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Biotech innovation offers hope for Taiwan entrepreneursWith food safety becoming a focal point in Taiwan after the plasticizer scandal in 2011, organic diets are gaining popularity as an increasing number of local consumers opt for natural foods. This healthy trend is creating opportunities for a group of aspiring entrepreneurs, who are pinning their hopes on something as inconspicuous as sprouts. “Sprouts are definitely one of the most underrated vegetables in Taiwan,” said Harris Cheng, one of the founders of Greenvines Biotech Co. Ltd. “Vegetables are an important part of a well-balanced diet, but most leafy vegetables in Taiwan contain excessive residues of nitrate,” he pointed out during a Dec. 21 interview with Taiwan Today. “Sprouts, with more enzymes and nutrients than adult plants, are a great substitute, because other than pure water they require no substances during their growth, which makes them free of pesticides and additives.”
Established in March 2010 by four graduates of the Department of Finance and Graduate School of Horticulture from the prestigious National Taiwan University, Taipei-based Greenvines is a startup specializing in developing sprouts in a controlled environment. “While many organic farms boast vegetables free of harmful chemicals, we are the only company that can deliver truly fresh sprouts to your dinner table,” Cheng said. Using an innovative cultivation technology pioneered in 2002 by Cheng’s parents, both renowned scholars in the agricultural sciences, Greenvines is able to grow sprouts on a special piece of paper and keep the produce growing in the refrigerator for up to 10 days, according to Cheng, who like his partners gave up a promising career in finance to pursue his dream of producing sprouts with the most vitality and energy.
Most sprouts sold in the market, even those available at organic stores, are already harvested and cleaned, Cheng explained. This means the plants have lost most of their nutrients before reaching store shelves and are prone to decay. But the Greenvines’ approach ensures freshness because “you can pick the amount you need for a meal, and leave the rest to continue growing. In this way, the vegetables will retain 100 percent of their nutrients.” Despite the obvious advantages, Evelyn Liao, one of the partners in the company, said the founders had to start the business from scratch because they were unable to find sprout growers interested in collaborating with them. “Most farmers feel skeptical about Greenvines’ approach, because they are already comfortable with their own cultivation methods,” she said. “They can’t understand why someone would go so far to grow sprouts in such a sophisticated way.”
Higher production costs are another concern, Liao said, noting that the company adopts a strict screening process when selecting seeds and insists on using water with the same high quality as that of hospital water. “We had no support from equipment suppliers, either, as our growing technique is simply too innovative. We had to design and assemble every piece of equipment by ourselves,” she added.
But the most difficult part of the task was to map out a set of standard procedures for mass production and achieve economy of scale as soon as possible, according to Cheng. “Our production yield was only 30 percent in the beginning,” he said. To the founders of the company in their early 30s, elites who were used to having things under their control, the bottleneck was frustrating. “Our close partnership helped pull us through those difficult times,” Cheng said. To overcome the numerous challenges, the young entrepreneurs had to put their college training and previous work experience to maximum use. “We made a detailed diagnosis of the entire production process, closely re-examined every variable and quantified as much of the procedure as possible,” Cheng said.
“We also asked ourselves how we would want to be treated if we were those sprouts. It is imperative to think from the perspective of the vegetables,” Liao added. This scientific approach enabled the team to ramp up the yield to over 90 percent in a matter of months. The firm is also able to plan their production to minimize waste. Maintaining the right temperature and humidity levels is critical to the cultivation process, Cheng said. “Unlike the traditional approach that employs large amounts of water to clean the sprouts, Greenvines developed a unique water absorption mechanism that provides plants with the optimum amount of water, and is thus able to reduce 90 percent of water consumption,” Cheng explained. Another technique used by the company is to apply a certain amount of pressure on the sprouts to make them stronger and more nutritious. “A little pressure is good because it will inspire the potential in an organism,” explained Shaune Chen, the latest addition to the team. While other farmers may understand the science behind this approach, no one is willing to go the extra mile. This is also one of the secrets that separate Greenvines sprouts from their peers, she added.
After one and a half years of trial and error, the firm’s farm in northern Taoyuan County is starting to hit its stride, producing 12,000 boxes of six kinds of sprouts per month—alfalfa, black bean, broccoli, mung bean, purple cabbage and radish.
Just as challenging as perfecting production techniques was the task of seeking marketing channels for the company’s products, according to Chen. “We appreciate every chance to promote our products, whether it is at a department store food fair or farmers’ market,” she said. Such appearances have created many opportunities for the firm in unexpected ways. “Many firms actually approached us, instead of us knocking on their doors.” “At promotional activities, our sprouts often bring smiles to people, because for the longest time they have been looking for exactly the kind of healthy products that we sell,” said Liao. “We have a lot of new projects in the pipeline, which are a great motivation to me. But what really keeps me going is knowing that we are contributing to food safety in Taiwan,” she added.
Chen, herself an enthusiastic advocate of organic foods, said her career change was inspired by the determination of the four Greenvines founders. “Joining the company also gives me a chance to pursue a dream that would have been impossible had I continued to work as a sales manager for a high-tech company,” she said. “There is still so much to learn in this business.” Greenvines means more to Cheng than the other partners because it allows him to realize the dream of his parents, who spent most of their lives enhancing Taiwan’s agriculture. “I want to preserve their know-how and carry on their mission, which is to introduce live sprouts to as many people in Taiwan as possible and help them live a healthier life.” The team has a load of new ideas up its sleeve. While Cheng is playing his cards close to his chest, he said one of the trends of agriculture is to cultivate smaller species. “We are trying to grow some common leafy vegetables in the same innovative approach to bring more selections to the market, something totally unheard of to most consumers. “But the top priority remains to continue improving our operation,” Cheng said, adding that one-third of Greenvines’ production costs were spent on R&D. “We are taking one solid step at a time, and we welcome more farmers in Taiwan to join our ranks, so we can contribute to the health of the entire nation. That will be our ultimate goal.”
Publication date: 1/9/2012
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