Tastes like Meat, Feels like Meat, Smells like Meat – but it is not Meat. Discover how cancer research led to a food additive business.

BY DBS, 24 JUL 2023

What started off as cancer research led to the discovery of food additives that make alternative meats… “meatier”. On this episode of The Next Impact Maker, we speak to scientist cum entrepreneur Max Tham, CEO of tHEMEat Company.

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In brief:

  • While doing his PhD thesis on cancer, Max had a revelation about molecules that could potentially solve the food waste problem we face.
  • Entrepreneurship can be a humbling experience especially when coming from a technical field. He had to adapt to thinking like the customer to be able to speak their language. It’s how his team came to be a winner at the inaugural DBS x NEA Hungry for Change Challenge.
  • Max has grown to be a nurturer and believes in the potential of future generations, by mentoring his interns and younger staff at work and his children at home. He is very much driven by wanting to create a better future for them. And also realised that they will step up when it is time.

The DBS Foundation x NEA Hungry for Change Challenge returns with F&B partners McDonald’s, Koufu, and The Social Kitchen, inviting the next generation of youth entrepreneurs to reimagine and reduce food and packaging waste.

The five most innovative and impactful ideas will receive total funding of up to SGD 100,000 from DBS Foundation. And additional SGD 25,000 will be given to the most promising solutions of the five at the end of the pilot. Find out more!

Daphne: Today we are speaking to Max Tham. He is the CEO of tHEMEat Company. A chemist by training, he will be giving us more insights into his journey as a young entrepreneur, inventing a product that could change the way we view vegetable waste. He will tell us all about that product, 'VEME', which was a winner at the inaugural DBS Foundation x NEA Hungry for Change Challenge.

Welcome, Max.

Max: Nice to be here.

Daphne: So maybe give us a bit of background to tHEMEat Company. Exactly what is this product 'VEME', and how is this different from what's already out there in the market?

Max: tHEMEat Company is a food tech company that started off in NUS - National University of Singapore. And what we do here is that we upcycle, and we convert food waste into useful food ingredients that have applications in alternative proteins and other kinds of food products as well.

Talking about 'VEME' specifically, it is a novel, revolutionary food additive that's able to replicate the look, cook, smell and taste of animal meats, but from vegan ingredients. And we call this a flavour catalyst.

What it does is enhance the number of cooking reactions, produce a greater diversity and abundance of meat tasting and smelling molecular compounds. And as a result, any alternative proteins flavoured with this 'VEME' flavour catalyst will taste more like meat, smell more like meat, cook like meat, and look like meat as well.

Daphne: So, when you say it is a product, what should we be thinking of? Is it like a soya sauce? Is it like granules?

Max: You can think about it more like a vegan equivalent or a vegan version of meat juice but instead, it’s made from vegetable portions.

Daphne: And when you say that it is an additive, you mean it can be added to anything?

Max: Yes, it can be added to anything, even to meat as well. So, anything that needs an enhancement in flavour, but a natural enhancement in flavour. The special thing about 'VEME' itself is that it naturally creates these flavours.

It synergises with any kind of ingredients that you can use as well. It doesn't smell too much like barbecue, it doesn't smell too much like grilled pork, and it can be used to generate different kinds of flavours, whether it is pork, it is chicken, it is beef, it is salmon.

Daphne: What exactly are the qualities of a meat enhancing additive? Like, what are we thinking of? I mean, I'm no flavourist or anything.

Max: Traditionally, what the flavour industry usually used to do is that they would rely on this set of chemical reactions known as the Maillard reaction, which is a reaction between sugars and amino acids to generate these meaty-flavoured compounds as well.

But of course, meat-flavour generation is a cascading series of many kinds of chemical reactions. So, when you are using this Maillard reaction, you are only doing one set of reactions. But what 'VEME' does is that it allows access to other kinds of meat generating reactions such as Strecker Degradation, Lipid Oxidation, many, many kinds of reactions.

As a result, you have a lot more flavour in the amount of molecules that are found naturally in meat. But now we can produce it from vegetarian ingredients or vegan ingredients. And so the alternative protein can now taste and smell more like meat than ever before.

Daphne: Okay. Clearly a scientist by training.

Max: We do tend to speak our own language and we are actually very comfortable in using our own language to explain things to layman audiences. So do forgive me for going off on this, it is part of our passion as well.

Daphne: I think I kind of get it how this additive works. If you are a scientist by training, share with us, how did you end up leading this start-up? Because I imagine the role is quite different.

Max: I would say that it didn't start off as an active choice. I was actually called in by my boss, who is basically a professor, Professor Ang Wee Han from the Chemistry Department. He did ask me, he said, "Hey, Max, do you want to work with this start-up? We have a chemistry problem that we need you to solve.” And so that's where it started from.

I solved the chemistry problem and then I just realised that there's a lot more problems, you know? It is not just about getting this molecule out, we just realised that the whole pipeline is so inefficient. So, I started taking on more problems of my own and those chemical problems started becoming business problems, technological problems, and other set of administrative problems.

And the more duties I assumed because my interest started to grow as well. Because, whenever we solve these problems, we do a lot of research and when we do research, somehow, we get sucked into that whole level of research. We become very invested in it and very interested in it as well. So before long, I realised that I was pretty much leading the company.

Daphne: Did it come naturally?

Max: For the chemistry portion, yes. It was the easiest part to solve. But when you look at the business side of things and administration side of things, you realise that all the problems are way a lot bigger than just using scientific knowledge and conjectures to solve. But what really drew me forward was the fact that, there was a very huge opportunity here.

A technology that can change lives and change the way we think about food. These kinds of technologies or research problems that we encounter in the lab are usually not of this magnitude and scale. And so, that's where the interest also started as well - that we can actually make a real difference here.

Daphne: And I alluded to this in my introduction. The chemistry portion that you said that landed you to 'VEME' actually came from some cancer research. Tell us about that story.

Max: I was finishing up my thesis on cancer vaccines. As chemists, the way we see the world is a connection of atoms as well, arranged in a very particular way. For my case, I was working on cancer, and we were trying to develop a cancer vaccine using metal drugs.

And it just so happens that the molecule that is responsible for generating these meaty flavours, are also made of metals as well. And so, we just put two and two together. “Okay, the chemistry is very similar. Let's try applying this chemistry that we know from our cancer vaccine research and apply it directly into this meat-flavour research”. And it worked spectacularly well. So, we got the molecule. It was much easier than I expected. And so that's how one thing led from cancer to meat.

Daphne: How did that light bulb moment come about though?

Max: In cancer, we are dealing with therapeutic metals like platinum. For meat flavour generation - we are dealing with native metals like iron. Key to any chemist’s worth its salt is that we actually love to make molecules and connect things together. And so when we actually could make these iron molecules, which are the backbone of 'VEME', we just got really excited.

Daphne: In my head, I imagine in the lab, you guys are constantly tasting things.

Max: As a chemist, we do not normally open up bottles of chemicals and taste them. So it was a whole new world. In fact, it was a huge leap of faith. My whole life flashed before my eyes before I went to taste it.

It was like "Max, your whole chemistry knowledge and your whole chemistry expertise relies on this moment because if you got it wrong, then yeah, I guess there's no more Max." I'm still here and now we are a lot more confident in tasting our products. So, we taste everything, and we smell everything.

Daphne: And that was a huge leap for you.

Max: That was a huge leap of faith for me because generally when we are dealing with chemicals in the chemistry lab, it is like, do not eat, do not drink, do not even touch it.

And now in the food lab it is like, "Yeah! Eat, drink and touch freely." We really had to take the leap of faith. But of course, I did send myself forward first. And I did tell my students every time if anything happens to me, please drag my body out and call my wife.

Daphne: Oh dear – has not happened yet.

Max: Yes, has not happened yet. So, it is all good.

Daphne: Your research and your experiments are going well. So, what's been the biggest personal challenge for you in taking on this role and kind of putting on that start-up hat instead of a chemist? Because just hearing you the way that you speak, you are clearly a scientist. You are the science guy, and you know your stuff. This is where you are trained and most comfortable.

Max: I guess the biggest fear that I had was the fact that this was a road that not many have trodden. The outlook is also very vague - we do not know what's at the end of the road yet. The chance of failure is very high.

There is always a chance of instability, and things are just not working out because now, you are not really dealing with hypotheticals, you are dealing with the real world as well. How do you engage customers? How do you convince investors? And it is not something that I've been trained to do as well.

For me, it was stepping into a very unfamiliar and what seemed to be a very unforgiving environment as well. That was my biggest fear. But the more I thought about it, it is actually very similar to research.

Just like research, you are choosing a particular research problem that you want to solve. No one has walked down this road as well. That's why it is called research. And you are going to spend a lot of time on this small problem that people might not care about as well, but you are taking the same risk.

So, the more I thought about it, the more I rationalised that it is the same as doing a PhD thesis, except that, this is a different set of circumstances. The mysteries are still there. You do not know whether your product is going to work out, but at the end of the road at least we have tried and that in itself is a reward too.

Just like in research, you've tried, you've failed, but when you fail it is not a failure itself. It is actually a new way of not being able to succeed.

Daphne: You joined the company two years ago?

Max: Yes, two years ago.

Daphne: So, it is still a very young journey. Any particular incident, though, that still stays with you that you are learning from?

Max: There are many incidences. I think of one, back in 2021, with a student. Her name is Ms Chia Jia Yang, and she cracked the code to making a beef flavoured molecule. So, we did have 'VEME', 'VEME' did bring a difference in the flavouring, but we still had to optimise it as well. We had to mix and match, and we had to find out how to use 'VEME' exactly.

And one day she got the beef flavouring. It was a very normal day and there was no indication that it was going to work, there was no indication that anything special was going to happen. When she brought it into the lab, the smell hit me, and I was just very convinced, like did you just cook this beef? She said "No, it is not beef. It is made up of 'VEME' and a lot of other vegan ingredients."

And I was like, "Really? I don't believe you. Can you show it to me?" And then she showed it to me, and, it really was. And that was the start, because up to that point we were like, “Does 'VEME' really work?” It looks good on paper, but we didn't have any evidence for it. But having that one breakthrough changed everything.

Daphne: Have you brought this to professional chefs? Have you brought this to the man on the street to go and try?

Max: We brought it to a lot of people on the street, mostly our students. So, if they walk past our lab, we just grab them and ask them "come, and smell".

Daphne: Or are they drawn in by the smell?

Max: Some of them are drawn in by the smells, but some we asked. They were a bit hesitant at first. They were like "what do you want me for? I'm not a guinea pig." But they become converts after that.

Daphne: I find this conduit interesting, the scientist in training as well as the entrepreneur by trade today, I mean, have there been any conflicts within you?

Max: Oh, yes, definitely. As a scientist, what we value is novelty of technologies, whether or not it is applicable in the real world. But of course, when talking about entrepreneurship, it is not about how novel something is or what advancement it is based on the previous technology, but how you actually package it. It is also a humbling experience because it is like telling a scientist that all the work that you do, not all of it is priced equally.

You need to learn how to change the language so that it becomes understandable. You have to humble yourself to know that some things are just not as interesting as you think they are.

That was one of the conflicts because we really had to put aside our own egos to know exactly what to prioritise, what to research on, and how to package it. Also, being an entrepreneur is a very humbling experience because you get rejections for not because of how the technology performs, but sometimes people just do not feel good about you, and you just have to accept it.

Daphne: That sounds like it is coming from some personal experience, though.

Max: Yeah, I guess so. There are so many rejections that we do not really see. DBS is one of the first few success stories that we have, and we are very appreciative of it. But, behind the scenes, there are also a lot of failures, and it is not because we didn't do a good pitch, or we didn't do a good demonstration. Sometimes the emotional aspect of it is also what overrides and what dominates people's decision making.

It is something that you just have to accept and then we just had to move on as well. I guess it is also a good life lesson, you know? Not everybody's going to appreciate what you appreciate equally.

Daphne: I think I've got a good idea of what the solution is that you've got. But it is actually very different, from when we think of alternative meats.

Max: Yes.

Daphne: It is actually an additive to anything that can make something feel meatier.

Max: Yes, that's right.

Daphne: I guess there are different layers to this solution. Can you describe the problem that you guys are trying to solve with 'VEME'?

Max: Generally, with alternative proteins, we find that they suffer from very low consumer adoption because they are quite expensive, and they also do not taste as good. And most importantly, this is compared against animal meats.

And when you are asking the layperson, would you buy alternative proteins over animal meat, most of them will always say that I would rather pay more for animal meat than alternative proteins, because I know I'm getting this premium whereas alternative proteins, they do know that it is trying to mask itself as animal meat. So, it is quite difficult to convince them that it is as good as well.

So, we distilled the problem to two factors which are, alternative proteins are too expensive and that they do not taste as good as animal meats. And so, when we designed 'VEME', we realised that if we want 'VEME' to be successful, it has to solve this major problem. It has to make alternative proteins more affordable and also as delicious as animal meat as well.

That is why we decided to use food waste and use our valorisation technologies to create 'VEME' from this food waste as well. Because food waste itself is in a way, zero cost. It is difficult to recover value from it because it is meant for the landfills.

But if you could invent a technology, a method to produce 'VEME' directly from this food waste, you could economically produce 'VEME' and other useful materials from it. And so that's where it started. It started with defining the problem and then trying to find a solution to that problem.

Daphne: So, it is almost two pronged. Because we know it is carbon heavy to produce meat. And then the fact that food waste is also carbon producing, harnessing the capabilities and the potential of that.

Max: Yes, that's right.

Daphne: Where do you get your food waste from?

Max: Well, supermarkets produce a lot of food waste. For example, like your Xiao Bai Cai, your Cai Sim. If they are not sold at the end of the day, they are thrown away as well. And this is after many rounds of filtering from distribution centres all the way to supermarkets. There's always active discarding of this vegetable waste.

We realised that most of this waste is being generated at a fraction of the cost and at the same time it is just food that is going to waste. And it is very, very heart wrenching to see that. We are not talking about, one kilogram, we are talking about within a supermarket alone, about 80 to almost 100 kilograms vegetables every single day.

Can you imagine maybe a more regional supermarket? That's probably like more than 100 kilograms, maybe 200 kilograms as well, if they are not able to clear by the end of the day because these vegetables, they do not look good, or maybe they are a little bit not up to the same quality that customers expect.

When we look at it, from a chemical point of view, there is so much of chemicals in there that are so useful. It is hard to make it on its own. The natural world is able to make these high value chemicals with such ease, but if you ask me to make it, I will probably cry because it is so complicated.

It is even more painful for us because the amount of chemicals - if you just buy them from a chemical supplier, are so expensive. So, you do not know how much value is in this $1.30 Xiao Bai Cai.

Daphne: When did you start noticing this as a problem for yourself?

Max: When we created 'VEME' we started with eggshells, but we also realised that eggshells were not the biggest problem. When we looked at the food waste problem, we realised that vegetable waste is on a magnitude of almost a thousand times more in terms of raw mass that we are producing, and yet it just goes to the landfills.

As we did more research into lifecycle analysis, how much carbon is being released just by putting vegetable waste into landfills or compost, we realised that all of this is not solving our problems. It is creating a problem.

And the ironic thing that we find is that Singapore's food security is secured because we import food from overseas, and yet we waste about 50% of this imported food. And all this contributes to climate change, which hurts the world's ability to produce food, and hurts Singapore's ability to secure its food supply because we are wasting so much food.

Daphne: In my head and correct me if I'm wrong, I'm imagining a bunch of scientists going to the supermarket back door. Picking up all the vegetables, negotiating.

Max: But of course, we do get the supermarkets’ permission as well. It feels good because we are finding new lease of life for these products as well.

Daphne: Could it be any vegetables? I would imagine some have different compounds and chemicals.

Max: In general, we look for green leafy vegetables, which is the bulk of the vegetables that are imported into Singapore.

Daphne: Why do you think it is important for a Singapore start-up to drive this? And I ask this only because I think the solution is kind of mind blowing, you are really getting to the heart of two problems here.

Max: In a way, Singapore represents a model city. The fact that we do not have the capability to produce the food, so we import the food. But we are also a negative role model, I guess, in a way for producing so much food waste. And I think this is one way that we can show that a city like Singapore with a little land space and the fact that our existence is so threatened by our ability to secure food, we actually can have a solution.

We can inspire other cities to do the same as well. And the solution does not have to be a high-tech solution that is difficult for other people to do. But just through excellent expertise, through careful planning, we are able to look around and recognise that we do have an abundance of resources in the form of waste that we just need to be able to tap into and use it to produce a wide variety of goods.

Going back to Singapore as a model city, we are known as a Garden City, and I think it is time that we also changed that from the Garden City to the Green City as well.

Daphne: Correct me if I'm wrong, this would be a Business to Business (B2B) kind of business model.

Max: Yes, a B2B, but we do have plans to go to Business to Consumer (B2C) as well.

Daphne: Talk to us about the customer base. What's the market like?

Max: For the B2B aspect, we are looking at customers from the Flavour and Fragrance Industries and from the alternative protein manufacturers industries. So 'VEME' flavour catalyst is actually meant to be sold to the flavour and fragrance industries to help them improve the flavour profiles of their existing food products.

Whereas for the alternative protein industries, what we are offering is a 'VEME'-related product that we call the 'VEME' juice. So, the 'VEME' juice is an all-in-one flavourant, colourant and odorant. So that means it is able to flavour their alternative proteins and also able to colour the meat as well.

What's special about the 'VEME' juice is that when you cook it, the 'VEME' juice is a mimic of the chemical composition of raw meat, but we are using vegan ingredients. As you cook this 'VEME' juice right, it undergoes a colour transition from red to brown because it is conducting the same kind of chemical reactions that you find when meat is being cooked as well. So, we are trying to mirror the whole cooking process, the whole sensorial process of eating meat to right down to the cooking level.

Daphne: And you mentioned earlier, of course the greatest value proposition you have is that it is affordable for these companies, because alternatively, what would they be doing?

Max: They would be either purchasing it from commercial flavour houses where they also have their own vegan meat flavourings. But the problem is that they'll give you a bunch of flavourings and they'll ask you to optimise it yourselves. And if I'm an alternative protein start-up, I'm spending a lot of time and money just trying to experiment and trying to find the perfect mix.

And even if I do find a perfect mix right after spending so much money, the flavour doesn't smell natural, it smells very artificial, and it usually smells like barbecue. As a start-up, you already have so much production cost, so how are you going to sell your alternative proteins then, at a level that's more affordable than animal meats to convince the end consumers to try out and replace animal meats with your product.

This is the problem that we see and for the flavour and fragrance industry it is no fault of theirs. It is very difficult to access other kinds of chemistry, especially in cooking reactions because they do not have the tools for it too. So what the 'VEME' flavour catalyst is supposed to do is allow them to access these higher order reactions so that their flavour mixtures are also more delicious, are more aromatic, more meat like, so that everyone else can also enjoy a higher quality of life in a way by being able to enjoy more meat identical vegan meat flavourings.

Daphne: You mentioned that you are looking to expand to B2C, what is the use case?

Max: For B2C, it would take the form of a plant-based meat infused with our 'VEME' juice. We do have some products, but they are not available for sale yet. But we have bacon bits and we do have dumplings as well and the minced meat. But this functions more of a proof-of-concept vehicles to show like this is what the 'VEME' juice is capable of, in any form and shape of alternative proteins.

Daphne: So, it would already be an end product. It is not like you sell them the additive to put into their tofu or anything like that.

Max: We do want to make sure that when we make the product right, they do get the product that is meat identical. We want to make it as easy as it is possible to enjoy a product. The last thing that we want for customers is to go and make their own alternative protein, which is a very tedious affair.

Daphne: For a young company it sounds really promising, but what do you foresee are the biggest hurdles ahead of you?

Max: The scale-up. Because when we are scaling up, it is a lot of complex operations that we do not encounter in school, that we do not encounter even in academia, because you are dealing with multimillion dollar infrastructure. And of course, when you scale up from a chemistry point of view, you suffer as reactions are no longer as efficient as you could do to them in a smaller scale.

As a result, you have to engage experts from outside the field as well. Which makes it one of the more difficult technical aspects. How do you design an industry? How do you set up a factory? How do you certify it? These are the real-world problems that are the biggest hurdles in terms of production.

From the social angle, of course, it is also about convincing the general public that food valorisation is the way to go because there's always going to be an aversion towards food waste. It is understandable because you’re asking people essentially to ingest something that they would just throw inside the rubbish bin.

But the good news is that the Singaporean population is primed for this because we have had New Water, we are very comfortable with it these days. So, we hope that we can convince the public as well that this 'VEME' is not doing just environmental benefits. We’re also helping the economy at large and helping Singaporeans’ health as well.

Daphne: I think a lot of people oversee that that when you start a business like this, that this is really part of your big responsibilities as well - changing mindsets and gaining acceptance. Any strategies there?

Max: I guess it is good to have a PhD in a way. It does gives us some leeway as well that we are experts, and we know we are talking about. But at the same time, we also do not want to be deaf to all the concerns that the layperson has as well, because they are also very legitimate concerns.

And so, our strategy, is to lay out a story for them to show the narrative of why is this a net good. How do they benefit as a result of these technologies as well? And of course, clear communication showing them how safe the product is. I think this clear communication is very important, especially because we are scientists, we tend to lose ourselves in the language. We expect everyone to understand our field as well as we do, even though people do not spend eight years studying molecules.

Daphne: I've got to admit I was a little bit lost when all those terms came out at the beginning of this chat. We touched on your own personal growth in the whole start-up journey. I remember having a chat with you and you were also talking about mentoring other young scientists who have joined the company. Plus, you are a young dad. Talk to us about how those are the roles that you play in your life, how they culminate to the values you try to bring to tHEMEat Company.

Max: As educators, we try to make sure that the students have a worthwhile educational experience, and when they spend time with us in the lab especially. So, we teach them what we know, and we do not hold back anything. And we do try to nurture them, teach them how to conduct experiments, how to hypothesise, how to make sense of this chaotic mass of data called science and how to deal with failure as well, because experiments are not designed to go well.

They are designed to test the unknown and they often fail. And so, we teach students how to deal with failure and how to pick themselves up after a failure as well. I think we do make it a mission at tHEMEat Company that we create a very positive learning environment. We do not shout; we do not reprimand unless there's a safety hazard involved. We always encourage and try to help each other out. So, we encourage a free flow of information between different members.

I think what we like about tHEMEat Company is that there is no barrier between individuals. Just because you are a PhD or undergraduate or a person without a degree dosn’t mean you can’t speak up and say that that's a bad idea. It is fair to criticise as long as the criticism is valid. I think that's where most of our successes have come from as well. We do not have this hierarchal system that would normally have restricted us.

Daphne: Do you think that's helped accelerate the process, as you mentioned, that one of the breakthroughs was from one of your students.

Max: Exactly! And the student at that time was an undergraduate as well. I trusted her and she did deliver. There are so many examples where I have students from NUS high school, they are not even undergraduate levels, and they've come up with wonderful ideas as well. Ideas that I couldn't have thought of myself.

Daphne: Is that part of the fulfilment from the job?

Max: Definitely. When you see them being able to present and defend their work really well as a result of all this nurturing, it feels really good. It is something to be proud of and they should be proud of as well because it is their work as well.

Daphne: There's almost a parallel between your own solution and the fact that you are nurturing a next generation of thinkers, doers, as well.

Max: In my own belief, I do not think that I am at the pinnacle of my field. I do not think that I'm the best in my field. And I do feel like the younger generation, they have more energy, they have more drive than me. And so, it is our imperative that we should teach them, that we should give them the skills that they need. We shouldn't be standing in their way; we shouldn't impede them because we are scared that we are becoming irrelevant.

I'm very appreciative because every time I have nurtured these students, they've always stepped up and they've always delivered far more than I could have imagined.

Daphne: But Max, to be honest, you are early 30s. You are nowhere near being old to be talking like this and you are a young dad. How has that shifted your worldview?

Max: Immensely, actually. Before fatherhood, I was very scared of children. After fatherhood, I'm still scared of children, but not so much. My children have given me - I know it sounds very cliche - a perspective of life. They really provide a sense of fulfilment, a sense of meaning as well.

And this is also the reason why I strive so hard at tHEMEat Company, because I realised that this solution is also a solution for them in the future because I do not want them to live in a world that their quality of life is actually worse than mine I want them to live in a world where their quality of life is the same or maybe better than mine as well.

And just because there's a climate crisis, there's a lot of geopolitical tension doesn't mean that they are not entitled to a good life too. And so, they provide the additional motivation, especially when things go hard. When I'm down, when experiments do not go well, which happens on a constant basis, I do catch myself thinking about them and thinking about them smiling.

Just the other day, my small boy, he is like one and a half years old, he's just playing with blocks and he was so happy connecting the blocks and I was so happy for him. And that was a joy that's not even on the same scale as making an experimental breakthrough. It made me appreciate the little things in life and also teaches me to be more patient, even with people in the lab too.

Daphne: Two boys under two.

Max: Yes. Two boys under two.

Daphne: And a start-up founder?

Max: Yes.

Daphne: How are you dealing with that?

Max: My wife, seriously, she does a wonderful job. And my parents and my in-laws as well. They provide the support that I need. They look after and they love my children and I really appreciate them because it is a very nice, heartwarming picture to see them playing with their grandparents. And my wife also steps up and she really takes care of the children, gives me that one hour, half an hour that I need to do my work, and maybe that additional hour of sleep as well. So really, I can't do it without my wife.

Daphne: Any role models that you take inspiration from.

Max: There's a lot of people, is four too many to mention? I do take inspiration from so many people. The first one, of course, is my father. I think I really respect him because he did come from an abusive household. But when it came to our family, he wasn't abusive at all. And I think it takes a certain character to break through that cycle of abuse.

He was never abusive. In fact, he was always very self-sacrificial. He always tried to be a good father to us and to give us a much better life than he ever had. And the more I think about it, the more I respect him, because he had no reference at that point in time. He had no father figure. He really is a self-made man because he came from poverty, but he became a Singapore Airlines pilot himself. He really represents someone who I really look up to.

Whereas for my mum, she's also a very resilient woman. I think she was one of the first few authority figures whom I know that prioritised play instead of education, especially during the height of streaming. She will always reassure us like, “Oh, it doesn't matter if you do not come from EM1. You are EM2 but I'm glad to be where you are”.

She always encouraged us to play, to always take breaks as well. And I believe that this regulation, she taught us how to partition between work and play also helped me be able to regulate myself as well so that I do not get burnt out and trying my best is what's most important, not being the best.

The last person I guess I'll mention is my wife. So my wife is also equally resilient. She gives me that extra hour to sleep sometimes and I really appreciate these little things in life that you can tell is true love. And of course, she always gives me chicken essence to drink. It really warms my heart, even for her, I recognise that she also is taking a risk alongside me when she tells me to go and chase your dreams go try this start-up. It also shows that she has faith in me, and I really appreciate that because not many spouses are this supportive as well.

Daphne: Want to find out then, last question for you. What's the big dream for both yourself and the business?

Max: The big dream, of course, will be the food valorisation technologies actually remove a significant portion of food waste in Singapore. We really would love to see that become a reality because that means all our hard work, all our technologies, all our hypotheses, all comes to life, and actually make a net positive imapct on the environment.

For the more economic side of things, we do hope that 'VEME' becomes a national and then followed by a global phenomenon that is used by all industries in the world, because we believe that it has a lot merits to it, it solves a lot of problems and we do want to see it adopted throughout the entire world.

Daphne: We want to see it become a success to do that as well. Thank you so much for your time, Max.

Max: Thank you.

Daphne: I've been speaking to Max Tham, CEO of tHEMEat Company, which has developed 'VEME', a food additive produced from food waste, which significantly improves the taste of alternative meats.

If you are interested to find out more about the other pilot solutions towards zero food waste from the DBS Foundation NEA Hungry for Change Challenge. Just have a quick search online for DBS Foundation Hungry for Change to find out more.

I'm Daphne Lim, signing out for The Next Impact Maker.





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