Let's Talk Farm to Fork

Eugene Wang from Sophie's Bionutrients

August 04, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
Let's Talk Farm to Fork
Eugene Wang from Sophie's Bionutrients
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of "Let's Talk Farm to Fork", we're joined by Eugene Wang from Sophie's Bionutrients, who we will be talking to about how their microalgae protein products aim to be a healthier, more sustainable alternative to the seafood industry and its harmful practices. 

https://sophiesbionutrients.com/

Voiceover:

Welcome To let's talk farm to fork, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people, making an impact in the fresh produce sector. We'll take a deep dive into what they do and find out how they're helping to reduce the amount of food lost or wasted along the farm to fork journey. But before we get started, did you know that according to the UN's food and agriculture organisation, around 45% of the world's fruits and vegetables go to waste each year? If you would like to learn more about how you can practically play your part in maximising fruit and vegetable supplies, whether you're a part of the industry or simply a consumer. Visit PostHarvest.Com and try out their free online course library today. Now time for your host Alex Mospanyuk.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Hello, hello. My name is Alex Mospanyuk and welcome back to "Let's Talk Farm to Fork", the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain. Today, we have a very special guest, his name is Eugene Wang and he is a CEO and co-founder of Sophie's bionutrients. Eugene is one of the most forward thinkers and visionaries that we've had on our show so far. And I am so excited for you all to hear this episode. So with no further delays, let's get started. Hey Eugene, how are you today?

Eugene Wang:

Doing well, thank you. Thank you.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Well, Hey look, tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and a fun fact about yourself that maybe not many people know.

Eugene Wang:

Yep. I always love the fun fact. Well, I am a person that, thanks to my family. Pretty much just spending my whole career, making and selling plant meat. So I was born and grew up in Taiwan. My family, we have been four generation Buddhism and been making the vegetarian food for the religious people for about three generations already. Starting from my grandma and grandpa they'd make vegetarian food at the street vendor and then my father, he set up a factory for the whole business. So when I found out my daughter is allergic to shellfish, especially shrimp, I used my family technology to start another company. This is back in 2010. I started it in Sebastopol, California. It's called Sophie's Kitchen. We are selling plant-based seafood. We're short of the first one in the world, so to speak, selling a dedicated line of seafood alternative products. Turned out, I was really way too early. You know, 2010 was like before, beyond meat and impossible foods, got big and famous. Uh, So it was really difficult a long the years, but luckily we survived and the company is still running today. I am a plant meat career person that is, also kind of a serial entrepreneur. So along the way of managing that California business, I kept getting a question from my consumers. People think seafood is healthy or is it really healthy? I love to pose this question. The ocean today is definitely not what the ocean was 30 or 40 years ago, you know? So is the seafood today really healthy? Is still a big question mark, but then again, people think it is a healthy food. So when you're trying to make seafood alternative, the first thing they want to know is that, "oh, so is this plant-based seafood product? Have identical or equivalent nutritional value, like the real seafood? Well, short answer is no, because we're using potato starch, pea protein, you know, all the land crops to make it, you know, how can it be? It's just a texture, maybe to some extent flavour replacement, it's not really a nutrition replacement, but that got me thinking. That, made me think, Hey, if we're trying to talk people out of using sea animal to get the nutrients, we really have to give them something better. And that's how I got into this micro-algae research. And what I found out is that if you can use fermentation technology to grow, micro-algae not only you can reduce cost. You can also make flavour better, without the fishy smells, you can also make the colour much more pleasant to make into foods. And so that pretty much sums up about me is that all the way along I was involved and immersed in this, plant-based, food industry my whole career. Just trying to find a way for people to get all the nutrition from the ocean. But not using the animal. Fun fact about myself. Well, even though, I like the ocean and quite frankly, I always tell people that I got this inspiration because my daughter, but in reality, it started with a scuba diving lesson. But the fun fact is actually not about this. The fun fact, is that I'm actually a person that is interested more about space, or the space explorations. The galaxy, the black hole and I'm a reasonably even studying quantum physics, quantum computing. Yeah. So initially I was working on this fermentation of micro-algae idea also with the idea in mind that I want to develop a technology, that we can put it into a tiny spacecraft so that we can grow foods in dark, very minimal resources and very, very maximum output. Think about it. If you can grow foods with the maximum nutrition in that tiny spacecraft with almost no resources, you can then do a lot of things on this planet at a very sustainable way. And so I started out with that thinking, but it turns out it's a wonderful idea to be executed on this planet. So, I think that possibly is a fun fact about myself.

Alex Mospanyuk:

I mean, that is a fascinating fact. Like, I love that you, you tied in your fascination with space and going, "Okay, cool, if we can make food grow in space, how much more can we create sustainable processes and make them grow on Earth?" Cause I was you're a company fascinated me. I was looking through your website. I watched all your videos and I love that you tied in your personal journey with your daughter and her allergic reaction. And then your experience with seafood into potentially solving a larger issue. Of the global food supply chain not having enough resources to sustain the growing population and how your technology is actually helping create more food and help feed more people, but then also be more plant-based and healthier as well. So it was just like a big picture solution that really stood out to me. So I'd love for you to talk about it more, obviously, cause it's so interesting. But yeah, I really wanted to kind of emphasize that you guys also do really great work and your vision behind creating a sustainable product is really well noted, so. Continuing from that, tell us a little bit more about how your innovative product works, what the purpose is, especially with the microalgae and then how that contributes to food sustainability overall.

Eugene Wang:

Right. So in order to speak about that, I want to mention a phrase or term called bioprocessing. Now bioprocessing was previously reserved for all of the pharmaceutical industry or companies, even the nutraceutical companies or the supplement company. So bioprocessing basically is a lot of the fermentation tank, the smaller ones connected with a lot of pipes, a lot of gorges. And you saw it in the pharmaceutical factory. That's churning out a lot of pharmaceutical ingredients with the, the microorganism inside. So that's called Bioprocessing. So bioprocessing previously was mostly reserved for pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industry, but to the food industry, they don't use a lot. In our opinion, with our technology and together think about a lot of the cell-based meat and seafood companies, that's out there promoting their technology. We are just like those cell-based meat and seafood companies. We are telling the world that going forward, the food production should not keep happening on this soil or in the soil. So look at our current food production system, animal farming, agriculture, even aquaculture, you all need to have it physically happening on a piece of soil or in a pack of water that's on top of a soil and we think this is primative, this is polluted and this going forward is not going to be efficient. If we go into have too many people on this planet as projected by United Nations. So, going forward, we are proposing this idea, bioprocessing using the fermentation tank, using the knowledge we know about these biotech and put it into a different application. Say, for example, for us, we're trying to put it to make commodity food ingredients. You can also use it to make classic replacement. So say for example, you can grow even a microalgae and then extract from the microalgae to make it into a biodegradable plastic replacement. You can use bioprocessing to grow biofuel. Using microalgae as well, or other microorganism, you can use bioprocessing to grow a lot of the construction material for your house. You can use microalgae or other microorganism to grow pigments for colouring. So then you don't have to use chemicals. So what I'm trying to say is that with this technology, that we have fermentation of microalgae for alternative protein. We're basically telling the world together with other cell-based meat and seafood start-ups, is that going forwards, let's rethink our food production. Using bioprocessing, not only it's condensed, it's efficient, it is also controlled. So all the pollutants will not leak out to nature. You can keep it inside the tank and process it well before you discharge to whatever natural system. And that, in my opinion really is the way forward for us to solve a lot of food production issues, a lot of the materials that we need to make for our lives to be more comfortable, to be more convenient. And that's what we're trying to promote is that let's use more bioprocessing in our daily life.

Alex Mospanyuk:

So I'm looking on your website and I can see statistics that are really impressive as in you can create foods in just three days using a fraction of the space. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you actually use wastes to help create the food as well. So for the spent grains, you're using waste from breweries or from tofu makers, explain a little bit more of that process, how does that work?

Eugene Wang:

Reversing back, you know, long before I was thinking, what do we feed our microalgae on that tiny spacecraft with a journey maybe seven or eight years to a remote planet. What can you feed? And so that's how we came up with this food waste idea, because quite frankly, when we feed these microorganism, two things are very important, if you want to get their protein from these microorganisms, one is Carbon another is Nitrogen. And these two elements are rich in the lot of the food waste that we're talking about today. And quite frankly, that is a wonderful solution to reduce, or at least recycle our food waste. It is only the regulation that forbid us to use the FMB food waste, you know, the food waste from the full service restaurants or found the household food waste, and that is the reason why we go to the industrial food waste, which is a lot cleaner and a lot more consistent in quality. And then we can easily process it to grow our microalgae. So, all-in-all, we're trying to create a circular economy that nothing goes to waste.

Alex Mospanyuk:

That's so good. And so you mentioned that when you first started, Sophie's kitchen, you said that the market wasn't ready for you. So, I feel like this happens often with, kind of visionary leaders, such as yourself. They'll go with this great idea and be like, actually the market's not going to be ready for like five years, you know, with the.com boom and all that kind of stuff. It took us a while to catch up with going, okay, cool. This is something we're going to integrate into our daily lives. So are their competitors, and how is your technology different than your competitors?

Eugene Wang:

So, you're talking about Sophie's Kitchen, the plant-based seafood business, or are you talking about the Sophie's Bionutrients?

Alex Mospanyuk:

Bionutrients

Eugene Wang:

Okay. Yeah, yeah, Yeah. Cause uh, I left Sophie's Kitchen already for a couple of years. I've totally focused on this FoodTech business in Singapore. So Sophie's Bionutrient, we're definitely not the first company fermenting microalgae for foods. But we are one of the very few companies fermenting microalgae for alternative protein. And more importantly, I think a lot of the companies, should I say startups in this field, they are started by microalgae scientists or microalgae specialists, meaning people who understand the microorganism a lot better, but don't really understand the food manufacturing industry. So I am a different kind of founder, among the space. I came from a food manufacturing background that I have better and deeper understanding about food manufacturing and what we actually need, where as my teammate helped me come up with the microalgae science that I need to make this happen. So what I'm trying to tell you is that compared to our competition, we usually don't tell people we are microalgae company where as a lot of our competition, they would just go on and say, oh, we are a microalgae company developing blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, for this and that, we tell people that we are a FoodTech company. We're not a microalgae company, but we're using microalgae to develop this new, wonderful, alternative protein for the world into the future. So that basically is the difference.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Okay. Gotcha. And what is the biggest challenge you probably have with your product right now? And what's your strategy into overcoming that?

Eugene Wang:

So the biggest challenge right now is to scale up. It is partly because the pandemic that a lot of the travel restrictions are in place, so we're not able to freely move our scientists. And our gears to a lot of places to make things happen. Otherwise I would say that the challenges for now should be just the Capitol. Because, people just especially investors, investment community, should I say, they just realised amid the pandemic. They just realised that we are under investing in our food and agriculture technology. They just realised that we're investing too much, in our semiconductor, IOT, software and even pharmaceutical business, because look at what you did during the pandemic. You know, you can sit comfortably at home talking to your friends or your coworkers or family with all the technology and the gears. And even the vaccine can be developed within 6 months. But what happened to our food supply? We got a lot of food security events happening around the globe. The old system that we designed for our food supply chain is that the bigger, the better. Big is beauty in the name of efficiency, and then the blow of the pandemic just shows that system's weakness. Once you have a lockdown in certain place, with a small amount of workers that are affected by the pandemic, the whole factory have to be locked up, have to be shut up. And then all of a sudden your supply becomes running into a big problem. And not only that, even the shipping has a problem today. And then that's why we run into the commodity pricing surge in the last few weeks. So all of that is pointing to the fact that we're under-investing. We're under-innovating our food production and food supply system, and we really need to upgrade that. I think we're starting to see a lot more investors are paying attention to this new emerging field. However, this is only the beginning. And so there are definitely a lot of things that they have question mark. There are a lot of things they have to learn. We're sort of, lucky in the sense that we have this pandemic teaching the world, that we got to get something done in this space. And finally, the world is listening to us, but then again, you also have this difficulty that. What the heck is FoodTech? What do we need to do in this space? They still don't understand. You need to kind of talk to them, communicate with them. This is what needs to be done. That is what needs to be done. This is working, that is not working and that's a lot of back and forth communication.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Oh, I imagine. And so with that, what is probably the biggest surprise that you've found, working within food tech in relation to fruits and vegetables and produce, and that kind of thing?

Eugene Wang:

Right. So I guess the biggest surprise is still the fact that status quo is still very prevalent, very mainstream. Most players, most stakeholders, you can feel, they still prefer the status quo, meaning that when we talk about food, it's not like semiconductor or IoT that's, there's no heritage, there's no culture to speak on, right? So you can easily talk about anything innovative anything new and people will embrace it. Whereas in food, wow, you got a big hurdle. Why? Oh, this is our heritage, this is our culture that we have to value or cook the food in the way we want it. But then again, when you're trying to introduce a new idea, you may run into opposition to those way of doing things, you may run into contradiction to those valuations. And how are you overcoming those resistant is really a huge task for founders or for companies, startups, especially like us to make it happen. And that, in my opinion is the number one difficulty.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah, yeah, yeah absolutely. And so, are there, I guess when it comes to food loss, food waste, and sustainability. In regards to your role in what you're doing currently with Sophie's Bionutrients, what are you most curious about and why, and what are you researching the most right now?

Eugene Wang:

So, in Sophie's Bionutrients we're most curious about, what are the extreme that we can do with this microorganism. A simple way to look at protein is that there are three types of protein that people consume most around the world. One is the chicken neck, another is cow milk or in our industry jargon and a processing to purify form whey protein, and then last is soy. We're looking at the possibility that we can. Because I don't know if you know, there are estimated about 1 million different species of microalgae on this planet Earth. So we're looking at the possibility that even if we have to use like 10, 20 different species of microalgae, can we down the road replace all the functionalities that these three types of protein people in the last hundreds, if not thousands of years be using for, and then replace it well in their convention of cuisine. That is the holy grail of this protein question. We also know that there are a lot of shortcomings with these three proteins that I just mentioned, so can we come up with something that's even better that doesn't have any of these allergens that doesn't have any of these funny things, unsustainable things, unethical things or even funny taste from these three protein and make it better for future customers who wanna buy these new proteins that we create. So those are the things that we want to work on, we want to find out. And in my opinion, if we can do that, you're gonna see a world relying on bioprocessing for if not 90%, maybe 80% of the food ingredients that we need to make the foods that we're eating today, and that really is the future we wanna see.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Okay. Well, what's one thing you wish you would've known when you began your career?

Eugene Wang:

Well, one thing I wish I would know is that, how bloody difficult this journey is for me.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah.

Eugene Wang:

You know, uh, quite frankly, I don't know if given another chance that what I start over again, you know? I guess I may still say yes, but then the difference is that if I was given another chance and knowing what I know now. I may need to think a long, long time. I mean, there's a lot of hardship along the way. If you talk to more founders like me, a lot of time when you come up with a revolutionary, new idea or crazy idea, no one believes in you in the beginning. Uh, even your family is turning their back on you and there's a lot of stress you have to deal with, you know. Like I said, I started off too early. Uh, so first mover is definitely not an advantage in my opinion. And then, and then actually another thing is that I would. I would actively look for a really good partner to start the journey with, business partner I mean, and that's one thing I didn't do well, initially. I think given another chance, I would do these differently, to make things happen smoother. And more importantly is that, now I know the investment community more. I think another thing I would say if I was given another chance, I would do whatever I can to get close to or immersed in the investment community. Investment people so that I have a better odds to get myself funded. Look at beyond meat and impossible foods. That's how they did it and, and got them so successful is in the sense that they immerse themselves previously before starting impossible foods and beyond meat with these investment people. And so those are the things that would do different.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Okay. Amazing. And as we come to a close, I just wanted to ask, what is the number one takeaway that you want our listeners to absorb from this episode?

Eugene Wang:

So, I guess I always say to people this, is passion, you know, and it's a very abstract word, but I hope you can hear from my voice. Passion is not just about a love. Passion is about everything. Passion is a very energetic emotion and I stress the word energetic. I talked to a lot of investors and people. The first thing they notice is that they notice my passion, when I first got this comment I was like, wow, shouldn't that be your default? Something that as an entrepreneur, as a founder, you should have, you know? And it turns out what they told me is that they talk to a lot of founders a lot of them don't have the passion about what they do. It's possibly because that's their personality, but it's more likely according to them because they don't really have the passion in what they were doing. They just did it because. You know, it's a trendy thing. It's a ticket for them to get to somewhere else. So I will say to people having passion is try not to just do something because everybody else is doing it, having passion is trying to find out what is the thing that you wanna do.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah. Oh, that's great advice. All right. Well, Eugene, thank you so much for your time today. This was incredibly insightful.

Eugene Wang:

Thank you. Thank you, Alex. I'm really glad to be invited and hope we can have more opportunities to chat more, but really appreciate the time. Thank you.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Well, that's all for today's episode of "Let's Talk Farm to Fork". Thanks for listening, and thank you, Eugene, for joining me today. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don't forget to leave a review and share with your friends. Until next time you've been listening to "Let's Talk Farm to Fork" a PostHarvest podcast.

Voiceover:

We appreciate you joining us for this episode of let's talk, farm to fork, be sure to rate, review and subscribe. Also, if you would like to learn more about how you can practically play your part in maximizing fruit and vegetable supplies, whether you're a supplier, consumer, or anyone in between the farm to fork journey, visit PostHarvest.Com and try out their free online course library today.