10 Jul 2019

Igniting Innovation —Tan Soo Sam of Health Food Matters


Savouring open innovation
Inspiration and collaboration are crucial ingredients for creating wholesome meals for individuals with special dietary needs.

Think about your favourite dish, then imagine not being able to eat it for the rest of your life because you have difficulty chewing on the meat, or because you have problems with swallowing. This may very well be the scenario faced by many of the elderly in Singapore and around the world—especially those who may have suffered from a stroke. As a result, seniors may be confined to a diet of porridge and blended foods lacking in taste, texture and presentation, which could lead to loss of appetite and malnutrition.

Seeking to restore the ‘gastronomic dignity’ of the elderly and those with medical conditions is Health Food Matters, founded by Tan Soo Sam in 2015. The Singapore-based food company churns out wholesome meals, food products and beverages that provide much-needed nutrition to support a strong, healthy and happy lifestyle for those with special dietary requirements.

Health Food Matters places a strong emphasis on open innovation when creating its range of offerings, often working closely with partners to identify unmet needs at different stages of the healthcare continuum. Find out how Tan ingrains a culture of openness to ideas and collaboration among his team members to consistently deliver value to clients and stakeholders.


1. What is the core competency of your company?

Our team of dieticians, food technologists, chefs and process and quality managers dream up food that Singaporeans love. We specialise in developing delicious food and drinks for the elderly and for people with medical conditions. Using a combination of Singapore and Japanese technology, we strive to make food safe and suitable for our customers.

For example, we have developed more than 80 different types of dishes under our Delisoft range. Each dish comes in four different textures. As we grow older, medical conditions such as stroke and dementia affect the way we eat and drink. This means bigger chunks of chicken will need to be chopped, minced or even blended to prevent choking. Even then, the chicken needs to be sufficiently soft and moist to help with swallowing.

Here’s an example of our sesame soy sauce chicken in different textures.

We also take special care in making sure our meals are succulent, delicious and appetising because many of our customers suffer from poor appetite. Eating a safe and nutritious meal gives our customers the energy to support a happy and healthy life. We also have our caregivers in mind. All our meals are frozen fresh with good shelf life, are ready-to-eat in five minutes without the hassle of preparation and texturing, and are readily available on our website.

2. Was there a turning point in your company's history that convinced you that open innovation was the right way to grow?

From 1993 to 2014, I founded and ran the largest chain of nursing homes in Singapore. Very early on, I had been looking for ways to improve the taste and presentation of the meals we served to our elderly residents.

I noted that the cook-to-serve food catering model had many disadvantages, such as limited dish selection, a higher probability of food contamination, inconsistent texturing and segregation of fluid from food. As a result, elderly residents complained of poor food selection. They also risked food poisoning, choking, development of pneumonia and malnourishment due to poor food intake.

Over the years of operating nursing homes, I came across some good advancements in food technology in Singapore and other parts of the world. So in 2015, I founded Health Food Matters with the concept of tapping on these technologies with open innovation.

We collaborated with Changi General Hospital, and in a span of two years, we developed over 80 types of dishes for people with dysphagia, or swallowing difficulties. We also recently collaborated with Tan Tock Seng Hospital to develop dysphagia drinks in local flavours.

As we progress, we have reached a better vantage point and are now developing more dysphagia drinks, as well as healthier food for the elderly and working adults.


3. How has open innovation benefitted your company so far?

Open innovation accelerated our R&D process. Instead of starting from scratch, we tapped on technologies from Singapore and Japan through partnerships and focused our energy on making our meals succulent and delicious. We want to be able to delight our customers with a variety of delicious options, no matter their dietary needs.

I would also like to highlight our partnership with Changi General Hospital (CGH). We were connected with CGH at TechInnovation 2015, a technology-to-industry brokerage event organised by IPI. Thereafter, we formed a very important licensing partnership with CGH to produce their texture-modified meals.


4. How do you encourage a culture of open innovation in your company?

We support open innovation through an open-minded and non-judgmental way of looking at problems. During our team discussions, we encourage the flow of new ideas and explore areas where we can improve. We do not believe in a right or set way of working. We are constantly looking to improve through small and big ways. Naturally, this would mean an influx of ideas from outside the company.

For example, we readily respond to our customers’ feedback to improve our meals. We used to make our minced chicken dish with chicken breast because breast meat is healthier and contains less fat. However, we received feedback to make the dish juicier, so our food technologists and chefs worked on the dish for a few weeks, and we achieved a deliciously juicy texture by mixing chicken breast with a percentage of chicken thigh meat, without compromising on the dish’s nutritional values.

Through open innovation, we quicken our learning process. But at the same time, we build on our own knowledge, and over time, this knowledge develops into our own internal expertise and capabilities.


5. What are some lessons that you have learnt in the process of engaging in open innovation?

If you are engaging in open innovation, and you are seeking a partner to work with, it is very important that both parties are honest and transparent with each other. There needs to be an open discussion on how both parties will benefit from this arrangement in the long term. If one party does not trust the other, the sharing process becomes superficial, and it may detrimentally affect the R&D process.

It is also important to remember that an idea is just an idea. A company comprises people with different personality traits, experiences and emotions, so an idea will only become something of greater significance if it infiltrates the company and its complex systems. This requires open consensus, a set of written procedures, training, and time to adjust. Thus, a common pitfall of open innovation occurs when an idea or technology is adopted with insufficient buy-in from your own team. Soon enough, the fantastic idea may die off or end up becoming another white elephant.

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