What are the hot topics in Japanese foodtech closing out 2023?

As 2023 draws to an end, three major foodtech topics Meros followed this year: the growing interest in circular economy, sustainability and Japan’s emerging cultivated meat sector, were all still front and center at the annual Foodtech Japan, Drink Japan and the Smart Restaurant EXPO at Tokyo Big Sight this month. Not only could we glean insights into where the Japanese market is focusing now, but we could also get a sense of what issues may be the hot food industry topics of 2024.

Circular economy and food loss

Initiatives and technologies utilizing ‘non-standard’ or discarded fresh produce are increasing. Projects are being seen everywhere, from large companies to start-ups. Meros has been working closely on food loss projects in the Japanese fresh food industry this year and so of particular interest to us was Astra Food Plan.

Astra Food Plan is a Japanese Series A start-up that uses superheated steam technology to dry food waste rapidly into powder. Astra Food Plan offers a range of examples, including lemons, onions, eggshells, and green tea leaves. Upon smelling the lemon vials, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a very strong smell of lemons, even in this powdered form, suggesting clear commercial applications.

A noticeable difference between Astra Food Plan’s idea and other circular economy-based products focusing on compost was that this is one of the dew start-ups focusing on upcycling and re-commercialization. Each dry food waste powder has tailored individual usages, taking into consideration their characteristics: the lemons for baking, the eggshells for high-end beauty products and green tea to mix with plastic, potentially to create rubbish bags that prevent odor. This diversity of potential commercial applications makes Astra Food Plan one we will continue to watch.

DX & the Japanese Labor Crisis

The reoccurring theme across all the events at the EXPO was DX (digital transformation), with many companies displaying AI-based products aimed at alleviating the strain placed on the food and beverage industry from Japan’s growing labor shortage.

There were certainly samples of the now-familiar delivery robots found in many Japanese restaurant chains – new prototypes of these ever cuter delivery robots were delivering boxed lunches to customers in the food court area of the event. However the more interesting innovation targeted automation for food manufacturing and central kitchens. For example, machines that automate the task of stir-frying were on display and may soon be found in industrial kitchens in Japan. Add the ingredients into this machine and it will then stir-fry the dish with no human help.

Sustainability: Including human rights and labor issues

Meros attended a number of seminars and a top topic was sustainability. For example, Ms Shihumi Takamori from Asahi Holdings Japan, producer of Japan’s #1 beer, presented on their domestic sustainability initiatives and policies and also discussed some of their challenges in this space. Seeing such major Japanese food companies taking center stage to speak bluntly about sustainability issues would have been rare just two years ago. But there is a growing movement among the major Japanese manufacturers to take global sustainability issues more seriously.  

A few takeaways from this seminar were:

  • The five pillars of Asahi’s sustainability global policy are environment, communities, responsible drinking, health and human rights.
  • Asahi has initiatives covering each sustainability pillar at each stage of their supply chain (sourcing, distribution, manufacturing and retail). For example, one of the issues of concern under human rights is the working conditions of truck drivers in their distribution system. An example initiative to address this is collaboration between Asahi, Kirin (Japan’s other giant brewery), and Japan Rail (JR) train services for distributing their beers. This kind of collaboration between companies (even rivals!) as well as effective use of the Japanese train system is likely to be of increasing importance, as the industry anticipates the shortage of truck drivers in Japan to become a ‘very hot’ topic in 2024.
  • However, Asahi Holdings feels there is still big differences between Asahi Japan and their international companies in terms of sustainability progress. Asahi has purchased numerous major beer brands in Europe, Australia and elsewhere in recent years and Takamori admitted that differences in sustainability policies and the progress towards sustainability goals within the Japan parent company and their international business is something they continue to tackle.

Cultivated meat in Japan

This has been a major area of interest to Meros this year, as we worked on several market assessments for international clients interested in Japan’s cultivated meat industry and also mentored the award-winning cultivated seafood start-up Forsea, as they explore Asian markets.

We were particularly interested in a seminar featuring the CEOs of two of the four main Japanese cultivated meat startups: Diverse Farm and Organoid Farm.

The key takeaways from Mr Jiro Ono, CEO of Diverse Farm and Ms Taeko Yamaki, CEO of Organoid Farm, included:

  • Cultivated meat is not yet commercially available in Japan but to create solid legislation for the manufacture and sale of cultivated meat, safety requirements, providing a sense of security (to consumers and stakeholders), licensing and labeling are the critical areas that must be agreed on.
  • There is still debate about the different factors and perspectives to consider when choosing which animal cell to cultivate. They cited research that suggests cultivated chicken meat actually has a carbon footprint 4% higher than conventional chicken, compared to the significant decrease in the carbon foodprint of cultivated beef (down by 92%) and pork (down by 52%). However when considering animal welfare, cultivated chicken has arguably the biggest improvement compared to conventional chicken.
  • The Japanese industry has a goal of harvesting over 1 ton of cultivated meat, but still faces significant challenges in scaling up.

Looking ahead

In 2024 Meros will continue to track the topics of circular economy, sustainability and the emerging cultivated meat industry in Japan.

We also expect to keep an eye out on the issue of shortage of truck drivers and other labor issues in the supply chain as well as follow the growing discussions on biodiversity as a critical aspect of sustainability initiatives. Meros, a co-founder of the Japan Impact Investing Network (J-IIN) will be holding a series of webinars on natural capital, including biodiversity in 2024 and we invite you to follow our page and the J-IIN page on LinkedIn for updates.

Come join Meros at the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit, Singapore, October 31- Nov 2, 2023

We are incredibly pleased to be partnering with the Asia-Pacific Agri-Food Innovation Summit in Singapore, to be held October 31 – Nov 2, 2023. Our goal is help bring more perspectives and voices from Japan’s food and agriculture innovation scene into the lively debates in Singapore.

Join us there! We’ll be happy to introduce you to people we know or navigate all the events going on.

Meros has been attending this event every year since it started. It has become one of our favorite events in the region, because unlike a basic conference or expo, this summit emphasizes learning, debating and presenting on solutions to the most pressing issues facing our industry. It is a chance to ask questions. A chance to connect with potential partners. A chance to hear from the world’s leading agribusinesses, food brands, growers, entrepreneurs, and investors to discuss how technology and investment can be targeted to have the greatest impact on the agri-food value chain in the Asia-Pacific region.

We have seen a growing number of Japanese companies attending the Summit in the last few years. But we still feel there are so many perspectives and experiences from Japan’s agri-food and technology scenes that would valuable additions to the debates, from Japanese food industry innovations to seaweed farming and aquaculture to biostimulants and soil health.

This year’s event will cover agri-food tech, indoor agriculture and blue economy (aquaculture and ocean-based businesses). Key topics for 2023 include:

  • Decarbonisation: Carbon Footprint, Carbon Markets and Climate Mitigation in Agriculture
  • Food Security: Addressing Supply Chain Disruptions and Building Resilience
  • Digital Transformation: De-Risking Smallholder Farming with Agri-Tech and Agri-Fintech
  • Soil Health: Ensuring a Stable Supply of Biological Crop Protection and Nutrition
  • CEA Resource Efficiency: Driving Technology and Policy Innovation for Energy Resilience
  • Indoor Farming Genetics: Expanding the Supply Chain for Genetically Optimised Seeds
  • Nutrition and Health: Health Aging, Clean-Label, and the Gut-Brain Axis
  • Future of Proteins in Asia: Animal,Plant-Based, Microbial & Cell-Based Proteins
  • Blue Food Production: Accelerating Digitisation and Circular Systems in Aquaculture
  • Scale-Up Finance: New Investment Models Supporting Agri-Tech and Food-Tech 
  • Strategic Partnerships: Building Bridges for a Food-Secure and Crisis-Proof Food System
  • Ecosystem Building: Connecting the Dots across the Asia-Pacific Region

The Summit offers many events occurring simultaneously, so it works for different people’s topics of interest and networking styles. There are panels and discussions led by thought-leaders and industry experts, who give real world examples and cutting-edge insights on technologies, trends and recent business successes and failures.

But the Summit also consciously engineers many opportunities for spontaneous meetings with new people – networking events, small round table discussions, 1-to-1 networking spaces, bottomless coffee, start-ups pitch events and lunches featuring new food products from attending start-ups and companies. It makes it easy to strike up conversations with new people, from start-ups, food brands and agribusinesses, investors and R&D departments.

Why Singapore? Singapore is rapidly becoming the APAC hub of the agrifood innovation eco-system, spurred by the Singapore government’s ambitious “30 by 30” vision, which aims for 30% of Singapore’s nutritional needs to be produced locally by 2030, up from less than 10% today. But Singapore is also creating a supportive environment for entrepreneurship and innovation in the space (Meros has been blow away by the start-ups we have met and mentored through the GROW accelerator program in Singapore.) And the city’s access to regional markets makes it an attractive launchpad for new business in the region.  In short, Singapore is where many of the most influential discussions and product launches are being made today.

Join us!

Use our code MEROS10 for an extra 10% off or get in touch with us to learn more about how this dynamic event works.

On stage! Plug and Play Japan’s Food and Beverage accelerator showcases its first cohort

Meros was thrilled to be invited to the final pitch event of Plug and Play Japan‘s Food and Beverage accelerator program, with Meros’ managing director Chisa Ogura on stage as a commentator. Plug and Play Japan is a subsidiary of Plug and Play Tech Center, the global innovation platform headquartered in Silicon Valley.

The 10 start-ups on stage on September 13th were the members of the Food and Beverage accelerator’s first cohort and included both Japanese and international start-ups.

The event was an exciting chance to see the strong interest in food tech among the Japanese industry, as well as the high level of interest in the Japan market among overseas startups.

Here are some of the highlights!

1 There is a high level of interest in sustainable packaging and bio-plastics

Of the 10 companies showcased by Plug and Play, four were related to sustainable packaging. Among the various fields related to food tech, the growing focus on sustainable packaging over the past year or two is very interesting, especially considering the interest from food-related companies in Japan.

Interesting start-ups included Phaxtec, which uses biogas powered by microorganisms to produce PHA, allowing high production efficiency and low emissions. The end product has high biodegradability but the high price remains a bottleneck for the company. The company says they are addressing this issue. From our chats with visitors at the event, we could sense a high level of interest in sustainable packaging and bioplastic technology.

2 From upcycling to precision fermentation?

There were four startups working on upcycling using fungi and bacteria, utilizing by-products of the food industry. They produced end-products ranging from bioplastics to food ingredients and alcohol.

However, the biggest challenge for these companies in scaling up is securing sufficient volumes of raw materials.

One company, Mi Terro, is looking to overcome this challenge by avoiding a focus on sourcing a specific food waste as it scales up its protein film/fiber products, and instead produces protein from microbial cultures. This is potentially a very interesting direction.

3 It all comes down to health!

Out of all the interesting companies in the Plug and Play lineup, the pitch winner was….. was Tait Labs!

Taking inspiration from the dried mandarin orange peels used in Chinese medicine, Tait Labs has developed a prebiotic supplement that reduces inflammation in the digestive tract and promotes digestion. They have a patented extraction technology and utilize mandarin peel waste from juice and canning factories. They are planning to link this with digital-based health management.

Tait Labs’ concept was easy to understand and its potential for future development as a medicine was also interesting. Importantly, this business concept seemed to resonated with the broader audience, beyond just those in food-related fields.