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Interview with Kevin KEE of E2S2 Systems

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An exclusive SSII Q&A with Kevin KEE, the CEO of E2S2 Systems (E2S2). E2S2 is part of our pioneer batch of Cross Border Incubation Programme participants in Shanghai.


YS: Today, we have Mr. Kevin KEE from E2S2 Systems(E2S2). E2S2 is a spin-off from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Shanghai Jiaotong University. Their team consists of :

  • Chairman: Assoc Prof NEO Kok Beng
  • CEO: Dr Kevin KEE
  • Senior Scientific Advisor: Assoc Prof TONG Yen Wah
  • Senior Technical Advisor: Assoc Prof ZHANG Jingxin

E2S2 has designed an anaerobic digestion system for food and bio waste which is up to 5 times more efficient than existing solutions.

A warm welcome to Kevin from E2S2.

1. Tell us the origin story of E2S2 – what problem were you trying to solve and why?

First of all, thank you for giving us this opportunity to share about our company and what we hope to achieve.

E2S2 started in 2012 as a 10-year joint research program between National University of Singapore and Shanghai JiaoTong University, funded by Singapore National Research Foundation.  E2S2 stands for Energy and Environmental Sustainability Solutions for Megacities and it aims to develop technologies for solving urban challenges in waste and environment that are of major importance to large cities. 

E2S2 Systems is a spin-off from the research collaboration in 2018 with the objective of commercializing and deploying its on-site anaerobic digestion food waste to energy technology in cities like Singapore and Shanghai.  

There have been a number of new government initiatives and regulations in many countries including China and Singapore to better manage waste treatment with the goal of achieving zero waste.  E2S2 Systems will focus on helping public and private entities achieve their zero waste objective through on-site conversion of organic waste to energy and reclamation of its by-products.  This reduces the users’ cost in waste disposal and gives high return on investment due to its high value by-products.  From environmental standpoint, this technology lowers overall carbon footprint due to elimination of waste transportation and improves overall waste incineration plant efficiency.  

2. For most of us who invest in the US and China, it is not hard to believe that there is a huge market for CleanTech innovations. When you started off as the CEO of E2S2, surely you would also have a look into your competitor landscape and their unique selling point. What insights did you gather back then (that E2S2 offers a significant advantage over competitors)? What has changed since then?

China generates 110 million tons of food waste annually, of which less than 20% is recycled.   To achieve its zero waste goal, the Chinese government has wisely recognized this to be an area for improvement.  In the waste segregation regulation introduced in recent months, food waste is one of the waste types to be segregated.  The regulation will be expanded to about 46 major cities by 2020 and subsequently to all 300+ cities by 2025.  It is, therefore, reasonable to expect the demand for food waste treatment to increase significantly over the next few years. 

In view of the increased demand for food waste treatment system, it’s natural that there are other competitive on-site food waste treatment systems in the market.  These systems are based on aerobic digestion, enzymatic digestion and composting.  Their end products are either fertilizers and/or grey water.  Based on more than 50 feedback we gathered from past and present users of such systems, including Singapore Changi Airport Group, Resort World Sentosa, Shenzhen Zhongxun, we see two major advantages we have other our competitors:

  1.  The competitive systems tend to have low return on investment.  Since the products from these processes are either fertilizer or grey water, the product value is low.  In addition, the operation of these systems often incurs high cost due to high energy usage and regular topping up of microbes.  On top of the high product values from our patent-pending system, our system also has low operational cost as it is net energy positive and does not require topping up of the microbes. 
  2. More importantly, due to the aerobic requirement of the competitive processes, these systems tend to have severe odour issues.  We have heard from some of these users that they stopped using these systems because the bad odour had negative impacts on their environment and even their customers.  Our system, on the other hand, works in an oxygen-free environment and so the system process is completely sealed.  This prevents any odour issue during the processing of the food waste.

From Singapore Standard on food waste management (SS633) technical standpoint, turning food waste into energy is also a preferred method over aerobic digestion system. 

3. What makes this time so perfect for your start-up to kick-off?

There are 4 reasons why we think it’s the best time for our start-up to kick off now:

  1. One-third of global food produced is wasted every year, which causes more than 10% of global greenhouse gas.  As we move toward more sustainable practices, it is imperative that we tackle the food waste issue.  Our study is the past 8 years has shown this solution to be effective in resolving this issue, particularly in urban environment. 
  2. As a joint research program between Singapore and China, we are uniquely placed in an advantageous position whereby we can leverage on the strengths from both sides, such as  Singapore experiences in managing and greening its environment, and China expertise in manufacturing quality machinery in a cost-effective manner.   We will have showcase projects in Singapore using equipment fabricated in China.
  3. The introduction of new regulations in both China and Singapore on waste management has presented us with a timely entry to the market.  This regulation will be introduced in 46 major cities by 2020 (http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-06/29/content_5404381.htm).  After segregation, the waste will be treated based on the best practice.  According to Singapore Standard SS633, our waste-to-energy method is the best on-site solution for treating food waste, putting us in an advantaged position from a regulation standpoint.
  4. Due to the growing concern on global warming, the general population are also increasingly more aware and even demanding of the needs for green and sustainable practices.  It is not unusual to see corporations and common folks voluntarily taking the extra steps to protect the environment.  The solution that we propose should, therefore, gain supports from the general population.

4. What are your thoughts on Singapore’s tech startup entering the Chinese market?

Singapore tech start-ups are generally quite strong technically due to the various supports from the government and corporates.  When it comes to deployment of the technology, Singapore tech start- for commercial deployment are rather limited.  As a result, when these start-ups venture outside Singapore, such as China, they may be perceived as untested even though their technologies are sound.  We are rather fortunate that we will have two projects from the Singapore government as a showcase. 

For a business to be successful, market connection and relationship are also important, especially when it goes from its home market to another market like China.  In my view, Singapore start-ups, including ourselves, are a little bit lacking in these regards.  One way to overcome this is through a partnership with local ventures who are well-connected and familiar with the targeted market.  This is also why we have chosen to partner with SSII and hopefully, other quality partners that SSII is bringing onboard.

5. As you know, SSII is very happy to be your partner expanding into China. We love the fact that you are building something that fits into the larger picture of CleanTech. It is not hard to imagine that given the larger market and right regulations is going to be a catalyst for your business in China. Share a bit about what you think about that, when did it hits you that you need to start venturing abroad?

As a matter of fact, the research work was carried out with megacities like Singapore and Shanghai in mind.  So it’s only natural for us to continue focusing on deploying our solution in these cities.  The announcement and introduction of government regulations on waste segregation and their goal of zero-waste are really icing on the cake – for example, the Chinese government will be investing 21.3 billion yuan to help the major cities achieve their waste segregation goal (http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2019-06/29/content_5404381.htm).  We are heartened by and deeply appreciative of the government’s commitment to achieving its sustainability goal, as it has been shown in the past that government support is one of the crucial factors in achieving high recycling rate. 

With this government initiative and hopefully further support from prospective partners, we envisage our solution to be proliferated quickly across the country.  We are currently in talks with two potential partners who share our vision of deploying our technology in residence districts in major cities.

6. Share with us one case study of the work that you have done and why do you like that project so much?

We are in talks with a number of key customers including National Environment Agency of Singapore, Outward Bound Singapore, Resort World Sentosa, Singapore Changi Airport Group, Fortis (for a Facebook project), SembWaste (the largest waste management company in Singapore) etc. 

The project with NEA is particularly interesting as this will serve as one of our showcase projects.  NEA manages all the public food centres in Singapore and they have in fact deployed some competitive systems in the past with, at best, mixed results.  They have been working closely with E2S2 research team to deploy this system in one of the most visited food centres in Singapore – East Coast Lagoon Food Village. 

The system will convert up to 300 kg of food waste daily to energy for site consumption, and 300L of liquid fertilizer for landscaping.  Since it involves landscaping, the National Park Board (NPark) have also been brought on board.  The system will be recycling many types of food waste that are currently not recyclable in other competitive systems such as bones, coconut husks, soups and other liquid waste, and rice.  The system and its outcome will be on public display to serve educational and marketing purposes. 

7. What has been the most surprising thing about your entrepreneurial journey so far?

As this is a new start-up, we have to work closely together as a team.  However, half the team had not previously worked other members in the team before.  Despite this, all the team members have been very committed, cooperative and supportive of each other.  All members have different but complementary strengths – Prof Neo’s vast experience on growing start-ups, Prof Tong’s wide knowledge all environmental challenges and solutions and Prof Zhang’s meticulous attention on technical details.  And I just try to bring out the best from everyone.  I strongly believe our team can achieve our goal given our strengths and determination.

8. What is the best way to contact you?

Our website is www.e2s2-systems.com and I can be contacted via [email protected]