Two Startups With Uplifting Solutions To Food Waste In Japan

Why Japan needs upcycling, what it will take for the industry to skyrocket, and much, much more.

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Happy International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste 2022 (IDAFLW) Market Shakers. Today is a chance for you and me to reflect on food loss and waste. What can we do to reduce it - our own, and that of the public and private organisations we are a part of?

This is a big challenge for all of us, especially in the food and beverage industry. Earlier this year we explored the extent of global food waste. Roughly one-third of all food produced is wasted according to UNEP estimates. The most recent available data from Japan suggests in 2020, the nation wasted 5.2 million tons of edible food. That’s the equivalent of 1,430 industrial-sized trucks worth of food being wasted, every day.

There’s no easy answer, but it’s important to remember we’re all working together to tackle the same issue. So today we want to share some inspiration with you from our colleagues in Japan who are innovating to help upcycle surplus food. We hope it sparks ideas and opportunities to collaborate.

Watch the Big Idea Food Competition Japan edition: October 5th, 2022

On October 5th, 2022, Big Idea Ventures in collaboration GourmetPro and Sustainable Foods Asia will hold the Japan edition of the Big Idea Ventures Food Competition (BIFC).

Participate in this free online event and uncover the next-gen F&B innovations coming from Japan, and hear insights from leaders from across Japan’s F&B industry.

About BIFC Japan

The online event brings together 5 of Japan’s top early-stage startups (pre-series A) to pitch their alt-protein, plant-based and fermentation-based products and innovations as part of Asia’s biggest startup competition. A panel of expert judges, including leaders from SIGMAXYZ, ITOCHU Corporation, JETRO and Marui Group will share feedback to the panellists.

The winning startup will be invited to Singapore for the international finals of the Big Idea Food Competition Asia in April 2023. The winner of the international contest will receive $200,000 USD and a spot in Big Idea Ventures’ Cohort #8 accelerator program based in Singapore.

Why you should participate

The event is an opportunity for you to discover the next generation of innovators that will shape Japan’s F&B industry! Alongside this, you will also hear keynotes and commentary from thought leaders in Japan:

The online event kicks off at 10:30 JST on October 5th. Register for free below to meet the future of Japan’s food system and be part of Asia’s biggest startup competition:

Watch our Upcycling Founders Chat

Last month, we held an intimate online discussion with two startup founders who are doing amazing work in the upcycling space to help reduce food waste in Japan and abroad. 

Jim Huang, Co-Founder and CEO of PEEL Lab and Taichi Isaku, Co-Founder and CPO of CoCooking, joined us to talk upcycling, founding a startup in Japan, and what Japan needs to inspire more innovation in the fight against food loss and waste. 

Access the exclusive recording right here:

We’ve summarized the key points below, but if you have time, check out the recording. Jim and Taichi have so much interesting stuff to say about how Japan’s startup ecosystem is evolving, and how we can grow momentum for upcycling in Japan. They even share some great ideas for how to support innovators in space.

Introducing our speakers

Jim Huang, Co-Founder and CEO @ PEEL Lab

Jim Huang is a serial entrepreneur and investor. Jim co-founded PEEL Lab in 2021 as B2B GreenTech that provides plant-based leather for brands and corporates. Their products are made of upcycled fruits.

PEEL Lab’s mission is to replace 1% of the global animal and synthetic leather industry with plant-based leather by 2030.  To date, the company has launched several products, including plant-based yoga mats and randoseru school bags made from upcycled pineapple peel.

Taichi Isaku, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer @ CoCooking

Taichi Isaku is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of CoCooking, the company helping to build a sustainable food system through its food-rescue app TABETE. He was and continues to be a researcher on food and creativity at Keio Research Institute at SFC. 

TABETE is a matching app that connects customers with stores that have leftover food to sell at a discount to avoid their produce going to waste. TABETE now has over 530,000 users and over 2,250 stores using the app. To date, over 400,000 meals have been rescued through TABETE.

💡 What inspired you to start upcycling ventures in Japan?

Jim | PEEL Lab

Jim’s journey began with curiosity. He always wondered what happened to the crusts from sandwiches in Japanese convenience stores (in Japan, sandwiches are often sold without crusts). He wanted to explore how we can combine technology with these “leftover” resources.

Taichi | CoCooking

Taichi founded CoCooking to experiment with how to enhance creativity through collaborative cooking. He started by providing cooking workshops and operating a small restaurant at the base of Mt. Fuji. But food waste actually became a business issue for CoCooking. So, Taichi and his co-founder decided to develop a sustainable solution to food waste, TABETE, initially targeting the restaurant and food service sectors.

🚨 What alerted you to the problem of food waste in Japan?

Jim | PEEL Lab

Having founded food-waste-related ventures in the past, Jim knew Japan was one of the top three food wasters in Asia. Japan is already strong at downcycling (recycling items into lower quality ones, for example, clothes into cleaning rags) but PEEL Lab spotted a white-space in upcycling (recycling products into value-added products). So far, companies in Japan have been very supportive of PEEL Labs upcycling initiatives.

Taichi | CoCooking

CoCooking had experience helping a local group host a regular “ugly produce” cooking workshop, which kept upcycling at the forefront of Taichi and his co-founder’s minds. Taichi’s co-founder operated restaurants in the past and knew they typically have a food waste rate of 3% - 10%. Given the size of food service in Japan, this represents a cost of trillions of yen which Taichi and his co-founder aspire to cut.

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♻️ Why did you choose your specific approach to upcycling in Japan?

Jim | PEEL Lab

According to Jim, the fashion industry is one of THE most polluting after petrochemical. PEEL Lab felt this sector offered an opportunity to make a big impact. Leather is also a widely used material (fashion, automotive, stationary) = more potential to help businesses go greener.

PEEL Lab assessed the market in Japan for vegan leather. They got great feedback for the concept of making leather from surplus plants and fruits. They made a randoseru (Japanese elementary school bag) from upcycled pineapple skin which was a big hit with kids. Positive feedback has helped show PEEL Lab that its products have huge potential. It also reinforced their mission to show consumers that there is a third, upcycled, option beyond animal and plastic leathers. 

Taichi | CoCooking

For consumers to change the market has to change and vice-versa. CoCooking chose a platform approach to nudge both consumers and businesses to adapt upcycling practices. Through TABETE, Taichi aims to break down any friction for consumers to upcycle. He explains that if the process isn’t effortless, then consumers and businesses won’t form an upcycling habit.

🌏 The disruption caused to our food supply by global crises has raised awareness about reducing food waste. How do we keep up the momentum in Japan?

Jim | PEEL Lab

Incentives are key. The Japanese government needs to create policies that incentivize upcycling. At the moment, PEEL Lab are looking at programs whereby using their vegan leather helps towards a company’s carbon neutral certification.

Taichi | CoCooking

If it takes too much effort to reduce food waste then people and companies will eventually burn out and stop. Upcycling solutions must be simple and easy for consumers and businesses to use.

Motivation is also important for each player in the food chain. TABETE incentivizes users with financial motivation for example. Customers get the benefit of discount bread, and businesses receive profit rather than the cost of having to dispose of their products. Taichi believes solutions must be motivating to users to help the world transition towards upcycling.

🇯🇵 What is the environment like for founding startups in Japan?

Jim | PEEL Lab

The ecosystem is Japan is growing like a hockey stick according to Jim. Slow adoption at first, but then a sharp uptick. The government is very supportive of startups right now and offers a lot of incentives. Also, opportunities like pitch events and accelerator programs are increasing in Japan. 

Despite language and cultural barriers still existing, Jim is excited by the consistent improvements Japan makes as a business environment for startups.

Share some inspiration with your friends and colleagues:

Taichi | CoCooking

Five years ago when Taichi started TABETE, there was a lot less innovation in Japan’s F&B industry. It was hard to find investment, so TABETE started out by bootstrapping. Five years later, food waste is a bigger issue and increased support for sustainable innovation is growing thanks to initiatives that raise awareness, such as the SDGs.

🚀 What does Japan need to do to better support startups?

Jim | PEEL Lab

More institutional investors need to come into this space. There’s a healthy pipeline of angels in Japan but Jim hopes more institutional VCs will come in. Tax breaks for companies that invest in startups could help this.

The second aspect for Japan is logistic costs, according to Jim. Logistic costs are expensive in Japan compared to other markets. Food surplus is scattered all over Japan; to consolidate it as a resource, the logistic cost needs to be minimized.

Taichi | CoCooking

The food industry is one of the oldest sectors of the Japanese market. Taichi has experienced that they like to do business the old way. For innovation to occur though, these big players need to join the movement. Right now, it’s tough to convince higher up abouts new upcycling innovations. If Taichi could change anything, it would be the way these big players do business, especially in terms of delegating decision-making down from top management.

That’s all folks

A huge thank you to Jim Huang and Taichi Isaku for participating in our Founders Chat event. We hope you found inspiration in today’s post.

Let us know how you or your organization are tackling food waste in the comments.

See you next Tuesday.

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