Malaysian Innovators

Another 140-year old tree: The oldest rubber tree in Malaysia

Posted on

The motor industry in Europe and the US in the early 1900s led to the mad rush for plantation rubber in British Malaya (Malaysia now). There was not enough supply of rubber gathered from the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.

A large part of British Malaya was cleared of its forests and planted with rubber trees. Roads and railway lines were laid out to transport smoked rubber sheets to make tyres to ports and exported to UK and the US.

Financiers in London formed financial syndicates to open-up rubber plantations in British Malaya. Many financial syndicates listed their vehicle on the London Stock Exchange. Thus, more lands were cleared to plant rubber trees in British Malaya. Many young Scottish men went to British Malaya to seek their fortunes by becoming rubber planters.

Before the 1900s, many British farmers were involved with coffee plants and reluctant to switch to rubber, which had unknown market. However, Sir Henry Ridley, a government official, believed in the potential the plantation rubber industry. A few British Advisors to the Malay States in British Malaya worked hard to convince British farmers and local Chinese businessmen to consider rubber trees. One British Advisor to the Malay State of Perak, Sir Hugh Low, planted a rubber tree near a polo club at the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, Perak.

The 140-year old rubber tree in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, Malaysia
Hand-operated rubber sheet rolling machine

I visited the huge rubber tree two weeks ago. A plaque near the rubber tree noted the rubber tree was planted in the 1880s by Sir Hugh Low to convince the locals to plant rubber trees in a big scale.

The trunk is huge

Then, the rubber tree could only be tapped for rubber latex after 7 to 10 years.  Today, the rubber tree can be tapped after 3 to 4 years. As seen in the photos, the oldest rubber tree has a huge trunk as compared to a smaller trunk of today’s rubber trees.

Today’s rubber tree with smaller trunks
Rubber sheet hung to dry

I used to walk passed the oldest rubber tree in Malaysia as a student at the nearby famous Malay College in the 1970s. The rubber tree is still thriving after 140 years.

Interlude

140-year old rain trees at Lake Garden, Taiping, Malaysia

Posted on

Last weekend, we visited a few relatives in the Malaysian northern state of Perak. We also admired about 20 140-year old rain trees at the Lake Garden, Taiping. The rain trees were planted by British botanists in 1880s. We were sure that the rain trees were maintained by Malay gardeners. The rain trees are like magnets for locals, enjoying a picnic under them. Newly weds use the rain trees as the background for their photo sessions.

We hope the rain trees can live another 140 years. Please enjoy the rain trees.

Must-Read Reports

Bill Gate’s latest investment that tries to solve a major problem

Posted on

In a recent blog, we reported that Bill Gates invested in a company, C16 Biosciences Inc.,that plans to produce palm oil using fermentation process.  The company aims to reduce the need to reduce the impact on clearing tropical forests to plant oil palms.

It is reported by The Times, London on June 24th, 2020, that Bill Gates has made an investment in a new venture that aims to solve another global problem. He has put his money in a start-up hopes to develop artificial breast milk to reduce the carbon footprint of mothers who choose not to breastfeed.

Estimates suggest that at least 10 per cent of the world dairy market, a major source of greenhouse gases, is used to produce baby formula milk. The company, Biomilq, an American company, has provided a proof of concept top show the feasibility of its plan. It hopes to produce breast milk artificially from cultured human  mammary epithelial cells in about five years (mammary epithelial cells are cells in the thin layer of of tissue that coat and lines the surface of the milk ducts in the breast)

This would be an alternative to formula milk. The firm has already shown that the process can produce lactose and casein, to components of human breast milk. Biomilq is being assisted by an investment of US$3.5 million, mostly from a fund set up by Bill Gates. The idea of growing breast milk in a laboratory is likely to be less alien to the public after the popularity of lab-grown meat.

Biomilq was founded by Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland. Ms Egger was a food scientist, while Ms Strickland was a cell biologist.

Breast feeding is widely touted for its health benefits for babies but many mothers do not have that option. Formula milk is the normal alternative for these mothers. This can cause problems, however, for some children’s digestive systems because it relies on cow’s milk or soy rather than human proteins. Biomilq aims to create something that is as digestible as human breast milk but have a smaller environmental impact than dairy.

The investment by Bill Gates into Biomilq was made through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, set up to focus on climate change. 

About Breakthrough Energy Ventures

According to Quartz, the digital business news website (www.qz.com, noted by its senior reporter,  Ashkat Rathi on August 26, 2019, Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) is a US$1 billion fund with the aims to fund those technologies that fight climate change.

To be eligible for BEV, a start-up needs to showcase a scientifically sound technology that has the potential to reduce annual global greenhouse-gas emission by at least 500 million MT. Global emissions currently measure about 40 billion MT per year.

Start-up that have these technologies usually struggle to scale, either because the engineering challenge is too big or the business environment to support the companies doesn’t exist. These companies need patient capital. BEV is fine if its investments don’t provide a return for up to 20 years. In September, 2018, Quartz revealed the first nine investments made by BEV. It included three start-ups building energy-storage technologies, two using microbes to cut emissions in agriculture products, and one each working on low-carbon cement, cheap geothermal, nuclear fusion, and a solar-powered technology to collect water from the air. Eight were based in the US and one in Canada.    

In the 12 months since the last tranche, of investments, BEV has found 10 more companies that it thinks could help the world cut emissions drastically.

  1. Arnergy: A Nigerian start-up  that deploys solar-power solutions for small businesses to provide reliable electricity.
  2. Baseload Capital: A specialized investment entity  based in Sweden that funds the deployment of technology developed by start-up Climeon, which uses waste heat to generate power.
  3. Boston Metal: A company based in Boston, US, that uses electricity, instead of coke, to convert iron ore into iron.  
  4. Kobold Metals: A company based in San Francisco, US, that uses artificial intelligence to accelerate the search from ethical sources of the metals, like Cobalt, needed to make lithium-ion batteries.
  5. Max: A Nigerian ride-sharing app that deploys two-wheeled motorcycles to move people in cities more safely. BEV’s money will help lower emissions by pushing for the electrician of Max’s vehicle fleet.
  6. Malta: A Boston-based start-up that has developed a way to store renewable electricity renewable energy in the form of heat and cold.
  7. Motif: A  Boston-based start-up that develops low-carbon alternatives for everyday food ingredients.
  8. Sierra Energy: A start-up spun out of University of California, Davis, US, that uses oxygen and steam to break down waste into gases, which can be used to make synthetic fuel. The process leaves behind solid sorb metals that can be safely discarded or re-used
  9. SparkMeter: A US-based start-up with a Kenyan office that develops smart meters to grow reliable access to electricity in poor countries.
  10. Sustainable Bioproducts: A Chicago-based start-up whose fermentation technology creates low-carbon proteins that can be used as nutrients for foods.

Breakthrough Energy Venture is the investment arm of Breakthrough Venture, an entity established in 2015 by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors concerned about the impact of accelerating climate change (www.b-t.energy). The board member s and investors include prominent individuals such as follows:

  1. Mukesh Ambani: Investor
  2. John Arnold: Board member
  3. Jeff Bezos: Investor
  4. HRH Prince Alwaleed Talal: Investor
  5.  Michael Bloomberg: Investor
  6. Richard Branson: Investor
  7. Ray Dalio: Investor
  8. John Doerr: Board member
  9. Bill Gates: Chair of the Board
  10. Reid Hoffman: Investor
  11. Chris Hohn: Investor
  12. Vinod Khosla: Board member
  13. Jack Ma: Board member
  14. Dustin Maskovitz and Cari Tuna: Investor
  15. Patrice Motsepe: Investor
  16. Xavier Niel: Investor
  17. Hasso Palttner: Investor
  18. Julian Robertson: Investor
  19. David Rubenstein: Investor
  20. Nat Simons and Laura Baxter- Simons: Investor
  21. Masayoshi Son: Investor
  22. Ms Zhang Xin and Mr Pan Shiyi: Investor    
Intellectual Property

Samsung is top of the class when it comes to patents

Posted on
The company owns the most number of patents

Samsung is becoming part of our life; Samsung smartphones, Samsung television, Samsung monitor and Samsung refrigerator. It is not surprising this Korean company is a leader in high technology fields as it has the largest portfolio of active families of patents, according to ificlaims.com. This top position had been held by IBM, the American computer company, for almost 27 years. The ificlaims.com ranks 250 parent companies by active patents they own. The holdings of subsidiaries are included in the parent company’s holding. The top 100 companies are listed below.

RankUltimate ownerActive families Country
1Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd76,638South Korea
2International Business Machine Corp37,304US
3Canon Inc35,724Japan
4General Electric Co30,010US
5Microsoft Corp 29,824US
6Robert Bosch 28,285Germany
7Panasonic Corp27,298Japan
8Siemens 25,320Germany
9Intel Corp24,628US
10LG Electronic Inc 23,043South Korea
11Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd 21,522Taiwan
12Qualcomm Inc21,255US
13Sony Corp21,167Japan
14Alphabet Inc21,084US
15Toyota Motor Corp20,814Japan
16Nokia Oyj20,492Finland
17Fujifilm Holdings Corp18,538Japan
18General Motors Co17,778US
19Fujitsu Ltd17,564Japan
20Hitachi Ltd17,329Japan
21Ford Motor Co16,942US
22United Technologies Corp 16,926US
23Volkswagen 16,470Germany
24Broadcom Inc15,135US
25Honda Motor Co Ltd15,072Japan
26Ericsson AB14,878Sweden
27Apple Inc14,849US
28Seiko Epson Corp 14,377Japan
29Huawei 14,315China
30Toshiba Corp14,201Japan
31Honeywell International Inc13,892US
32HP Inc13,673US
33Ricoh Co Ltd 13,321Japan
34Dell Technologies Inc13,313US
35Oracle Corp13,254US
36Texas Instruments Inc13,253US
37Denso Corp13,120Japan
38Mitsubishi Electric Corp13,062Japan
39TSMC Ltd12,792Taiwan
40Philips NV 12,474Netherlands
41Medtronic PLC12,400US
42Johnson and Johnson 12,226US
43Cisco Systems Inc 11,498US
44Continental AG11,195Germany
45BASF SE10,987Germany
46Boeing Co 10,897US
47Brother Industries Ltd10,163Japan
48NEC Corp10,152Japan
49Infineon Technologies AG9,854Germany
50Airbus SE9,741France
51Bayer AG9,654Germany
52Amazon com Inc9,455US
53GlobalFoundries Inc9,426US
54BlackBerry Ltd9,379Canada
55NXP Semiconductor BV9,328US/Netherlands
56Xerox Holdings Corp9,276US
57Procter and Gamble Co8,950US
58Western Digital Corp 8,927US
59Valeo SA8,913France
60Kyocera Corp8,769Japan
61STMicroelectronics NV8,630Switzerland
62LG Display Co Ltd8,523South Korea
63Hyundai Moro Co8,495South Korea
64Safran SA8,332France
653M Co8,306US
66Hewlet Packard Enterprise Co8,125US
67AT&T Inc8,106US
68SK Hynix Inc7,934South Korea
69Olympus Corp7,924Japan
70Micron Technology Inc7,488US
71National Research Council of Science and Technology 7,226South Korea
72Schlumberger Ltd 7,412US
73Konica Minolta Inc7,366Japan
74BOE Technology Group Co Ltd7,236Japan
75Renesas Electronics Corp7,002Japan
76Corteva Inc6,856US
77Nike Inc6,787US
78Halliburton Co6,638US
79Dow Inc6,532US
80Boston Scientific Corp6,519US
81Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd6,466Japan
82Lenovo Group Ltd6,379China
83Abbot Laboratories6,265US
84CEA 6,120France
85Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 6,116Japan
86Nissan Motor Co Ltd6,096Japan
87Peugeot SA6,046France
88TDK Corp5,939Japan
89Roche Holdings AG5,732Switzerland
90Verizon Communications Inc 5,656US
91Caterpillar Inc5,622US
92Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Ltd5,586Japan
93Thales SA 5,500France
94Kioxia Corp5,285Japan
95Schaeffler AG 5,172Germany
96ZF Friedrichshafen AG5,152Germany
97LOreal SA5,116France
98Applied Materials Inc5,079US
99TCL Corp4,886China
100BMW AG4,855Germany

Patent filing since 1883

According to WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) World Intellectual Property Indicators 2019 Report, from 1883 to 1963, the patent office of the US was the leading office for world filing. Application numbers in Japan and the US were stable until the early 1970s, when Japan began to see rapid growth—a pattern also observed for the US from the 1980s onward. Among the top five offices, Japan surpassed the US in 1968 and maintained the top position until 2005. Since the early 2000s, however, the number of applications filed in Japan has followed a downward trend. Both the EPO (European Patent Office) and South Korea have seen increases each year since the early 1980s, as has China since 1995. China surpassed the EPO and South Korea in 2010, Japan in 2010 and the US in 2011— and now receives the largest number of application worldwide. This also coincides with the emergence of Chinese companies to develop their own technologies, which is led by Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.

South Korea continues to file the highest number of patents per unit of GDP

Variations in patenting activity across countries reflect differences in their size and the structure of their economies. It is therefore informative to examine resident patent activity with regards to population, research and development, gross domestic product 9GDP) and other variables.

With 8,561 patent applications per unit of US$100 billion GDP, South Korea continued to file the largest number of patent applications. China (6,183) had the second largest ratio in 2018, followed by Japan (5,101), Germany (1,924) and Switzerland (1,831). However, over the past 11 years, the gap between South Korea and China has narrowed considerably, reflecting the strong growth in resident applications in China, with resident application per unit of GDP increasing from 1,854 in 2008 to 6,183 in 2018.

Focus areas of patent application by leading companies

According to the World Intellectual Property Indicator 2019 Report, the leading companies submitted patent applications from 2014 to 2016 were in technology fields as follows:

Rank Company Technology fields
1 Samsung Telecommunication, digital communication, computer technology, semiconductors, optics and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy
2 IBM Digital communication, computer technology, IT method for management semiconductor and audio-visual technology
3 Canon Audio-visual technology, computer technology, optics, telecommunication, semiconductors,  measurement and textile and paper machines
6 Robert Bosch Transport, engines and turbines, machine tools, control, measurement, computer technology and digital communication
15 Toyota Motor Corp Engines, pumps and turbines, mechanical elements transport, computer technology, semiconductors,  measurement and control
29 Huawei Technologies Audio-visual technology, digital communication, telecommunication, computer technology and measurement and optics
     

Universities and PROs in Korea are active applicants of patent in 2014 to 2016 

The South Korean universities and PROs (public research organizations) are also active applicants of patents. The list of leading universities and PROs is shown below.

No University or PRO Technology fields
1 AIST (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology), Japan Semiconductor, measurement organic fine chemistry and biotechnology and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy
2 CEA, France Computer technology, semiconductor thermal processes and apparatus and telecommunication
3 CNRS, France Electrical machinery, apparatus and energy, computer technology, semiconductors, measurement analysis of biological materials, medical technology, organic fine chemistry, medical technology biotechnology and pharmaceuticals
4 DLR, Germany Measurement, control, thermal processes and apparatus, handling, engines, pumps and turbines and transport
5 Fraunhofer, Germany   Computer technology, optics, digital communication, semiconductor, measurement, and machine tools  
6 Harbin Institute of Technology (China)  Electrical machinery, apparatus and energy, computer technology, measurement and materials and metallurgy and environmental technology
7 KAIST, South Korea Computer technology, digital communication telecommunication, measurement and optics
8 Korea Electronics and Telecomm Telecommunication, digital communication, audio-visual technology computer technology and IT methods for management
9 MIT, US Measurement, medical technology, biotechnology, pharmaceutical computer technology and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy
10 Tokyo University, Japan Biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, measurement computer technology and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy 
11 University of California, US Medical technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, organic fine chemistry measurement, computer technology and electrical machinery,  apparatus and energy.
12 Zhejiang University, China Measurement, biotechnology, computer technology materials and metallurgy and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy

Our comments

It is noted that South Korea’s leading companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG have made technological advances which are incorporated into their products. Their progress has been supported by universities and PROs.

China is also progressing up the technological ladder, which is led by Huawei. Taiwan has several companies which possess advanced semiconductor technologies, which is led by TSMC.

Our country, Malaysia, has not been successful in creating companies that are involved in advanced technology fields. Malaysian government’s effort to nurture domestic technology companies did not succeed due to a number of factors.

Malaysia is a leading producer of palm oil as well as a significant producer of oil and gas. Unlike Taiwan and South Korea, Malaysian companies are happy to be involved in oil palm plantations that generate regular profits through increased acreage.

The current turmoil in the oil industry and low prices of palm oil could spur a change in the economic development strategies through high technology industries involving digital and computer technologies. Looking at the advances made by Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan and China, the challenge of Malaysia to catch-up with these countries is very enormous.

Must-Read Reports

Metschnikowia pulcherrima could disrupt the palm oil industry

Posted on
The yeast Metschnikowia pulcherrima under the microscope

Introduction

Palm oil is widely used in food, cosmetics, personal care and bio-energy industries. Critics say the production of this plant –derived oil (natural palm oil) had led to deforestation, loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats critical for endangered species. Palm oil has unique characteristics, namely an exceptionally melting point and very high saturation level. Some other vegetable oils get close to one of the two, but non to both.    

The palm oil industry has grown significantly since the 19970s. Research efforts by Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Malaysian companies have managed to improve the yields of oil palm to feed the growing food needs of the world population. The palm oil industry is worth more than US90 billion per year. 

It is not surprising that innovators and venture capital are targeting to disrupt the palm oil industry. The industry is large and there are many segments that innovators and start-ups can enter the industry. Large chemical companies are also entering with R&D efforts to disrupt the palm oil industry.

We could learn from the experience from the natural rubber in the early 1900s. When the car industry was developing in US and Europe in early 1900s, the tyres used in cars resulted in high demand for natural rubber harvested from wild rubber trees in the Amazon of South America. However, there was limited supply of natural rubber from trees grown in the wild. British planters in Malaya (then Malaysia) experimented with planting of rubber trees based on seeds from the wild rubber trees collected from the Amazon region. Thanks to individuals like Sir Frank Ridley, the rubber plantations in Malaya and Indonesia became the main source of natural rubber to make tyres for the booming car industry in US and Europe.

Since rubber was supplied from Malaya and Indonesia, disruptions to shipping lanes during world wars and other conflicts restricted the supply of natural rubber to make tyres. Scientists in UK, US, Russia and Germany raced to develop an alternative to natural rubber using chemical reaction. By the 1940’s and 1950’s, scientists in Germany, Russia and US succeeded in producing synthetic rubber. Since then natural rubber is used in smaller product segments while synthetic rubber has captured most of the product segments. Synthetic rubber is produced in large chemical complexes based on crude oil. A small town of Akron in Ohio, US, became the synthetic rubber capital of the world.

Race to develop synthetic palm oil

Unlike synthetic rubber where it is produced by chemical reaction in large chemical facilities, innovators in venture-based companies, major companies and university laboratories are racing to produce synthetic palm oil using biotechnology.

These innovators are attempting to disrupt the established palm oil industry. According to the well-known HBS business professor, Clayton M. Christensen, who wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, innovators planning to disrupt the palm oil industry will enter the segments which are ignored by the natural palm oil industry.

These innovators have been using little-known yeast, Metschnikowia pulcherrima, used in South Africa’s wine industry to produce synthetic palm oil.

Innovators in synthetic palm oil

A group of scientists from the University of Bath, UK, has successfully cultivated an oily yeast that matches palm oil key characteristics properties almost identically. Early laboratory tests in a shake flask show that the yeast can produce up to 20 gramme per litre of oil, giving it a similar lipid oil to palm oil The yeast can also be found pretty much everywhere, including a huge variety of tree leaves, fruits and flowers. Another singularity of the yeast is its ability to grow on pretty much any organic feedstock. It is hoped that waste from the process can feasibly be cycled as a feedstock as well, helping to close the loop in the supply chain. Other innovators are attempting to recover valuable co-products to offset the costs of production of the synthetic palm oil.

The yeast containing synthetic palm oil after brewing process
(Image source: University of Bath)

According to calculations, quoted in Theguardian.com on 17th, February, 2015,  the research group at the University of Bath was attempting to reach a production cost of US$800-900 per MT. It is reported that the closest comparable estimate is for yeast cultured on dry plant matter, which Chinese researchers believe could produce oil at US1,200 per MT. Today, the current price of crude palm oil is US$527 per MT. Thus, there is still a huge price different between synthetic palm oil and natural palm oil.

Since 2015, significant progress had been in the synthetic palm oil production. More companies and start-ups are involved to secure technological dominance in the early product life cycle of synthetic palm oil. There could be another three to five years before a dominance technology emerges based on the productive yeast of Metschnikowia pulcherrima or other types of yeast.

The most high-profiled start-up developing synthetic palm oil is C16 Biosciences Inc, a company based in New York, US (website:c16bio.com). The company focuses on fermentation technology, which is a well-proven commercial process that has been used for centuries. The company says that brewing palm oil like beer is the best and most likely path to developing a sustainable palm oil alternative. The company, which was founded in 2017, has received an injection of US$20 million from an investment vehicle owned by a group of billionaires such as Mr Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson and Mr Michael Bloomberg.  

We believe this a significant endorsement in that there is a need to ensure increased supply of palm oil without incurring environmental problems of natural palm oil. It is reported by fastcomany.com on March 3rd, 2020, that C16 Biosciences is producing the synthetic palm oil on a small scale, and when it comes to market, it will work with product users that use small amounts of palm oil first such as high-end cosmetics. This is the typical strategy used by innovators to enter the palm oil market. We believe that the synthetic palm oil would be considered as a designer palm oil with unique characteristics to meet specific uses. This is unlike natural palm oil which has common standards or specifications.

Consumer product companies like Unilever PLC/Unilever NV and Procter and Gamble will be using this designer synthetic palm oil in their high-end cosmetics and beauty products as their customers are likely to be concerned with using natural palm oil. As a dominant technology will emerge in the next few years and after which the focus will be on producing the synthetic palm oil at lower prices. The successful companies in this stage will like attack other segments of the palm oil users with high profit margin, according to the classic business cycle product model.

Other companies which are racing to produce synthetic palm oil include Kiverdi Inc, Revive Eco and Bitterback.

Kiverdi Inc, a start-up based in California, US, is using microbes to convert carbon dioxide into an alternative to palm oil (website: kiverdi.com). The company started based on the aspiration of using carbon dioxide exhaled by NASA astronauts which would be captured by microbes, then converted, with other inputs such as power and water, into food, which would feed the astronauts. It has more than 46 patents granted or pending of carbon transformation technology that can be applied to a range of industries, including the production of synthetic palm oil.

 Revive Eco, a company based in Scotland, UK, is extracting useful oil from coffee waste. As well as oils, the company turns the waste coffee in other products, such as natural chemical alternatives and a soil conditioner.

Besides these start-ups, other chemical and biotechnology firms are developing industrial technology processes to replace natural palm oil.

The Dutch chemical company, DSM, is already using fermentation to produce polyunsaturated fatty acids that otherwise might be sourced from palm oil. The company is pursuing speciality applications. In 2015, it says that currently replacement of natural palm oil by fermentation is not feasible. However, in longer term, fermentation processes that could replace palm oil may not be restricted to higher value chemicals. This is because fermentation co-products, for example, active ingredients and protein from algae, would make the economic feasibility of production of synthetic palm oil better.

This is shown by Solarzyme (website: solazyme.com), a company based in California, US, which is already producing commercial quantities of algal oils that are engineered to be chemically similar to palm products, such as C10 and C12 fatty acids found in palm kernel. The company is supplying a replacement for palm oil derivatives for products such as laundry detergent. The algae are grown in fermentation tanks, where they are being fed with sugar, are harvested within seventy two hours.

Our Comments

The mission of reducing environmental damages caused by the expanding oil palm plantations to produce palm oil is valued by corporate investors and venture capital managers. Commercially, there are many segments of the products that use natural palm oil which can be substituted by higher-priced synthetic palm oils.  

Strategically, most of the palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, which constitutes about 80 per cent of the world’s supply. Like worries of supply disruptions of natural rubber in the past, and the impact of global pandemic like Covid-19, which we are experiencing now, companies and governments in consuming countries will be concerned on the possible   disruption of supply of natural palm oil mainly produced in these two countries. This is also aggravated by the fact that most products contain a high proportion of palm oil. 

If the existing and future start-ups, funded by investors such as Mr Bill Gates and other billionaires, and large chemical and biotechnology manage to do what Solazyme has succeeded, we will see a major disruption to the palm oil industry. .

The official response from Malaysian Palm Oil Board was rather muted. When the news came out that Mr Bill Gates has invested in C16Biosciences, the headline reported in the local newspaper, theedge market.com, was “Synthetic palm oil lacks nutritional value of  natural palm oil.” Usually, innovators will first attack the high-end product sectors that use palm oil like cosmetics and not the low-end palm oil food products   

We need to take the advice of the HBS professor, Clayton M. Christensen, who passed recently, who said established companies who dismiss new innovations at the early stage of the product life cycle will be at their own peril. These executives are advised to read his book!

First, accept that Metschnikowia pulcherrima  will disrupt parts of the higher-priced  palm oil value chain. In addition, Malaysian plantation companies should also consider brewing their own synthetic palm oil using local strain of the yeast, Metschnikowia pulcherrima . However, they need new capabilities such as fermentation and process extraction.

Must-Read Reports

The expert’s recommendation: here’s what to do to boost your immune system

Posted on
The deadly Covid -19 virus

Last week my wife related to me that a not-so-old gentleman was asking for vitamin C in our local pharmacy. The pharmacist told him that the stocks of vitamin pills have run out. She added that the stocks she ordered was also not sure when they would be delivered.  

Last weekend, my university, Azman Hashim International School of Business cancelled face-to-face classes. I need to teach my DBA students via online method using Skype.

Everyone knows the culprit is Covid-19.

I noted an article by Peta Bee in the Health Section of The Times London today. She interviewed an expert on immunology, Dr Jenna Macciochi, and a lecturer at the University of Sussex.  The following is an extract of the interview.     

If Dr Jenna Macciochi’s behaviour is a barometer of how wary we should be about the immediate threat of coronavirus, it is reassuring that we meet in a busy café and she greets me warmly — although not quite with a shake of hands.

Beyond that, her guard is clearly raised. She says that she has travelled by train from Brighton, a journey she would rather not have made, and that she is mindful of every situation in which she finds herself interacting with others. “I am taking great care not to go anywhere unnecessarily,” she says. “I’m being extremely careful and it goes without saying that I’m stringent about washing my hands.”

If we listen to anyone about the pandemic, perhaps it should be Macciochi. She has an impressive scientific CV; a lecturer in immunology at the University of Sussex, she previously worked at Imperial College London and is a contributing editor of scientific journals including the Annals of Advanced Biomedical Sciences. Her new book, Immunity — The Science of Staying Well, delves into everything related to our immune system and what we need to do to protect ourselves against infection. Its publication is timely — not even she predicted a pandemic of these proportions coming.

“Once real fear was raised in China, it was a case of gathering data and watching it evolve,” she says. “But it’s a brand new virus, and while we can look to others from the same family for clues, ultimately we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Macciochi, 38, and the mother of five-year-old twins, says that she has abandoned arrangements to visit her parents, both in their seventies, out of a desire to protect them. “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine,’ because they are relatively healthy and might get only mild symptoms anyway,” she says. “But we seem to be missing the fact that it’s the vulnerable people we need to protect and the transition we need to contain.”

How we do that does not come in the form of a manual. Macciochi is reluctant to suggest that we can “boost” our immune systems through healthy living — “it’s a phrase that is too often misused by the wellness industry” — but says that we can raise our personal protection in many ways. Here she tackles the big questions about protecting ourselves from coronavirus.

I never get colds, so won’t I be OK?
“We are genetically and immunologically unique. But that is by design because if we were all immunologically identical, we would react to the same infection in the same way and our species would die out. Even members of the same family react differently to different immune system threats. But while some people do claim never to get cold and flu-like infections and may think that they will avoid coronavirus too, the reality is we are just more susceptible to some types of infection and more resilient to others. There’s no hierarchy to this and none of us is invincible to everything.”

Will taking vitamins help?
“When thinking about protecting themselves against infection, most people believe that taking vitamin C, in supplement form, will be helpful. It’s certainly true that vitamin C plays a key role in immunity and that a deficiency of it can lead to a higher susceptibility of a cold or virus.

“If you eat fruit and vegetables, vitamin C is practically unavoidable in the diet. Taking more — in doses of 1-2g daily — has not been proven to ward off infections, but it might be helpful in reducing the severity and duration of them.

Effervescent vitamin C and orange

“When we are ill our immune cells need almost double the amount of vitamin C they normally do to fight an infection, so consuming more of it could be beneficial in marginally reducing the length of time you are suffering by around 8 per cent in adults and 14 per cent in children, on average.

“If you do a lot of exercise, it’s worth taking as vitamin C appears to have stronger effects on people who train hard. In Finnish studies on marathon runners and skiers, vitamin C supplementation almost halved the duration of a cold, but had little effect on the sedentary participants.

“Do be aware that high intakes of vitamin C can cause gastrointestinal upset in some people and that, even if you do take it, it will not make you invincible.”

Will being fighting fit help?
“Physical activity is one of the best ways to prime and even rejuvenate immunity. A recent British study of male and female long-term cyclists aged 55 to 79 found that, when compared with those of twentysomething sedentary people, the older cyclists’ immune systems were far superior.

“Keeping your muscles active releases high levels of a specific chemical called interleukin 7 (IL-7) into the blood and that helps to prevent shrinking of a gland of great importance to immunity. The thymus gland, situated in front of the heart and behind the sternum, is responsible for producing new T cells, the master controllers of the immune system.

“It starts diminishing in size from our twenties, a process called thymus involution, but regular exercise halts this, keeping the thymus gland in healthy shape. Resistance training — lifting weights or your own body weight through press-ups, lunges and the like — is particularly beneficial in prompting the release of IL-7. But just moving throughout the day — getting up from your desk, walking at lunchtime — is more effective than sitting all day and doing a HIIT class after work.”

But shouldn’t I be avoiding the gym?
“Gyms tend to pack a lot of people into a confined space, probably not the best environment to seek out during the coronavirus pandemic. If you do go, take sensible precautions such as washing your hands often before and after a workout, wiping equipment with sanitisers and avoiding people who are sniffling or coughing. Your best bet is to exercise outdoors, running, walking or cycling alone or in small groups.

“If you usually train intensely, by all means keep it up. Your body and immunity adapt to training loads and it’s only if you increase your exercise steeply that it can start to suppress the immune system. Exercise is a form of stress to the body and will produce some immune dampening responses if you go at it too hard.

“It used to be thought that there was a window following prolonged endurance activity in which immunity was compromised as immune cells disappeared, making people more susceptible to infection. Science has since shown that this is not the case and that immune cells are just diverted to where they are needed most after hard workouts. But sensible precautions are recommended — don’t push too far or too hard and stay warm and dry when you finish.”

Is it OK to keep drinking alcohol?
“There are no benefits to drinking alcohol in terms of immunity and it may actually harm our defences. One reason for this is the effect it has on our sleep, which may be poorer in quality after a few glasses of wine. Since sleep disruption is known to raise the risk of catching a cold or the flu, it stands to reason that your susceptibility to any virus might be increased.

“Alcohol also affects the gut microbiome with hard spirits (including gin) particularly harmful when it comes to decreasing gut bacteria that benefit our immunity. A weekend of heavy drinking can affect the function of immune-regulating organs like the liver and explains why people tend to fall ill after partying. It’s best avoided at this time.”

Are zinc supplements worth a shot?
“Zinc is an essential mineral that’s needed by every cell in the body and is vital for normal development and function of cells that are involved in immunity. It’s not stored in our bodies, so a regular intake is vital — men need 5.5-6.5mg a day and women 4-7mg and you find it in a range of foods, including meat, milk, eggs, fish, chickpeas, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, dried figs and Brazil nuts.

“Whether it’s worth taking a supplement is debatable, but there is some evidence that zinc lozenges do help to prevent winter infections in children, and test-tube trials have shown that it seems to stop viruses getting into cells and improves the power of immune cells to fight infection, although there’s no confirmation they are helpful to adults in real-life circumstances. If you do take extra zinc, take a lozenge for the short term. Prolonged use of more than six weeks can cause an irritated digestive tract.”

Does eating organic food make a difference?
“Gut health is a big trend and your microbiota can have a powerful effect on your immunity. But too many people think that turning to probiotics or kefir is the way to go. What they should be doing is fertilising the gut bugs they already have with a diet rich in fibre and containing a diverse range of fruit, wholegrains and vegetables.

“A lot of soil microbes have been shown to help our immune system, so consuming fresh produce as soon after it has been picked as possible is the best bet. There’s some evidence that organic produce or that picked from an allotment, which might still have a bit of dirt on it, is superior for the microbiome. Ultimately, though, just increasing how many fruit and veg you eat is the best step you can take.”

Should I just stop worrying about coronavirus?
“Worrying definitely makes us more susceptible to infection, and stress has a known dampening effect on our immunity. I’ve been contacted by so many people in recent days who are concerned about the spread of the virus, and the best thing we can do is to take a step back and remove some of the pressure.

“We can’t make ourselves invincible, but we can reduce the effects of stress and in doing so raise our levels of protection. Carving time out of our day to change our routine slightly is essential at the moment. Small and regular practice of things like meditation can be really helpful, but so can walking outdoors, which introduces our brains to a wider vista and removes the focus on work and coronavirus. Try yoga, t’ai chi or reading — any steps that you find help to relax your mind.”

Will the threat of coronavirus improve with the weather?
“Weather and the climate could play a part in coronavirus, but the truth is we can’t be sure. We know that some viruses, influenza for example, prefer cooler climates and can survive longer on a cold surface, which is why it strikes more often in winter. Only time will tell if the threat of coronavirus eases as we move through the seasons.”

Will herd immunity help?
“The theory behind herd immunity, one of the strategies discussed by the government, is that a population becomes resistant to an infection because enough people have developed a resistance to it either through having the disease or because they’ve had a vaccination against it. It’s sort of a community immunity that makes it harder for something to spread.

“But we are nowhere near that point with coronavirus — it’s a brand new virus and nobody yet has immunity from it except perhaps those who have had it and survived. At the moment the only way not to get infected is to isolate yourself and distance yourself from people who may already have it.”

How do immunosuppressive drugs affect coronavirus?
“People taking this kind of medication for existing health problems are definitely more susceptible to contracting a virus because their immunity is compromised, although they would still need to come into contact with an infected person. So far, there aren’t many case studies to go on, but it could be that Covid-19 may look different and have different implications for someone taking immunosuppressive medication.

Since it is the immune system that produces symptoms of a virus like coughing and a fever, these people might not initially present with symptoms as severe as other people. But long-term there could be extra risk of complications from the virus if they are infected. Without a normal capacity to mount an immune response, it could mean the virus directly damages the delicate lung cells, something that is not reversible. The advice is to not stop taking medications unless instructed by your healthcare provider to do so, and if self-isolating to ensure you have plenty of your prescription.”

Can you get it and not know?
“One of the concerning things about coronavirus is that some people have tested positive having had no symptoms at all. They may be spreading the virus without realising it which is what makes it particularly scary.”

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well by Dr Jenna Macciochi (Thorsons, £14.99)

Must-Read Reports

Cognitive (brain) health supplements market is mind-blowing strong

Posted on
Maintaining cognitive health through food supplements

Cognitive health is a vital part of healthy living and quality of life. Cognition includes the ability to learn new things, intuition, judgment, language and remembering. Cognitive health has remained a major health issue globally. Over the years, people have employed the use of traditional herds and medicines which contains therapeutic compounds that help curb diseases and ailments ranging from headaches and migraines to more condition-specific disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

CoQ10 and omega-3 fatty acids are being used in human nutritional applications to support brain or cognitive health. Vitamin E, rosemary, ginseng and ginkgo biloba are used in maintaining general brain health. New cognitive health ingredients are also being introduced and gaining popularity.

Aging population and increasing prevalence of brain-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease are among the key factors that the growth of the cognitive health ingredients market. 

Dietary supplements dominate the global cognitive health market. Functional foods and beverages is still an emerging application for majority of these ingredients and offers immense future potential.

Active ingredients used in cognitive (brain) health

There are a lot of ingredients positioned for cognitive health, such as vitamins, minerals, CoQ10, omega-3 fatty acids, citicoline and botanical extracts. Majority of the cognitive health ingredients are also positioned for health benefits other than supporting brain health. For example, omega-3 ingredients are positioned both for cardiovascular and cognitive health. However, the positioning of omega-3 fatty acids for cognitive health is emerging due to manufacturers’ interests in catering to a different target audience. Both ginkgo biloba and ginseng extracts are primarily positioned as adaptogens (a unique group of herbal ingredients used to improve the health of  adrenal system, the system that is in charge of the body’s hormonal response to stress) to improve memory and concentration and decrease the symptoms of condition-specific mental disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. The cognitive health benefits of the major ingredients are summarized as follows:

  • CoQ10:
  • Improves brain function
  • Antioxidant property
  • Prevents migraine
  • Reduces the damage caused by Parkinson’s disease
  • Helps lower cholesterol
  • Helps reduce inflammation
  • Discourages atherosclerosis
  • Omega-3
  • Promotes heart health
  • Improves immunity
  • Enhances eye health
  • Improves cognitive health

CoQ10 and omega-3 are the most researched and clinically established health ingredients available for use in functional foods, functional beverage, and dietary supplement industries. EPA and DHA are the most important omega-3 fatty acids with strong scientific evidence supporting their health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with numerous health benefits. The cognitive health benefits have been accepted by consumers.   

Companies involved in cognitive (brain) health ingredient market

There are many companies involved in the cognitive health ingredient market. These include Naturex SA, Ocean Nutrition Canada, Martek Biosciences Corporation and Cargill. There is a high level of threat from product substitution in the cognitive health ingredient market. The increasing demand for health ingredients has resulted in a large number of ingredients competing for market share. The competition is keen in such segments such as fatty acids, vitamins and mineral supplements, antioxidants, botanicals and herbs.

Moreover, majority of the ingredients’ efficacy and safety, except a few, are backed by limited science. Additionally, consumers are confused by the offering of such ingredients in the market place.  

Despite these challenges, new companies are entering the cognitive health ingredient market. The global population is increasingly being affected by brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Continued research efforts have provided scientific backing to the benefits of cognitive health ingredients. These efforts have revealed numerous brain-related benefits of a single ingredient.      

The omega-3 ingredient market is continuously undergoing consolidation. One large acquisition exercise was made by DSM which acquired Martek Biosciences in 2010. The latter was the first company to commercialize DHA produced from sources other than fish oils.    

Global cognitive (brain) health ingredient market

According to a market research company, Sprout Intelligence, the cognitive (brain) health ingredient market was estimated to be US1,500 million in 2015. This market was growing at 7 per cent per year. .