Realising how the humble microbes can naturally heal diseased plants and also increase production yield while being good for the earth, Eric Chung, Managing Director and CEO of Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd, was prompted to make a leap towards biotechnology entrepreneurship. He shares with Top 10 of Asia how he plans to transform the agribusiness industry from chemical-based to biotechnology-based and make it green and sustainable.
Hong Kong-born Eric Chung was steadily climbing the corporate ladder in the finance industry when he discovered his niche as a biotechnology entrepreneur in 1996. “After many years of working for others, I reached a crossroad in my career: should I continue fulfilling other people’s dreams or make a difference my own way?” he reminisces. He wisely chose the latter route, investing and participating in several biotechnology projects in Malaysia including waste water treatment, solid waste management and plant healthcare and disease control management. During this time, he filed three biotechnology-based patents. In 2013, Chung decided to consolidate and hold all his interests in these biotechnology projects under Virgin Greens X Sdn Bhd (VGX (M)), where he serves as Managing Director and CEO, and assigned all three patents to VGX (M).
Microbes, according to Chung, are tiny living things that surround us and even live within us. They are nature’s gift to us and their benefits are immense. “VGX (M) was born out of a vision to supply environmentally friendly microbial based solutions in agriculture as a viable alternative to the excessive use of harmful chemicals,” he says. The Group’s core business revolves around the research, development and commercialisation of food and agricultural related technologies, focusing on microbial product and biological process development. “We are not a business that sells products, rather, we are a complete solutions provider,” he emphasises. This means that for new customers and new sites, apart from on-site observations, VGX (M) will conduct a soil and leaf analysis where the products are to be used to determine if the products are indeed suitable for its intended use. “Only then will our products be used, and if necessary and where possible, we will customise our products with other microbial cocktails to address the customer’s specific issue.”
Growing up as the youngest of three children to parents who were both teachers, Chung experienced a relatively happy childhood. “We weren’t rich but we were content. When I was 18, my dream to go overseas came true when my parents bought me a one-way ticket to Australia to further my studies there,” he says. To subsidise his studies, Chung had to juggle three part-time jobs while studying which made him a familiar face in Chinatown.
He graduated with both Science and Economics degrees from the Australian National University (ANU) and is a CPA in Australia and Hong Kong, signifying his talents as both a scientist and businessman. VGX (M) is the natural culmination of his passion in science and financial acumen. “There is no point creating a great product which is not commercially viable. At VGX (M), we will only deem a product or solution as being ‘successfully commercialised’ after it has gone through the entire supply chain flow of research, mass production and marketing. This is the only way to maximise the premium and returns attached to our marketable products or solutions,” he says, adding that the company has all three key elements under one roof.
The Group made waves in the agribusiness community when its flagship and best-selling patented invention, MG BioGuard®, has proven to be effective in addressing the Basal Stem Rot (BSR) disease in oil palms. Other patented products – MG Plus™, MG BioGuard® 2.0 and MG BioGuard® 3.0 are focused on promoting plant growth, controlling diseases in paddy, fruits and vegetables respectively.
Chung chose to set up his headquarters and research hub in Malaysia, as the country is a significant agriculture sector contributor in Asia Pacific where relevant biotech talent, resources and incentives abound. In 2015, VGX (M) was granted BioNexus Status by the Malaysian government, which is a special status accorded to qualified international and local biotechnology companies involved in value-added biotechnology activities and comes with fiscal incentives, grants and other guarantees to fuel its growth. VGX (M) has also qualified for the CIP 500 Funding programme, which entitles it for a RM500,000 grant that will be disbursed progressively upon achievement of specific milestones.
Recently, the Group added a big feather to its cap when it was listed on The National Stock Exchange of Australia Limited (NSX) as VGX Limited at the end of 2016. “This listing will not only enhance the Company’s profile to prominent research partners but also boosts our marketing efforts beyond Malaysian borders,” Chung divulges, adding that Australia has some of the best agriculture R&D technology and talents in the world that the Group would like to collaborate with. In fact, VGX (M) is already working with several Australian universities in a few R&D projects.
Chung attributed his company’s success to his 13 core team members whom he personally handpicked. “I made many mistakes on my journey to where I am today, that was how I learned and grew. Likewise, I give my team room to grow, to make mistakes and to learn from them. I value them for their creativity and would not dream to hamper them in any way,” says the steadfast leader who is always open for discourse and discussions. A minimalist when it comes to fashion, he cuts a familiar figure in his daily ‘uniform’ of crisp white long-sleeved work shirts and black pants. “I prefer using my time for other more important things than to worry about my wardrobe,” he says with a smile.
The fit and tireless entrepreneur makes it a point to work out regularly but admits that at times it is hard to maintain a health work-life balance. “Still, my wife and I try our best to make family life a priority,” says the doting father of two university-age daughters who are both undergoing studies at their parents’ alma mater, ANU. He happily reports that the girls relate to him as their friend and that he enjoys listening to their favourite singers. “In fact, the ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten is my anthem song.” To young aspiring biotechnology entrepreneurs, Chung has this to say – “Everyone has one life so decide if you want to have a comfortable one or (to quote Steve Jobs) put a dent in the universe. If you want the latter, remember that success comes not to those with the biggest and brightest brains but to those who work hard and don’t give up.”
True to his core beliefs, Chung is not one to rest on his laurels even on the back of his consistently profitable company. The Group has developed a loyal client base in Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong and plans to aggressively expand its reach to other countries in Asia Pacific. “This is just the beginning of our foray into the multi-billion dollar biotechnological agriculture industry,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. “There is so much more to be done and the sky is the limit.”