cohort, what is the best advice you can give a founder who’s trying to make a difference in the foodtech startup space?

EW: Networking and support is very much needed and helpful for entrepreneurs. I think accelerators such as Brinc are definitely something most startup founders should consider working with, especially in foodtech space, as the programs bring together some unique value propositions and introductions which can help immensely.

10. Lastly, your daughter — and her childhood seafood allergy — was the impetus and inspiration behind Sophie’s BioNutrients. In today’s world, where food allergies and other allergic conditions are said to be on the rise, does it place even more importance on the work you and your peers are doing?

EW: Absolutely! With so many pollutants in our environment today, plus global warming, food allergies have become a growing issue everywhere on this planet. This makes our work even more important. With the introduction of our technologies, not only are we helping the world with a new ingredient that doesn’t have any known allergens, we are also reducing the number of the pollutants that are created during the food-production process.

Connect with Eugene Wang and learn more about the latest from Sophie’s BioNutrients here.

Applications for Brinc’s AgriFood accelerator are now open, with the program scheduled to start in Q1 2024. For more information about the program and how to apply, please visit our website.

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