Championing sustainability one grain at a time

An observation on the food waste generated in dining halls provided the seed of inspiration that eventually sprouted into the concept of local start-up the moonbeam co. The enterprise, which upcycles spent brewers’ grains to make granola, was set up by Kong Qi Herng, who has recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Pharmaceutical Science) with Honours (Distinction), and Lim Jia Wei, who has also just completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical Engineering) with Honours (Distinction) and a second major in Innovation & Design. They embarked on the venture together with current NUS Faculty of Science (FoS) Year 3 student Varden Toh.

“I knew that we had to do something, so we started doing research on the different ways to reduce food waste,” said Qi Herng.  Since commencing its operations in February 2022, the moonbeam co has upcycled over 60 kg of rice and 94 kg of spent grains as of May 2022.

A chance meeting

In his first year at NUS as a resident at Ridge View Residential College, which has a focus on sustainability, Qi Herng worked on a project looking into upcycling unserved rice in dining halls. A year later, the serendipitous meeting with two other like-minded students grew the idea into a company.

Qi Herng, Jia Wei and Varden were brought together in 2021 when they joined the NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) Programme, an entrepreneurship programme that gives students experience working in, and collaborating with, overseas start-ups and partner universities. They were assigned to different NOC cities – namely Munich and Ho Chi Minh, but due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the trio found themselves working on hackathon projects together in Singapore.

The synergy among them eventually led the three students to work together on the moonbeam co. “We realised we work very well together as a team and we share the same passion for sustainability. It was an inflection point for us, and started our path as serious entrepreneurs,” said Qi Herng.

Early beginnings

With a common goal of reducing food waste, the team started to look into upcycling waste into food and beverages. This resulted in their developing technologies that could turn unserved cooked rice into alcohol. The team also used the spent grains from the alcohol production to create granola. Extensive research and development also went into developing products that was appealing to consumers. For example, the team came up with a proprietary method to overcome the unpalatable texture of spent brewers’ grains to create a delicious granola product. Being trained in different fields, the three co-founders could offer different perspectives to help ensure that they got to the best solution.

“As an engineer, I find that sustainability as a systems approach, specifically resource efficiency, is fascinating. This approach is multi-disciplinary, complex and most importantly, promising in terms of the commercial and environmental benefits. We can definitely take concrete actions to address the environmental problems that we see today,” said Jia Wei.

“The knowledge from my training in Pharmaceutical Science has been helpful. The modules that taught biochemistry, lifecycle management and regulatory sciences have been relevant. I was able to perform literature review and research on the different technologies and methods of upcycling. Lifecycle management and regulatory matters are operational matters that we face very regularly at the moonbeam co,” said Qi Herng.

Creating sustainable products

The granola product was a hit amongst their classmates and business partners, and the enterprise now focuses on producing granola from spent grains sourced from a variety of partners. The team is also developing new flavours to encourage more consumption of these grains, and developing beer from unserved cooked rice. 

“I feel happy and a sense of pride when people love our granola and come back to us! The joy of delivering a product that people enjoy really motivates us. This confirms two things: there are people like us who want to effect changes to promote sustainability, and there are also people who may not be so inclined but can be prompted to make sustainable purchases,” said Jia Wei.

This story is part of NUS News’ coverage of Commencement 2022, which celebrates the achievements of our 13,975 graduates through 28 in-person ceremonies. For more on Commencement, read our story on the opening ceremony, check out the official Commencement website, or look up (and tag) #NUS2022 on our social media channels!