From Wellness To Wealth: 11 Innovative Wellness Startups To Watch In 2020
We take a look at some of the most promising investment opportunities in the booming market for health and wellbeing
Modern life is stressful and unhealthy. We work too much, spend too much time indoors, see our friends and loved ones too little, eat terribly and don’t exercise as much as we should. But there is an antidote—in the world of wellness.
The wellness boom is not a fad. It’s a recognition that mental and bodily health are connected, and that we need to be proactive in taking care of them. It’s also a recognition that there’s money to be made in solving the problems that so many of us face in our daily lives.
East-meets-West cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore are centres of wellness entrepreneurialism. After all, many of the ideas that underpin wellness concepts are based on traditional Chinese or Indian practices—yoga, tai chi, meditation, herbal infusions and remedies, and even just the simple belief that what you eat is intimately connected to your health.
“Wellness is an interesting combination of East and West—on the one hand there’s the statistics, the science behind it, and then there’s the mind and body, the spiritual side, and so when you combine the two it’s a perfect fit,” says Phillip King, founder and chairman of Varcis Capital, an investor who focuses on start-ups in the wellness and sport technology sectors.
This means that many homegrown wellness businesses in Asia have an authentic connection to these traditions that is valued by modern consumers all over the world.
We take a look at some of these promising start-ups to see what opportunities there are to turn wellness into wealth.
Many employers are getting on board with wellness as they realise that a healthy workforce is happier and more productive. Wellness platforms can give employees access to a variety of services that are good for mind and body, and ultimately reduce the amount of time and money they spend at the doctor. That can result in lower group healthcare premiums, meaning that using these services can actually save employers money in the long run.
Switch & Co
The newest and perhaps the slickest entrant to Hong Kong’s wellness platform market, this Dubai-based start-up allows employees to book wellness activities through its app using credits that are tied to the group insurance policy. It’s also available for individuals who just want a handy way to book and pay for spin classes or yoga sessions. Switch & Co also launched the Switch+ website, which allows organisations to share live-stream or on-demand content on fitness and wellbeing with their employees and clients.
Singapore’s CXA is a similar corporate health and wellness platform, combining an insurance exchange, flexible benefits and wellness vendors. Founded in 2013, the company was a pioneer in its field, and now has a presence in Hong Kong and mainland China, and is seeking to raise US$50 million in its latest funding round. “We believe change is good but our industry hasn’t seen enough of it through the years,” says Rosaline Chow Koo, the founder and chief executive of CXA.
StartupCare Hong Kong focuses on small and medium-sized enterprises in the city, combining an innovative digital healthcare platform with flexible group medical insurance that lets employees tailor their health benefits through an app. Co-founder Sebastien Gaudin says that young companies can often suffer from instability, poor talent retention, stress and low budgets. Putting a priority on wellness is a good remedy for all of these problems.
Modern healthcare systems are geared to treating people when they’re sick, but the goal of wellness is to keep people out of the emergency room in the first place through a more holistic, integrated approach to wellbeing—not as a replacement for conventional healthcare but as a complement. These health-focused start-ups are at the forefront of this effort.
“People are more concerned about their health, they want to live longer, they want to improve themselves and they’re a lot more conscientious about how they look,” says King from Varcis Capital. “It’s definitely catching on in Asia. In Hong Kong, Singapore, even Malaysia, I see this whole topic definitely taking off.”
Cannabidiol, aka CBD, is a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant and is legal in Hong Kong, most European countries and most states in the US, which has led to a growing following and an increasing body of research to support its efficacy as a natural medicine. Heavens Please is Hong Kong’s first CBD lifestyle brand, selling a range of oils, tinctures and other products that offer a natural treatment for a wide variety of health issues, from anxiety and depression to inflammation and sleep disorders. Co-founder Denise Tam also owns a business that makes the city’s first CBD beer.
Founded in 2017, this early-stage start-up has the bold ambition of changing the way Hongkongers drink tea. The company makes a range of herbal wellness teas designed for different purposes, including relaxation, better sleep and an extra energy boost. The compostable pods are designed to be used with the Lify Smart Herbal Brewer, which pairs with an app to brew drinks according to people’s bodies’ needs.
LifeHub is a consumer-focused business that specialises in prevention, wellness, fitness and nutrition, with individualised coaching and advanced technology, through its clinic on Wellington Street. It offers lab tests, IV drips, supplements and a host of complementary treatments and therapies. Chairman and co-founder Jonathan Seah is a medical doctor, former investment banker and founding CEO of Parkway Health, now IHH Healthcare, who is on a mission to treat our “sub-optimal health issues” before they become serious illnesses.
Investors have seen the growing popularity of all-natural beauty products and are backing them enthusiastically. The potential in the sector is demonstrated by private equity fund Permira’s US$364 million investment in John Masters Organics, a brand with a global presence, including several stores in Hong Kong. There are many small clean-beauty brands in Asia, but relatively few that are ready for investment.
Purposeful Skincare by Allies
This is the latest product line launched by Nicolas Travis, a Singapore entrepreneur and founder of skincare brand Allies of Skin, which has successfully gone global. Purposeful Skincare by Allies (PSA) launched in March this year and has already attracted private investment in its first funding round, including from the family behind Singapore retail group FJ Benjamin. Travis describes his brand ethos as “clean effective”—skincare that works, but without the potential irritants found in synthetic products—and says that PSA is a more affordable line targeted at a younger market.
Founded in 2015 by Diane van Zwanenberg, Hong Kong brand Coconut Matter makes a range of cruelty-free, plastic-free, plant-based products such as natural deodorant, coconut oil lip balm and coconut body butter. Committed to a zero-waste, circular economy, the company sources wild coconut oil that is harvested and processed by hand in the Solomon Islands. The company runs Kickstarter campaigns for new product lines and is sold in health stores throughout Hong Kong, as well as in Singapore, Dubai and New York.
The arguments in favour of cleaner, more sustainable ways of feeding our growing population have never been more obvious. “Animal agriculture has many challenges, from climate change and emissions— being larger as a sector than all of transportation—through to water use, deforestation, pollution and antibiotic overuse, both in land animal and seafood production,” says Simon Newstead, founder of Bite Society and an angel investor who works specifically with start-ups that focus on vegan products. “Clean options, be they plant-based meat alternatives or cultivated meat that doesn’t require the animal and associated pollution and energy, solve all the problems. And what’s exciting is that they are already coming to market, and with enormous rates of innovation.”
Singapore is the clear regional leader in this sector thanks to strong backing from the government. These modern agricultural methods might be high-tech, but the food they produce is as clean as it comes—and people are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food that doesn’t come with a health warning.
Sourcing healthy, fresh, local organic produce in Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Singapore can be a challenge— choices are often restricted to one or the other: local or organic. Sustenir is seeking to address this problem through vertical farming. Founded in Singapore but now with operations in Hong Kong, it grows leafy vegetables that are free of pesticides and environmental pollutants using controlled environment agriculture. The process is sustainable from start to finish, using 95 per cent less water than traditional farming and deploying technology to ensure that energy consumption stays low. And, by growing locally, it lessens carbon emissions, and its products can be picked, packed and delivered within a day. You can already buy this modern wonder at supermarkets belonging to the Wellcome group in Hong Kong.
Shiok Meats is a cellbased “clean meat” company that is developing lab-grown shrimp, crab and lobster for dumplings and wontons. Founders Sandhya Sriram and Ka Yi Ling are a pair of biotech PhDs who are on a mission to transform the way we eat seafood, which is a tall order here in Asia. The company takes its name from Malay slang meaning “fantastic” or “delicious”. The product is still in the research-and-development phase, and is expected to be commercialised in a few years’ time. The technology starts with a sample of cells and grows them in a controlled, nutrient-rich environment—similar to how Sustenir and SinGrow are growing fruit and vegetables in labs. The potential rewards for cracking the secret to lab-grown meat are huge, which is what Shiok’s early-stage investors are betting on.
Founded by a pair of Singaporean molecular biology PhDs, SinGrow is another indoor farming startup. Bao Shengjie and Xu Tao have developed specific technologies to grow strawberries faster and more efficiently. Their “faster cultivation method” involves precise climate and nutrient control that can produce strawberries in just three and a half months, compared to more than six months under natural conditions, with minimum air-conditioning and pesticide use. By growing the fruit locally in a controlled environment, they can be harvested year-round and when they are fully ripe. The company has been backed by Grow, a Singapore agricultural technology accelerator.
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