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Impact 0532: Reducing food waste with the help of insects

Sean Tan · 13 April 2022
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Youth Action Challenge (YAC) is a platform for youth to provide solutions that tackle the issues we are concerned about. Since October 2021, over 80 teams and more than 310 youths have undertaken the YAC Season 3 journey.

Sean Tan, 29, is the founder and CEO of Insect Feed Technologies (IFT). He is currently working to reduce the impact food waste has on our environment by feeding it to insects, and using the output from this process as sustainable inputs for food production — the insects itself are used as a protein source for animal feed, and frass (its poop), as organic fertiliser for farming. 

To date, they have upcycled at least 60 tons of food waste in their R&D facility, and are scaling up now with a target to process 100 tons of food waste per day in the next year. Today he shares more about the process!

What was your role within your YAC project?

For the YAC project, the team consisted of passionate undergraduates studying Environmental Science in NUS, who were previously interning with me. I was fortunate that they saw what we were building at IFT, and decided to continue with us to embark on the YAC project to develop new product lines. 

For my role, I led the team in strategising the product development roadmap, the commercialisation plan, and marketing strategy.

What motivated you to join YAC?

I was first exposed to the problem of food security when I had the privilege to join Enterprise Singapore as an officer. Being tasked to be part of a project to research our food production value chain made me realise how insecure, fragile, and perilously interconnected our food systems were. 

Wherever we are, be it in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or even in Europe, we’re all somehow affected by what happens globally when food security is under threat.

The YAC programme kickstarted at an opportune time when IFT was looking to develop new products as part of its plan to scale-up its production, and create high value-added products by converting its manufacturing output of insect protein into formulated pet and aquafeed. 

As a start-up founder, my role can be simplified into three things: 找人 (Find People),找钱 (Find Money),找方向 (Find Direction). With a direction already set, I saw the YAC programme as a means to find the people, the networks, and the financial resources to make our plan work.

Can you share with us your experience with your YAC project?

I enjoyed the experience of working together with my interns once again. As a group, I think we definitely learned a lot from understanding each other’s perspectives, having to balance between achieving measurable, impact-driven outcomes and practical, performance-driven commercial results. 

It was also fun mentoring my interns on how to prepare pitch decks, having late nights to practise pitch runs, and getting materials prepared on the day of the pitch to maximise our probability of success in achieving our award targets.

What are some challenges you faced while working on your YAC project?

One of the challenges we faced was the length of the programme. As a startup, we needed to move fast but to do so, we also needed to secure resources, both manpower and money. We were fairly confident that we had a roadmap planned out on what we wanted to achieve, that we had what it takes to show the panel, and that we would be eligible for at least a grant award. However, to be eligible to pitch at the panel, we had to attend all the workshops and masterclasses that were planned for us as a team.

Being a founder of a startup that is already running operations (and having to solve all the problems any startup would face) meant that I really had to prioritise my time. While there is value in re-learning and possibly learning new things through the workshops, I really had to constantly evaluate my priorities between spending time attending the workshops or attending to other matters. This also meant having to sacrifice a lot of my personal time for those workshops held on weekends.

Could you share more on how your project has a positive impact?

Insect Feed Technologies is an insect technology company that transforms food waste into protein, oil and fertiliser with insects. 

Insect farming is an emerging practice, where waste is fed directly to insects. This converts low-value biomass into higher-value insect mass, rich in proteins, fats, and chitin. Insects can then be used as sustainable inputs for a variety of sectors, most notably high-quality animal feeds demanded by the aquaculture sector and premium pet food markets. Insect alternatives could reduce 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and up to 90 per cent of land and water compared to industrial agriculture for chickens, cattle, pigs, and soy.

In the local context, our solution intends to support Singapore’s food security strategies and 30-by-30 plan, as we strive towards increased food security. We work with partners that provide us clean food waste sources like Sunbird Brewing Company and soy-focused F&B brand Mr. Bean to acquire feed for IFT’s insect larvae, and we focus on creating formulated aquafeed for shrimp, and pet food for cats and dogs, using the insects. 

We hope to cultivate a circular economy in the city-state, reduce the misallocation of food, and curtail the overall carbon footprint of Singaporeans.

Were there any key takeaways or learning points from your time with YAC?

Being among other capable and like-minded individuals who are working towards the same goal towards a sustainable future was comforting and gave me a lot of insights and a deeper perspective on the sustainability sector and opportunities.

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