Singapore is undoubtedly the budding food technology hub of Asia, and John Cheng is a leader in the up-and-coming space.
He is the director of Innovate 360, Singapore’s first food incubator, which houses some of the most exciting food tech start-ups creating products like cell-based shrimp, plant-based egg substitutes, vegan cheese and more.
The last time we spoke with him was at his induction into the Prestige 40 Under 40 class of 2019. At the time, John Cheng, who is also the director of Cheng Yew Heng Candy Factory, Singapore’s oldest and largest sugar manufacturer, had just moved his two businesses into Innovate 360 Innovation Hub, a six-storey building in Jurong West. “I’m glad we’re doing this interview now because things have changed so much in two years,” says John, who is taking us on a tour of the impressive 90,000 sq ft facility equipped with shared production facilities, research and development laboratories, co-working spaces, warehousing and logistics.
Weaving through lush and open common areas and several outdoor green spaces including a Zen garden with bonsai (John’s personal touch), the environment here is much more vibrant than expected. Initially, it was constructed to expand the manufacturing business of Cheng Yew Heng Candy Factory, founded by John’s grandfather in 1947. Since John joined in 2008 and took over the reins with his brother as third-generation members, they have modernised and elevated the family business.
“To maximise the land, we built the factory beyond our space needs. The extra space allows us to better support start-ups and test the concept of a food incubator with facilities,” says the 39-year-old entrepreneur, who is grateful for the help he has received from various partners and institutes of higher learning over the last decade. “I know how hard this industry can be so I want to pay it forward.”
Innovate 360 was launched in 2018 with the goal of building a collaborative ecosystem; to help food start-ups scale, develop go-to-market strategies, and act as a platform for industrial collaboration. John adds: “Cheng Yew Heng is named after our family name and the values of friendship (Yew) and happiness (Heng). Together with friends, we bring happiness. This is the same collaborative spirit and community I want to bring about. Helping others is one of the biggest joys.”
Today, Innovate 360 supports 34 start-ups in the four pillars of deep tech, agri-tech, sustainability and consumer packaged goods (CPG). It is recognised by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation as a food technology partner in food security, obtained the support of Enterprise Singapore, and is one of Singapore’s first food-focused accredited mentor partners (AMP) that helps start-ups in their journey to attain grants of up to $50,000 under the StartupSG Founder scheme.
The presence of the food start-ups at Innovate 360 also creates an important synergistic relationship. “Sometimes the start-ups are our customers and we are their suppliers, and vice versa, which is mutually beneficial,” explains John Cheng, whose family business Cheng Yew Heng is partnering with Hoow Foods, a formulation food technology company and one of Innovate 360’s first start-ups, to create healthier sugar.
“This creates disruption, innovation and collaboration opportunities, and it really rejuvenates our traditional business. It brings about a new energy. With these start-ups in our space, we’ve managed to attract younger people into the workforce. We recently hired a 23-year-old in our production team,” he says, adding candidly: “For us this is super exciting!”
In less than a year, they have filled the space at Innovate 360 Innovation Hub, leading to an expansion to a second facility spanning 250,000 sq ft at Innovate 360 @ SMC Nutrition Hub. Here, the focus is on functional ingredients, nutrition, R&D laboratories and food manufacturing spaces. There are plans to add two more locations focused on plant-based and cloud kitchens by the end of the year. “We hope to increase our footprint to be able to support more start-ups,” says John, who is also working to set up an Asian-focused food fund and raise between $10 and $25 million to invest in and help accelerate the growth of start-ups in the wider ecosystem.
While the financial support and infrastructure are vital for start-ups, John says emotional support is just as crucial. “Although we play the role of the big brother, we don’t always have all the answers. Sometimes it’s just about being there for them so they know that they are not in this business alone,” says John, who interacts with the start-ups daily. “That’s what matters to a lot of them and that’s why they want to be in this space. They know they can always just come and look for us.”
A greater cause
Ultimately, John aspires towards a more sustainable and secure food future, with Singapore at the forefront. In 2018, he co-founded Feed 9 Billion (Feed9B), an open innovation ecosystem platform promoting sustainability and innovation through collaboration to feed nine billion people by 2050. Since he was appointed chairperson in 2019, Feed9B has launched The Good Food Startup Manual: Singapore edition, a resource guide to empower food entrepreneurs in their start-up journey, as well as monthly workshops with start-ups, corporates and government institutions.
John also sits on the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Pro-Enterprise Panel to help companies overcome regulatory hurdles, and on the Singapore Food Story Thematic Scientific Evaluation Panel that evaluates grants for start-ups. On National Day last year, he launched Food Culture Singapore (foodculture.sg), an e-commerce platform to assist local companies in digitalisation, engaging with consumers and going global.
“My personal ambition is for Singapore to become the Silicon Valley of the East. That’s why I bring everyone together, in hopes that we can get there.”
Main and featured image credits: Photography: Joel Low | Art Direction: Audrey Chan | Hair: Ann Lin | Make-up: Sophia Chia/Makeup Works
This story first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Prestige Singapore.