in Mycobiotech's growing houses.
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Scientist turned entrepreneur, Dr Tan Kok Kheng is an example of someone ahead of his time. By pioneering the use of sawdust as a host material on which to grow mushrooms and shortening the growth time for Shiitake from one year to two months, he has invested the past 20 years of his life in an industry that only recently has been identified as "hot". While "hot property" may seem like a crude exaggeration of this serious-minded academic and father of two adult children, his company MycoBiotech Group of which he is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer most certainly is.
Although Tan can be credited with introducing the local population to, and creating an awareness of, fresh mushrooms as opposed to the traditional dried fungi commonly used in Chinese cooking, he says: "Apart from the culinary aspect, the more interesting part is the medicinal properties of mushrooms such as extracting the bioactive components and selling it as a supplement and a drug. This is the whole area of life sciences that the government is presently trying to promote."
His primary production arm, Everbloom Mushroom has about 40 per cent of the Singaporean market for fresh mushrooms, selling 500 tonnes a year with the remaining demand supplied by growers in China and Australia. Tan has taken the company global and set up production facilities in Indonesia and the United Kingdom. They will soon be producing in Malaysia and Canada for their respective markets. Singapore's facility has been scaled down to research and development in which he is still actively involved.
"I never thought I would be doing what I\'m doing now. This business just evolved and seemed a natural progression, "says the "Rafflesian". Following a first- class honors degree in botany from the University of Singapore, he pursued a Doctorate in Mycology (the study of fungi) at the University of Manchester. In 1976, he joined the-then University of Singpaore as a lecturer and began looking for a grant to fund his research project about producing food from agricultural waste. He says: "I filed it with the Stockholm-based International Foundation for Science, got my funding and the whole thing mushroomed from there."
"I decided to do something more than bench-top research and to commercialize the finding," he explains of his project to convert ligno-cellulosic waste to food. "Fungi are able to break down sawduse into basic component of glucose which is absorbed by its cells for growth into edible mushrooms." To get the business off the ground, he persuaded his family, including his father and nine siblings to invest $1 million: "Initially, money was from the family to start a pilot plant in a terrace factory in Depot Lane. After a couple of years, to scale-up laboratory findings, we decided to go into commercial scale operations and needed larger premises." Hence the move to Seletar West Farmway off Jalan Kayu in 1981. "The land around here used to be pig farms so you can imagine the stench. But you forget about it after a while," he chuckles at the recollection.
This avid golfer and Chairman of the food and beverage group of the Singapore Confederation of Industries describes doing sales calls at the start as a "humbling experience". In the beginning, it was not easy to sell even 10 kilograms of mushrooms. We had to knock on doors, work with restaurants and supermarkets to have promotional events to build awareness," he says of himself and his wife, Irene Chua, a dental surgeon.
After investments of between $5 and $10 million dollars in research and development, the business has come a long way. The company also works in collaboration with the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and has taken an interest in a related business in Israel. Tan reveals: "Our research is not only in cultivation but medicinal properties because many of the mushrooms we are growing contain substances that have been found to enhance the immune system, are anti-cancer, cholesterol lowering, anti-virus and anti-diabetes. Some of our studies have shown that just taking as little as 30-50g of specific types of mushrooms a day can dramatically affect and boost the immune system." His own family consumes a constant supply of Shiitake, a kilo a week as wll as the Everbloom Linzir capsules, a blend of Lingzhi and Shiitake mushrooms.
MycoBiotech, which is a public company, is in the process of filing for share registration so that the shares can be traded on a North American exchange. With 300 shareholders, Tan is adamant that the intention of this exercise is not to raise money immediately but to obtain a listed status.
The business has progressed to producing more than 100 products from fresh mushrooms, bottled and canned extracts, capsules to health mushroom snacks and tea. "Before we came on the scene, no fresh mushrooms were being eaten at all locally because they were unavailable. The challenge is bringing the technology to the western world, growing the mushrooms, getting them to accept the medicinal properties of mushrooms and to eat it. I believe that mushrooms hold the key to our well-being. After all, the mushroom is the fruiting body of fungi and the first antibiotic in the world, penicillin, is extracted from fungi. Many other antibiotics are also extracted from fungi." When quizzed on what he would have done differently, he says: "Sometimes I think 'what if I had left Singapore and brought my technology to the West in the first place?' But this is my home and this is home-grown Singapore technology, perhaps now is the time to take it to the West."