Sophie’s Bionutrients is a Singapore-based microalgae from fermentation company aiming to take on soy protein with its chlorella protein. Co-founded by Eugene Wang, from the well-established Californian plant-based seafood pioneer Sophie’s Kitchen, it won Temasek Foundation’s S$1 million-endowed 2019 Liveability Challenge for its plan to “produce microalgae from food waste … and transform Singapore into a protein export powerhouse”.
For starters, what hashtags best define who you are and/or your ambitions in the microalgae space?
#protein #food #nutrition #ingredients #international
What is your pitch/mission?
We’re on a mission to make it clear to the world that microalgae are a scalable and sustainable source of protein for human consumption. The single cell protein is the next generation of future food.
What are your next steps?
[EW] We are currently contract-manufacturing our microalgae protein in Taiwan so costs are currently high. Next year, when our Singapore fermentation facility will come into production, our costs will immediately drop to under US$30 per kilo of protein and then gradually move down over the course of the following three years or so to under US$6 per kilo, which is the equivalent of pea protein. By ramping up production, we should be able to achieve costs of under US$2 per kilo further along the line, thus becoming competitive with soy protein.
[KT] We’ve developed microalgae-based TVP [textured vegetable protein] and a wide variety of ingredients and products ranging from dry food to drinks but given our high initial costs as long as we haven’t scaled up production, we’re going to start by focusing on a plant-based protein drink.
If I’ve understood well, your extract has an umami taste. Why pursue a drink rather than a dry product?
[KT] Actually, we’re taking on a cult Asian tonic, BRAND’S® Essence of Chicken. This chicken extract rakes in US$300 million per year across the Asia-Pacific region and is at a sweet spot between food and nutraceuticals in terms of the price point and benefits. We’ve developed a water-soluble protein concentrate (66% protein) with virtually the same properties as the chicken extract and will be starting with this. Too often the product is developed first before really assessing if the market is ready for the product. We felt that it was important to develop a product that the people were already demanding, especially for the Asian market.
How did you come to work with microalgae?
[EW] I come from a Buddhist family that has been involved in vegetarian food for the past three generations. Nearly fourteen years ago, I found out that my daughter, Sophie, had a shellfish allergy so I set out to provide her with more food choices by launching Sophie’s Kitchen, a now very successful plant-based fish company based in California. Many customers would raise the same question over and over again: can you achieve equivalent nutritional value to fish with your mock fish products? The truth is I couldn’t. I was using konjac, potato starch, pea protein, and so on—nothing capable of getting even close. That’s when I discovered the potential of microalgae. I thought, well, if fish and shrimp eat microalgae, why eat the surrogate? The more I delved into microalgae, the more I was impressed with how efficient it was. Over the last 4 years, I have poured my heart and soul into this industry. I have a mentor who is a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Under his guidance, I’ve taken in an immense amount of information and done all but obtain a PhD. in microalgae because I just don’t have the time to write a thesis [laughing].
What do you believe is the future for microalgae?
[EW] Microalgae are the mother of all things in nature. Their adaptability is incredible. I can see microalgae being used in many different ways including space exploration.
In real-life, Matt Damon wouldn’t be growing potatoes on Mars.
Any not-so-crazy idea on how to help the microalgae sector thrive?
[EW] The Japanese food and seasoning manufacturer Ajinomoto has a huge database of 10,000 strains of yeast, a* (Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research) has around 7,000. Nothing like this exists with microalgae. There are 400 here and there, sometimes up to 1,000 or 2,000, but they’re not hooked up together. There’s no coordinated effort. I feel that sometimes you investigate a strain that isn’t valuable to you but that could be valuable to someone else. Sharing more would bring immense value to the field. First, it would generate more noise and that would bring more people to pay attention to microalgae. Second, it would surely bring about more positive results.
Lastly, what kind of profiles would you be most willing to get in touch with?
We would love to tell you that of course we would like to meet potential investors. Unfortunately, investors don’t seem to get it. The investors look at the microalgae space with a lot of questions and don’t really understand the potential yet. We would like to speak to food manufacturers. Food manufacturers understand the importance of microalgae and their potential. I think one example is the major partnership that was recently announced between Nestle and Corbion. This shows that food manufacturers are willing to invest in the future. Find us on LinkedIn or on the Sophie’s Bionutrients web site.
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