Alan Phua (BBM, 2010) is no ordinary foodie. This is a man on a mission to combat the worldwide epidemic of diabetes by creating low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate staples (think rice, bread, noodles, pasta etc.) without compromising on taste. Enter his food research & technology company, Alchemy Foodtech, which he co-founded. Its sole aim is enabling consumers to improve their health without giving up on their beloved carbs that are the cause of diabetes Type 2. For wanting to effect change and make the world a healthier (and safer) place, it is no wonder that Alan has made it to our list as one of SMU's Inspiring Alumni. We at SMU Office of Alumni Relations wish him and Alchemy Foodtech all the success they deserve. Next stop -- global domination and eradication of diabetes!
You graduated from SMU with a Bachelors in Business Management in 2010. How was your SMU experience, and how did it contribute to your entrepreneurial spirit?
The time in SMU was some of my most enjoyable years and i'm not saying that for the sake of saying it. From both the hard and soft aspects of education, the SMU experience was an eye-opener of what is possible whether in structured industries like finance or in unchartered territories.
The late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew once said, "Singapore is an entrepreneurship on a political stage on a national scale". I think SMU was the same in the tertiary education space. If you think of SMU’s story of how a new varsity was raised from nothing to filling a gap in the market and having graduates with among the highest employment rate as well as starting salaries, that is a great feat.
It further reminded me that unchartered territories can be explored successfully. We just need the right timing and ingredients.
Upon graduation from SMU, you started Soyato, a frozen soy dessert business, and now you have Alchemy Foodtech. Have you always been a foodie or someone interested in the food industry?
I do enjoy good food and I think that life is colourless without good food and drinks. However, the choice to go into the food industry stemmed from more than just passion - there is a business interest to it too.
Food is an evergreen industry; no matter how digitalized the world becomes, we cannot eat digital food, wear digital clothes, consume digital medicine or take digital transport. Food will remain a major pillar in sustaining the human race. However, I am also keen to highlight that entrepreneurship in food industry is goes beyond simply opening cafes or restaurants, and coming up with new flavours.
There is a lot of technology in the background, be it Agtech, Food Sciences, Food Technology and Engineering, Packaging Material Sciences etc., that enable the industry as a whole to function. From the startups we have read about and met with around the world, we know there are many exciting projects happening and many more gaps left to be filled.
Tell us about your current company Alchemy Foodtech.
Alchemy Foodtech is a deep technology startup funded by the NRF/SPRING TECS scheme (both Proof of Concept and Proof of Value) that targets the halting of global diabetes epidemic by using food science and technology to dramatically lower glycemic index (GI) in refined jasmine white rice, white bread, noodles, pasta etc. Essentially, I want to ensure that we can continue to consume our favourite carbohydrate staples but not experience dangerous spikes in blood glucose levels in diabetes. There is no need to have a 'painful' change in lifestyle by cutting out carbs altogether!
(Alan, far right, with his business partner, Ms. Verleen Goh, and Minister for Trade and Industry, Mr. S Iswaran, far left, at Techinnovation 2017, a deep tech event showcasing breakthrough technologies from around the world)
How does Alchemy Foodtech align with your personal passions/goals?
In 2015, there were more diabetic patients than iPhone users in the world. 90% of diabetic patients are Type 2 induced by diet and lack of exercise. Food/diet plays a bigger factor of the two, as there is a limit to how much exercise one can do. Every 6 seconds, there is a death due to diabetes complications. Every 30 seconds, there is a diabetic amputation. In tiny Singapore, we have four such amputations a day because of the food that we eat. Think about that. It's madness..
I was thus inspired to co-found Alchemy Foodtech as my family has a strong history of Type 2 diabetes. Five out of six of my mum’s siblings currently are Type 2 diabetic. Thankfully my mum is not diabetic. I myself have a higher predisposition for Type 2 diabetes as well.
I want to keep my family and I safe, and at the same time, it is also something the world needs now. So the decision to start Alchemy Foodtech was a no-brainer.
(Research graph courtesy of Alchemy Foodtech)
What is Alchemy Foodtech currently doing/researching on? What is the ultimate goal?
Our ultimate goal, again, is to ensure that our favourite food staples like refined white rice and bread stop killing us.
Unrefined carbohydrates such as brown rice, wholemeal bread and noodles etc. while having lower GI profiles, have much coarser texture and do not always taste good. This is difficult for many consumers to accept, which is why despite the war on diabetes, the uptake of switching to unrefined carbohydrates still isn’t at a level the government would like to see.
We have been working on discovering and creating natural plant fibre active ingredients that can be added to refined food to reduce the GI of starch staples without any change in taste, color and texture. So instead of having to give up your favourite carb staples, we are making existing carbs taste better.
Change is hard. Our technologies thus aim at enabling people to change their health but keep their lifestyle.
To achieve this, we spent over 2.5 years scanning and testing hundreds of lesser-known fibres in order to develop an ingredient blend that is able to deliver efficacy, neutral taste profiles and also resistant to heat so that the product still does the intended purpose after cooking and baking. Most of the materials we have come across fail to deliver all 3 aspects and thus we were able to patent the composition.
The composition is introduced as a powdered ingredient added into processed carbohydrates such as bread, noodles and buns. For rice applications, we take our powdered ingredient and shape it into grain shapes (we call it FibreGrains™) to be added into various types of rice. According to a taste test conducted by a 3rd party, consumers cannot taste the difference between a bowl of regular jasmine rice, and a bowl of lower GI rice mix (a mix of both jasmine rice and FibreGrains™). This is incredibly important, because it means we can start eating more healthily without hating the taste!
(Image courtesy of Alchemy Foodtech)
Our work has been featured on Channel News Asia recently (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/catch-up-tv/first-look-asia/food/when-food-and-technology-meet-928524 or https://vimeo.com/237177488)
The objective now is to get the technology out to the masses so that society can get protection from diabetes. We are already working with several marque food manufacturers to incorporate our active ingredients into their product. We find that the food manufacturers who really care about their customers have shown the most interest.
Going forward we are also looking at solving the sugar problem.
What is your wish for the future of Alchemy Foodtech? Do you plan to make it international?
I think all local start-ups have to think about internationalisation from the start. In fact, guys like HistoIndex went to US, Europe, China and Australia before heading back to Singapore. There are a few other such examples too.
The small market size of Singapore mean that we need to ensure we are working on innovations that have ability to scale globally.
For us, we see Singapore as the ideal place to base R&D and also gain credibility. The support given to deep tech start-ups like us have been incredible. SPRING had not only provided us with very sizeable research grants but also introduced us to many industry partners to commercialise the technology.
With the support and believe in us from our various stakeholders, we are aiming to bring our technologies to key markets such as 1st tier cities in China.
If you didn’t become an entrepreneur, what would you have embarked on?
I would probably be in the banking sector or work as a trader as those are also key areas of my interest.
Last updated on 06 Jun 2018 .