Bio-test startup Vitargent taps into China food safety concerns

January 29, 2018 14:41
Vitargent founder Eric Chen Zixiang aims to revolutionize how food, beverages, cosmetics and other products are tested for toxins in China. Photos: Vitargent, HKEJ

In China, food scandals such as food poisonings or contaminations crop up on a fairly regular basis, like the melamine incident in 2008 when tons of milk powder were found tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical, killing several children and sickening tens of thousands of others in the country.

Having seen first-hand the effects of food safety scandals, Guangzhou-born Eric Chen Zixiang and his young firm Vitargent (International) Biotechnology are seeking to revolutionize how food, beverage, cosmetics and other products are tested for toxins, using fish embryos.

The story of Vitargent began when Chen and his schoolmates were collaborating for a business plan competition at the City University of Hong Kong (CityU).

Determined to develop a project on food safety-related technologies, they identified the work on transgenic fish technology by Professor Cheng Shuk Han and PhD fellow Chen Xueping at the university. They went on to win the competition and Chen incorporated his company in 2010 with the support of CityU for the licensing of the transgenic fish technology.

The biotech startup’s main testing method is done using medaka and zebrafish embryos. Compared with chemical detection methods used by other labs, its biological methods are able to detect over a thousand types of toxins within a shorter period of time, with fish embryos mimicking the human metabolic system, making them better for screening harmful chemicals, the company claims.

Vitargent's test service covers industries including food, beverages, cosmetics and water. The startup charges a fee for the testing service, which provides a safety report and certification if the sample passes its test.

In 2015, Vitargent completed a deal with venture capital firm WI Harper Group. A year later, it raised an undisclosed sum in a Series B round led by property developer Nan Fung Group, which valued the company at over US$50 million.

"We want to be 'Amazon' in the food testing field," says Chen. In May 2017, the company launched its online platform "Test-it", which provides scientifically-verified information about the products tested, so that consumers can search for easy-to-read reports on the product safety before they make purchasing decisions.

The products were categorized as "green fish", "yellow fish" or "red fish" to help consumers ascertain product safety. Green fish rating means consumers can rest assured that the products are safe for purchase.

Since its launch, the "Test-it" platform has around 300,000 active users, with 90 percent of them from Mainland China, says Chen.

"With a channel to directly connect with consumers, we can also offer free sample packs of the safe products we tested," he adds.

Chen believes that when brands and corporates start endorsing his firm's safety standards, the regulatory standards in the market will be enhanced eventually.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 29

Translation by Ben Ng

[Chinese version 中文版]

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