Established in 2022 under foodtech investor Hafnium Ventures, the Singapore-based company specialises in its okara conversion technology to produce a protein-rich intermediate, known as Soi-X, used in plant-based cheese products.
FoodNavigator-Asia previously published about its upcycling technology and the growth potential of okara in the plant-based market.
SoiLabs recently raised SGD$500,000 (USD$370,000) seed funding round backed by Sanyo Chemical and Hafnium Ventures, and entered a MoU with the former to develop the business in Japan and on end product applications.
“Win-win opportunity for both”
SoiLabs’ CEO, Dr Mauro Catellani, told FoodNavigator-Asia about the benefits of partnering with Sanyo.
“Sanyo is very well-established in Japan, and the partnership will help us to accelerate the commercialization for our products. As you know, okara in Japan is a very large business as we talk about 8,000 to 1 million tonnes of okara per annum to be disposed, so [Japan is] definitely a very big market for us. Also, Sanyo is very active in carbon emissions reduction, so our technologies support the aspect of sustainability.”
When asked about Sanyo’s involvement in the business, Catellani said that a commercial agreement is in place for Sanyo to manage the entire Japanese market – from processing the okara to managing the distribution networks in Japan.
Additionally, SoiLabs would tap on Sanyo’s technology and skills for new product development beyond its current range of food products, such as emulsifiers.
SoiLabs currently has cream cheese, cheese slices, and soups in its pipeline, and would roll them out for sale to the Singapore market “by end of the year, beginning of next year maximum.”
On what underlined its commercialisation plan, Catellani explained: “We did a lot of sensory testing with many potential consumers and can say that the acceptance of the products is very high. People were excited by the cheese, especially the spreadable cream cheese, and the soup as well. There are many applications to the products, like sliced cheese on vegan hamburger. That gives us a lot of confidence.
“The beauty of the system is that once you have the intermediate product [Soi-X], then you can tailor the product to different tastes from Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. In principle, you can tune the taste of the cream cheese according to the local geographic requirements and tastes.”
He hinted that some partnerships are under the way with food producers in Asia-Pacific – with SoiLabs licensing its proprietary technology to the producers – which would “leave [the producers] free” to innovate on the local flavours’ front and distribute the end products to their local markets.
While SoiLabs’ focus remains in Asia given that it is the biggest contributor of soy waste, Catellani said that the firm has its sights on Europe in the longer-term as soy by-products are gaining popularity among European consumers.
“Europe has very few producers, compared to Asia. We are talking about maybe one to 99%. But what I’m saying that is important in Europe is the market as it is getting more accepting these products. The products that we are proposing are healthy foods, low cholesterol, low fat, high protein. These products can substitute the milk or the dairy in the European market,” Catellani explained.
New product development
For its upcycling business model to work, Catellani highlighted the need for SoiLabs to diversify and expand the uses of okara.
“The pain for [soy] producers is to get rid of 100% of the okara material. If we’re only using 5% of it, they are not interested in this kind of business. Our point is having a platform of utilising 100% or as much as possible of the okara. Okara currently used for animal nutrition is very low value.
“On one hand, we want to solve their operational problem to get rid of all the okara. On the other hand, we want to provide a variety of products in different segments to satisfy different kinds of consumers. We’re talking about food, animal nutrition, cosmetics and so on so forth. We need to find other products to really use up all the waste. That's the key point.”
In the R&D phase, SoiLabs said that it is working on protein or peptides extraction, which is most likely used as a supplement. Catellani added that plant protein would play “a very dynamic role in the coming years” in the background of growing demand for vegan foods.
Beyond food, Catellani revealed that the start-up is diversifying into the agribusiness space with its Soi-X intermediate product, looking at animal feed and nutrition, and bio stimulants or plant nutrition.