From zero to hero: How Singapore became SEA's leading food and nutrition hub in 20 short years

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Many of the food and nutrition firms are based at Biopolis.
Many of the food and nutrition firms are based at Biopolis.

Related tags Singapore Southeast asia Research

Singapore is rightly proud of its status as South East Asia's leading food and nutrition hub, but the city state is refusing to rest on its laurels, and is now striving to develop a thriving start-up scene and tackle challenges around food safety, security, and advances in manufacturing.

It is all a far cry from just 20 years ago, when the National University of Singapore’s Food Science and Technology programme was launched, along with the first degree courses in the subject.

According to associate professor Ralph Graichen, director of Food and Nutrition and Consumer Care at the government Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), it wasn’t really until 2009 that Singapore’s potential as a regional food hub began to develop.

“Singapore was always linked more with engineering, computing then pharma-bio, but then food started to get interesting too,”​ he said.

Key to this was the funding for the GUSTO project - a major collaborative research effort involving academic partners across Singapore, as well as international researchers in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other countries.

The purpose of the GUSTO study is to understand how conditions in pregnancy and early childhood influence the health and development of women and children.

Graichen added: “We then saw Abbott come to Singapore, and also Nestle and Danone too.”

Indeed, between 2009 and 2013 a host of big name firms opened research and innovation bases in Singapore, including Mondelez, Kellogg’s and Ferrero.

Asian insights

Two further developments – the launch of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre to assess Asian nutrition and interventions, and the Biotransformation Platform, to discover novel sustainable biotechnology for the production of high value-added ingredients  - then led to many of world’s major ingredient companies heading to Singapore.

“We saw Kerry and Ingredion were among the first ingredient companies to come, followed by Roquette and DuPont. This has continued, with AAK opening last year, while other companies such as Symrise have increased their presence.”

Today, with an annual turnover of around $15bn, the food manufacturing industry remains one of the most fundamental and critical sectors in Singapore’s fast growing economy.

And the nation's commitment to the sector shows no signs of slowing.

Graichen is keen for Singapore to now become a natural home for start-ups across the food and agri-tech space.

We have recently featured how the likes of low-GI pioneers Alchemy Foodtech​ and cell-based protein innovators Shiok Meat​s have been gaining traction, with Graichen adding that start-ups could benefit from the considerable scientific knowledge available in Singapore.

He points to teapasar, which recently collaborated with NUS-FST and The A*STAR Biotransformation platform to develop ‘tea fingerprinting’​ technology using metabolomics.

And he sees particular potential around cell-based and clean meat.

“Singapore has a lot of advantages here due to its stem-cell research background and scientific knowledge. We can use this to develop an international reputation to make Singapore an international leader in this space,”​ he added.

Research plans

In terms of future objectives, Graichen said food safety and food security would be research priorties, while A*STAR’s Advance Remanufacturing and Technology Centre, in partnership with Nanyang Technological University, is developing advanced manufacturing and digital technologies for the food and beverage sector.

“This allows companies to come together for pre-competitive work to tackle some of the big issues we face around packaging, safety and sustainability,”​ he added.

He is also keen to foster even greater collaboration between A*Star’s 19 institutes to benefit the food and nutrition sectors, such as the Institute of ​Materials Research and Engineering assisting with research around packaging.

“Singapore has come a very long way in a short space of time,” he said.

“However, there is still a lot for us to do, especially how we extend the value chain of research, and also communicate some of the future innovations we will make to consumers,”​ he added.

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