More than meats the eye: Driving sustainable food innovation with R&D

The global meat substitute market size1 is growing steadily and projected to reach over US$8,800 million by 2027. In Singapore, the production of alternative proteins is not only geared towards greater sustainability but also contributes towards national food security.

Singapore’s “30 by 30” goal — to produce 30 per cent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by 2030 — aims to increase Singapore’s food production from less than 10 per cent today. R&D and new technologies can strengthen food security, and our food system is evolving with novel foods being introduced.

Dr Andrew Wan is a Principal Investigator at Food Process Engineering capability group of A*STAR's Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), whose current research efforts are focused on addressing two of the key challenges that land-scarce Singapore grapples with - food security and sustainability. To tackle these challenges, his team works on the engineering of plant-based and cultivated meat, drawing on their experience in 3D cell culture and tissue engineering. The team’s work has been published in top tier journals such as Nature Communications and Nature Nanotechnology.

Driving sustainable food innovation with R&DDr Andrew Wan (second from left) with his team members in Food Process Engineering’s Scaffold Engineering Lab

In 2021, Dr Wan founded his own foodtech start-up, Audra Labs. The local spin-off from A*STAR aims to enhance both the quantity and quality of plant-based meat alternatives, and contribute to the diversity and available range of products through its proprietary fibre technology.

In this exclusive interview, Dr Wan shares what inspires his passion for science, his exciting endeavour into entrepreneurship and what keeps him occupied outside of work!

What's your role in A*STAR and what are your core research areas/projects?

As a Principal Investigator at SIFBI, I play the role of mentor and supervisor to the more junior staff. I am also responsible for executing funded projects while exploring and planning for new areas of research and potential funding.

Currently, the area of focus for our team is investigating a scaffold-based approach towards processing cultivated meat as well as plant-based meat analogues, which are alternatives that will have a similar texture, flavour and appearance as traditional meat products. Cultivated, cultured or cell-based meat is an exciting new area which requires the use of biomaterial scaffolds to guide the differentiation of cells into muscle fibres. We have identified novel, non-animal derived factors that can help cells attach to the scaffolds, with much promise for application in the area of cultivated meat.

What inspired you to be a researcher in food science innovation?

The greatest single factor that has motivated me to shift my research to food science innovation is the urgent need for such research in the face of climate change, and the closely entwined challenge of meeting our food security in a sustainable manner. I believe that food scientists are now in a position to make a very important contribution to humanity and Nature.

What are some of your most notable achievements?

I had the opportunity to do the pioneering work in developing a class of fibrous scaffolds for biomedical applications. Amongst the various tissue models that my team has come up with, I probably take the most pride in a glioma model that we developed several years ago, which helps us to understand how cancer cells can promote their own survival by interacting with the molecules in the matrix surrounding them. Owing largely to the contributions of my team members, I was named amongst the top 2 per cent of scientists in the area of bioengineering, in a 2020 Stanford study2 .

Tell us more about your entrepreneurship journey beyond A*STAR.

During the circuit breaker of 2020, I came to the realisation that the fibre process that we had been using for bioengineering could also be applied to plant-based meat analogues. This motivated me to found Audra Labs, which licensed our fibre technology from A*STAR to steer it towards commercialisation.

The company aims to make plant-based meat analogues using a fibre spinning and assembly technology that can create fibrous products with the texture and appearance of meat. The founding process was truly an invaluable experience which involved getting angel investment, recruiting capable staff and importantly, defining a vision and mission for Audra Labs.

How has the experience helped you in your career as a researcher?

The entrepreneurship experience has allowed me to better appreciate the value of academic research, as well as understand the process by which commercialisation may help to realise its benefits. In our quest for solutions in the laboratory, I have started to consider whether these solutions are practicable from an industry viewpoint.

What keeps you occupied outside of work?

I like to write, watch dramas based on real life/ historical events, and jog or walk as a means to explore Singapore.

If you could invent something for the betterment of the world, what would it be?

I truly believe that the knowledge and inventions arising from my lab at the present moment, which involves creating better alternative protein options for consumers thus reducing animal agriculture, are my key contribution to the betterment of the world.

Any words of advice for the younger generation interested in food science research?

My advice applies to food science as well as other areas of research. While having in-depth expertise in at least one area is important, it doesn’t hurt to learn more, even to venture outside your area of specialty. People who have broad knowledge are the ones who can connect the dots and come up with really useful innovations.

2 Ioannidis JPA, Boyack KW, Baas J (2020) Updated science-wide author databases of standardized citation indicators. PLoS Biol 18(10): e3000918.