Commercialising eco-friendly food technology
By offering invaluable food science and business advice, Dr Ong Mei Horng is helping SinFooTech to get their innovative and sustainable alcoholic beverage market ready.

While we might not always stop to think about it, the production of some of our favourite foods—beef, chicken, corn and more—can be rather damaging to the earth. But beyond food, the production of most of our popular drinks—including alcoholic beverages such as beer or wine—are not eco-friendly either. For instance, brewing a single litre of beer uses up four litres of water, necessitating the development of more sustainable options.

To provide a greener alternative, SinFooTech, a Singapore-based food technology company has successfully developed Sachi, an alcoholic beverage made from soy whey. Partnership is key for success and through the IPI Innovation Advisors Programme, the team at SinFooTech were introduced to Dr Ong Mei Horng, a food science expert who helped them to streamline their processes and commercialise their product.

 

From the laboratory to the market

Soy whey, a by-product of tofu production, currently holds little to no commercial value and is usually pre-treated and disposed of by food manufacturers. Determined to make better use of this nutritious liquid, then SinFooTech CTO Dr Chua Jian Yong began fermenting soy whey as part of his PhD research study at the National University of Singapore. He soon found that through using precision fermentation technology, this liquid could be bio-transformed into a fruity and floral beverage. Further research and tests led to the creation of Sachi, an alcoholic drink containing seven percent alcohol-by-volume and tasting like full bodied Japanese sake with fruity and floral notes, Moscato and apple ciders.

Later on, Dr Chua joined hands with ex-schoolmate Jonathan Ng, now CEO of SinFooTech, to launch the new start-up. Since Sachi was originally developed in small batches within a laboratory under controlled conditions, the duo faced several challenges in upscaling and streamlining their processes to withstand the rigours of commercialisation and eventually, licensing.

“The goal is to complete the technology from start to end, solving all the technical problems that our licensees might face such as filtration and shelf-life,” explained Ng. “Only then can we proliferate this technology throughout the world, so everyone can utilise soy whey to make value-added products.”

Having spent many years in the food industry especially in R&D innovation and commercialisation, Dr Ong offered invaluable advice in aspects ranging from brewing to bottling—including using an opaque bottle instead of a clear one to reduce exposure to light, and the use of suitable ingredients to extend the shelf life of the product. Dr Ong also shared personal contacts with the team, linking them up with industry veterans and domain experts that provided fermentation, filtration and clarification knowledge, along with commercial insights to the brewery industry.

One such contact helped SinFooTech with its filtration process as the team was unable to replicate the filtration techniques that were performed at the laboratory on a commercial level. Introduced by Dr Ong, the ex-Master Brewer and filtration consultant explained possible filtration and separation methods for clarification of Sachi and recommended other techniques that the company could explore. As Sachi production uses a by-product from food manufacturers and does not have a conventional brewery process like beer or fruit wine, there was a need to develop a specialised technology to ensure the product’s purity and its unique taste profile. Following additional trials using the recommended process, SinFooTech was able to successfully filter Sachi on a commercial scale.

 

Chasing progress, not perfection

The next challenge for the SinFooTech team was determining the recovery rates of soy whey using the new filtration technique. While the technique successfully filtered Sachi on a commercial scale, it had also greatly reduced the conversion rate of soy whey to Sachi.

Dr Ong realised that while the team was working hard on achieving a 100 percent recovery rate, there was a need to shift perspectives to keep them on track and motivated. She explained that because Sachi is produced from a by-product, it is naturally zero waste for the food manufacturers. By recommending a consumer-first approach, Dr Ong was able to keep the team focused on commercialising their product instead of chasing a potentially unattainable standard based on the current technology.

“Recovery rate can impact a product’s taste, clarity, overall quality and safety. Even if you have a 100 percent recovery rate, you will need to ensure your products can meet the customers’ expectations,” advised Dr Ong.

“Moreover, this is no typical beer or wine, it is important to have a product that meets consumers’ expectations while presenting a sound business case. Sachi meets the environmentally-sustainable objective as the process uses soy whey from food manufacturers and uses a commercially-viable technology to valorise waste stream to a high value-added product,” she added.

Spurred on by Dr Ong’s guidance, SinFooTech is now looking to develop different product variants at multiple alcoholic levels. These include beverages with alcohol percentages comparable with beer and wine, and even a product with a 50 percent alcohol level targeted at the Chinese markets—paving the way for more sustainable alternatives to conventional alcoholic beverages in the future.


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