Hong Kong is a city filled with good ideas. The potential streaming out of this town is the reason it has become the start-up capital of Asia. But creating a new business from scratch is a mountainous task for any entrepreneur, especially one that’s looking to do something that breaks new ground; this is where accelerator Brinc wants to assist and accelerate the process.
By joining up with Silicon Valley-based food tech company JUST, they've devised a toolkit of raw materials for future founders to complement Brinc’s own arsenal of assets that includes learning platforms, mentor networks, follow-on funds, service arms, entry into the growing Chinese market and state-of-the-art facilities at their offices in PMQ in Central including Taste Library, which contains thousands of food-related tomes for research, ABC Cooking Studio and pop-up incubator Taste Kitchen. All of this will be at the disposal of their plant-based food-tech start-ups to ensure the success of their founders, bringing about a more rapid change into the already advancing new world of meat-free foods.
And it includes capital as well. Brinc will begin by investing over HK$600,000 per team (10 teams per year, two cohorts per year) to help early-stage companies who want to disrupt the current broken food system with their plant-based products.
We chatted with Brinc CEO Manav Gupta about his plans, hopes and dreams for this new collaboration.
What made you decide to invest in food tech in the first place?
Our current food systems are broken. The methods in which they have been designed are broken and, as a result, consumers are provided with many options that are truly unsustainable to them and to the planet we live in. For too long no one has asked why or challenged this status quo. It’s time to start. I don’t think there needs to be death in order for there to be life. We are the first species on the planet that has the ability to make informed decisions through thought and continue to challenge ourselves to relearn the ways we’ve always seen things and thus improve – it’s one of the main reasons we have advanced. In a similar sense, guidelines have not been put in place to govern food companies and the overall food system with a recognition of the kind of population growth and overall demand that we are now seeing – this has led to unsustainable practices across the food supply chain, from production to sales.
There is death, inefficiency and tremendous wastage across our current food systems, and there has to be a better way. We don’t know what that is, but we recognise that this will take an army, and we are excited about the part we will work to play to enable thousands of founders over the years to make their own micro-improvements, while we work to jointly tackle macro issues. It’s important to note that a lot of this has also been broken not by choice or negligence but simply because the data sets have not been made available to provide insights into the consumer demand or production processes for better planning – or simply because the tools have not been made available, which usually take years and years in R&D – we are hoping to change that.
Have you invested in food tech before?
One of our core investment categories in Brinc is working to improve how we eat, and as such, as we have focused on investing in technologies that are working to gather new types of data sets from different parts of the food supply chain, from farm to table. A few notable investments include Poladrone, which is working to improve the yield from plantations through computer-vision cameras mounted on drones – they have mapped out over a million trees already and are able to help to improve yield by providing clear data-driven suggestions to farmers. Another team, HabbiGarden, is doing the same thing, but with sensors on the ground. One of our newest investments this year, KomraVision, has developed a handheld spectrometer that enables consumers and businesses alike to check the qualities of food through AI-driven hyperspectral analysis. Their first-use case is to help mothers in China to determine the melanin levels in milk to determine if the milk is safe to drink. Cross category, to date, we have invested in 43 companies. By the end of 2018, that should be over 67 portfolio teams. Our goal was for 100 investments in the first five years of our operations, which we aim to achieve by the end of next year.
How does this new programme and partnership with JUST work?
Brinc is launching a food-tech accelerator programme where one of our core investment categories is investing in plant- and clean meat-based alternatives. Within that category – any team that is looking to recreate the taste, texture of meat, dairy or seafood – the founders will have access to the JUST toolkit. JUST’s first-of-its-kind toolkit is made up of raw materials and their learnings from the plant and animal kingdoms. I look at this simply as the ingredients that founders can use to accelerate their product development.
Can you tell us more about JUST’s first-of-its-kind toolkit?
JUST has been doing R&D for over half a decade and, for the first time, has decided to open up its R&D and learnings through Brinc to entrepreneurs in the form of a toolkit. Founders going through this process without this access will potentially spend years in R&D to come to the same conclusions, and this can represent the difference between failure and success for founders. True acceleration means that we can help them move as fast as they can possibly move to bring validated and commercially viable products to market and drive an impact.
Can you walk us through the stages an entrepreneur will go through with you?
Entrepreneurs will get an opportunity to accelerate their ability to bring their businesses to market through the following steps during the programme and post-programme. Our role is to educate and provide access and resources, while the founders have to actually do the work to build their businesses:
- Stage 1: Target Identification & Validation – understanding and assessing the market opportunity to bring in an alternative. Measuring the impact of their products in this market and then moving to development of a product prototype in partnership with our affiliated kitchen networks and through toolkits from JUST, etc. Teams will choose 2-3 categories and build 3-5 prototypes each.
- Stage 2: Execution & R&D – private dinners and validation of these categories and prototypes for sensory evaluation and selection of the final category on which to focus.
- Stage 3: Product Finalisation – from refinement of the product category prototypes to finalising the final prototype through additional dinners and pop-ups. Packaging and licensing approval through the partnerships with FDA-approved kitchens following a roll-out to restaurants and pop-up retail to further validate the product, price points and sales.
- Stage 4: Marketing & Distribution – post-validation, the ability to connect to a broader group of retailers and merchants for getting orders and broader MVP roll-out.
- Stage 5: Defensibility & Patenting – development and filing of patents to increase leverage and open up potential licensing opportunities across industries and categories.
What products do you envision coming out of this programme?
Ideas and products are going to come from entrepreneurs. We will run the same process we run at Brinc to identify core characteristics that are required to build a successful business, which go far beyond the idea and prototype. We will look at the business viability (the business models, financial models, team, etc), technical feasibility (ability to recreate taste and texture in a mass-market manner) and product desirability (overall demand and market need for this through positioning, messaging, etc) We are looking for founders across the following investment categories with a priority on plant-based and clean meats and auxiliary categories to follow:
- Plant based meat, seafood and dairy alternatives (food – patty, cheese, etc – and beverage – milk, keffir, etc)
- Clean meats
- Processed foods or food ingredients (coffee creamer, soup, emulsifier, sweetener, etc)
- Cooking aid (flavour enhancer (bouillon), cooking sauce)
- Functional foods (fibre, probiotics, antioxidants, omega-3s, etc)
- Food ingredients for the cosmetics and beauty industries (supplements, creams, serums, gels, etc)
- Sports-performance foods (supplements, protein powders, snacks, etc)
- Insect-based proteins (F&B)
- Biodegradable food packaging (used in catering and restaurants)
- Animal/plant agricultural solutions (pmproving plant/animal livestock yields or alleviating animal suffering)
What’s the ultimate goal of this partnership?
We’re excited to be able to work together to develop some groundbreaking companies by supporting founders from around the world. We'd love if we could truly enable China's lofty goals of achieving 50 per cent vegetarian status by 2030. I personally don’t see how this would be possible without the effort of hundreds and thousands of entrepreneurs who are all working on different parts of the value chain, all working with the same mission in mind. I’m excited about continuing to work with Josh and the team at JUST to identify new ways to enable entrepreneurship in this category and bring new, delicious products to market.
Are the cell-cultured chicken nuggets going to be the first product?
These are products that JUST will be rolling out at a later date. As the toolkit expands to products from the animal kingdom, this will further enable our founders with new discoveries and raw materials for them to work with.
What’s most exciting for you – plant-based or cell-cultured products?
Cell-cultured products are going to change the game completely. We have been cooking with plant-based products for generations as raw ingredients, condiments and toppings for our foods, but we’ve never had a whole range of cell-cultured raw ingredients or finished products to work with. Most mock meats are made from plants and, through the right formulations, compositions and cooking techniques, have been able to recreate taste the best they could – cell-cultured products will take this to the next level for those who truly crave the meat, dairy and seafood tastes they have grown up with.
Cell-cultured clean meat comes from an animal, but no animals are harmed, or even put in any discomfort. Should clean meat be considered vegan or vegetarian? Do we need a new term altogether? Or is it just plain meat?
I’ve always loved how the food industry has created new vocabulary to describe meats – pork for pigs, beef for cows. This has always disconnected the product from the actual animal being consumed and made it easier for consumers to not think about it.
Clean meat is a simple way to keep the word “meat” in the picture while connoting that there is no harm provided to anyone in the process. I think purist vegans may not agree, but I believe it is vegan in the means that the word defines the category of foods that sit within it. Beyond this, those who care will have their own value system and will need to get comfortable around what they are consuming, and that will take time. For the rest of the meat eaters out there (who are the target audience), I think associating words that are familiar is the best way to go – aka clean pork, clean beef. This simply just means that it’s easier for them to understand what they are having, there is no harm along the way and it’s a healthier, more sustainable option.
How much mentoring and collaboration will the team at JUST have throughout the process?
Josh will personally be involved as an adviser to the programme and the teams as needed. The JUST team resources will be made available as needed. Brinc has also brought on a PhD in food science and microbiology, Dr Dalal Alghawas, who will be able to work with the teams to help them to work through the recreation of tastes and also understand the functional properties of the foods to the body. The programme will run following Brinc’s tried-and-tested framework for enabling entrepreneurship in emerging technologies (IoT, connected hardware and drones and robotics) that has been run over 10 batches and supported hundreds of founders over the past few years.
Our call-out is now open till mid-October, through which founders can submit their applications here – we urge everyone to submit these as soon as possible, as the call-out is only open for 10 more days through 15 October. Post that, the Brinc Investment Committee will review all companies and formally select teams to join Brinc’s proprietary ramp-up process, where we spend time digging into the three core categories (business viability, technical feasibility, product desirability) to make our final decisions – the process is designed to be value added to the teams while enabling us to truly determine which teams and products are worth an investment. We will then make final decisions and select our final teams (this cohort will be smaller than future ones, which should get up to 10 teams) and enrol teams into the programme.
If you want to change the world of food with your groundbreaking new plant-based product, Brinc’s Food Tech Accelerator programme is open for applications now. Click here to apply and make a positive change for the future of food and the future of your business.
Read more about alternative meats here
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