Two Singapore-based deep tech companies, Biofourmis and Shiok Meats, have got a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic as the outbreak has brought to the fore the companies’ products, their CEOs said at the Asia PE-VC Summit earlier this week.
Deep techs are companies with meaningfully different technology, and not just a business model innovation.
Kuldeep Singh Rajput, CEO of Biofourmis, said that the pandemic has offered a boon not only to his company but to the entire digital-health sector as patients avoided hospitals. He was speaking at a panel titled ‘Sunrise sectors in SE Asia’ at the summit organised by DealStreetAsia.
Founded in 2015, Biofourmis provides clinically validated software-based therapeutics to better monitor patients, particularly those outside hospitals.
In the first quarter of this year, the pandemic caused a surge of interest in telemedicine and video consultation, but without being able to access patient data, for conditions such as respiratory issues or chemotherapy, the service had limitations, Rajput said.
In the second quarter, as remote monitoring technologies were added, adoption surged, he said.
In addition, Rajput said his company, which in January published clinical trials of its products for acute respiratory distress syndrome, quickly shifted gears earlier this year to use its offering for monitoring COVID-19 patients. Biofourmis had to ramp up sensor production by 20 times, managing more than 50,000 COVID-19 patients across four countries on government commissions, he said.
“We have seen fantastic results in some countries, where using our technology [meant] really being able to predict COVID-19 worsening events up to 21 hours in advance, enabling clinicians to intervene early. And as you start to see the surge of COVID-19, it becomes very important for hospital systems to allocate their resources properly,” he told the panel.
Biofourmis will soon begin producing its sensors in Singapore, as well as at its facilities in Zurich, Switzerland.
In September, Bioufourmis raised $100 million in a series C round led by SoftBank Vision Fund. In a May 2019 Series B round, Biofourmis raised $35 million from MassMutual Ventures Southeast Asia, Sequoia Capital India, Aviva Ventures, Openspace Ventures, SGInnovate, Jianke and EDBI, according to Crunchbase data.
“SoftBank has been tracking us for quite some time now,” Rajput said, noting his company met with Softbank in late 2019, before most countries were looking at lockdowns. “Since then, as we started scaling, with all these milestones, they reached back to us. We started having conversations around the fundraise,” he added.
The talks, including with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, centered around the potential opportunities, not just in the US, but also across Asia Pacific, particularly Japan and China, Rajput said.
“We were not anticipating raising that kind of large amount. But eventually, I think there was a very clear opportunity on what we would use the funds for and how that would accelerate our business,” he said.
Interest in cell-based meat
Sandhya Sriram, founder and CEO of cell-based meat player Shiok Meats, said at the panel discussion that her company has also seen increased interest due to COVID-19, even though some operations were disrupted during Singapore’s lockdown period.
“Food supply and food security have been brought up a lot during this period,” she said, describing how even in Singapore, it felt shocking to not find usual products in grocery stores. “It kind of raised an alarm in everybody’s brains.”
In general, concerns over food safety, climate change and potential supply-chain disruptions have spurred investments into “cultured,” or cell-based meats. These are meat products grown from animal cells in a nutrient medium, rather than raising the full animal. No cultured meat products have been commercialised yet.
The word “shiok” is slang in Singapore and Malaysia for both delicious foods and for saying something is enjoyable.
Shiok Meats is working to reduce the price of producing its products — mostly shrimps, crabs, and lobsters — to bring it to $50-60 a kilogram in preparation for launching in one or two restaurants by the end of 2022, Sriram told the panel.
She added that her company is starting to build its first manufacturing plant, located in Singapore, noting the facilities will look similar to a brewery.
Sriram said Shiok Meats has fared well when it comes to attracting investors.
Shiok Meats has raised a total of around $20.4 million, according to Crunchbase data. That includes a Series A round announced in September for $12.6 million from investors including Yellowdog, Makana Ventures, Toyo Keikan Group, Alex Payne, Nicole Brodeur, Aqua Spark, Kelvin S.L. Chan, Ifshin Investment, Alpha Impact Investment, Seeds Capital, Beyond Impact, Real Tech Fund and VegInvest, the data showed.
The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit group that advocates for alternatives to conventional animal agriculture said in an industry report that cultivated meat companies raised more than $75 million in 2019, more than the three previous years combined, with governments also stepping up support.
Sriram said she hasn’t had to seek out investors to pitch, and that instead, they contact Shiok Meats.
“We get emails and contacts from investors that are extremely passionate about the sustainable food industry. And it’s been pretty, I would say, not easy, but I would say less complex to explain to them why we’re doing this. I think they already know the problem statement. They want to learn more about the solution and how we do it and how we want to scale up,” Sriram said.