Doctors for indoor air – a fusion of science and business

By Piers Lee

In Vitro Pte Ltd is a research and manufacturing company “dedicated to the use of natural technology for enhancing the human experience”. Singapore has one of the highest global per capita consumption of concrete to feed its booming construction industry, yet it is also known as the “Garden City” – a vision put forward by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew way back in 1968, to integrate the environment with urban development. In line with this, In Vitro produces products of getting more consumers interested in botany and horticulture within the Singapore concrete jungle.

Its range of truly unique products includes Botanicaire™, an innovative product that focuses on environmental remediation. Using a cocktail of special microorganisms known as the Nuvoc Microbes™, the plants of Botanicaire™ act as a natural air detoxifier removing indoor air contaminants such as dust and odour, and can even target toxic gases known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These can be applied to air purification in the home or office in a more visually pleasing manner.

In Vitro was founded by Kris Soh in January 2010, and the business was based on the commercialisation of proprietary technology from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) of Singapore. Kris studied at NTU in the School of Biological Science where he learnt about such remediation technologies, and it was during this time when he realised that this type of technology could be commercialised.

He undertook a feasibility study for commercialising the product by entering an entrepreneurial competition through “Ideas.Inc Business Challenge”. The product, Botanicaire™, was well received by the judges and audience and it was on this basis that Kris decided to pursue his venture. “It was innovative enough to capture their attention and at the same time, it helps to determine if people were willing to pay for it or want the proposed product.” When they emerged runner-up in the competition, he was awarded a S$50,000 grant from Spring Singapore (a government agency that promotes Singapore’s economic growth and productivity) that helped in the setting up of a production facility for his products in Singapore.

As a biological student, Kris had no experience in setting up production facilities, but was fortunate to receive help from specialists in this area. He also had access to incubation facilities through NTU Ventures (a NTU business incubation centre) for one year. During this period, he undertook a lot of laboratory and production testing and eventually came up with an effective product suitable for mass production, and therefore commercialisation.

BotanicareDespite this early assistance, Kris points out that the business quickly used up the S$50,000 grant, but he was fortunate enough to find an angel investor who got to know them when their innovative idea was publicised in the Straits Times (Singapore’s leading daily), which was obviously a great start to marketing their products.

Moreover, Channel NewsAsia featured the efficiency of the Nuvoc Microbes™ Technology in their documentary “Saving Gaia”, a series with focus on businesses offering solutions for serious environmental concerns.

Initially In Vitro’s sales were made to retailers on consignment arrangements (i.e. they were sold on the retailers’ premises with them taking a commission on all sales).

Today, In Vitro has 7 retailers distributing their products, they also have an Internet store, store.invitro.sg, and are now looking at direct sales to the corporate market through a dedicated direct sales force. They are also planning to export their products to overseas countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and even as far as the US.

Market research

Being a ‘researcher’ of a sort, Kris takes market research seriously. The ‘judgment’ of their product and business plan through the “Ideas.Inc Business Challenge” competition was the first stage of market research. Kris also undertook competitor research through desk top research to see if there were any competing products or companies in the market – the lack of contestability was also a contributor to their decision to go to market.

In Vitro has taken a more considered approach to market entry and business planning without the maverick or impulsive attitudes that can be associated with some entrepreneurs. It also demonstrates the importance of industry experts in market research (such as adjudicators at Ideas.Inc), in being able to evaluate the market potential for a product and business plan. For this reason, it is often advisable to combine industry expert research within standard consumer market research.

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