After earning his MBA from Columbia University, Kyungsun Chung, grandson of the late Hyundai Group founder Chung Ju-yung, could easily have joined one of South Korea’s largest corporate groups, like many of his cousins. But after delving into climate change, Chung decided to forge his own path as an impact investor.
IIn late September, Hurricane Ian swept through southwest Florida, killing more than 100 people and damaging about 18,000 homes. According to estimates by disaster modeling company Karen Clark & Co. Ian’s privately insured losses would total nearly $63 billion. It would be the costliest storm in Florida history.
Natural disasters like these are exactly why Kyungsun Chung, a member of Hyundai’s founding family, is interested in climate change — which makes hurricanes and other disasters even more destructive — and forging his own path as an impact investor.
“When I went to business school, I first saw a lot of climate change data,” says Chung, 36, in an interview on the sidelines of the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Singapore, where he spoke on a panel on ESG and sustainability. “Looking at the data really worried me because, on the one hand, my existence would be affected. And secondly, insurance is the first industry to be wiped out due to climate change.”
As an example, Chung cites California’s Camp Fire in 2018. It was the state’s largest and deadliest fire and caused local insurer Merced Property & Casualty to go bankrupt over fire-related claims.
A collapse in the insurance industry will also affect Chung’s livelihood. He is the only son of Chung Mong-yoon, 67-year-old CEO and largest shareholder of Hyundai Marine & Fire Insurance, and the second youngest of eight sons of Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung. “That was a really big sign for me,” says Kyungsun Chung of Merced’s bankruptcy. “That’s why I decided to become much more proactive with impact investing.”
After earning his MBA from Columbia University, Chung founded the private equity firm The Sylvan Group in Singapore with fellow student Scott Jeun in 2019. Sylvan specializes in impact investing, which focuses on investments that benefit the environment and society – and generate a profit. Backed by $200 million from members of the Chung and Rockefeller families, Singaporean billionaire Wee Cho Yaw’s United Overseas Bank and Hanwha Life, Chung now wants to invest in companies that can help fight climate change.
In February, Chung made his first investments, but they had nothing to do with climate change — at least not directly. Sylvan acquired controlling stakes in four Singapore healthcare and pharmaceutical companies for US$140.5 million: Artemis Health Ventures, DX Imaging, Juniper Biologics and Juniper Therapeutics. “Everything is so intertwined,” says Chung. “You can’t push for climate action without getting people’s approval. But if they are not happy with their education, healthcare, housing and everything, you cannot go there.”
Chung has a long history of volunteering with charitable organizations. In 2012 he founded Root Impact, a non-profit organization in South Korea that supports social entrepreneurs who set up businesses that serve a social purpose, such as providing office space. Chung also serves on the board of directors of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, one of the world’s largest philanthropic service organizations.
Chung said he was inspired by his grandfather, who taught him that rich people need to give back to society. Chung Ju-yung founded the Asan Foundation in 1977, which builds hospitals and medical research centers, provides scholarships, and supports local charities. In 1998, the Hyundai founder, who was born in what is now North Korea, famously drove 50 trucks with 500 cows to the hermit kingdom, which was suffering from food shortages.
“You can’t push for climate action without getting people’s approval.”
AAnother trend Kyungsun Chung hopes to capitalize on is the move away from the globalization that has characterized the past three decades. “Starting from Covid, then decoupling and deglobalization and the war in Ukraine — that means we’re not going to have a stable supply chain anymore,” says Chung. “So certain things will become a lot more expensive, and some of those will be essential necessities, like groceries.”
In early February, for example, Hong Kong residents faced shortages of vegetables after strict Covid-19 controls across the mainland China border severely impacted fresh food supplies. Such experiences of food shortages have fueled demand for farm tech companies like Farm66, a vertical farming company in Hong Kong that grows vegetables and fruit aquaponically. “During the pandemic, we’ve all realized that the productivity of locally grown vegetables is very low,” said Gordon Tam, co-founder and CEO of Farm66 Forbes Asia earlier this year. “The social impact was enormous.”
And in Singapore, prices for chicken – the city-state’s most popular meat – soared after neighboring Malaysia temporarily banned chicken exports on June 1 to stabilize domestic supplies hampered by the pandemic, extreme weather conditions caused by the Climate change and the war was disrupted in Ukraine – a major producer of corn and wheat, which are used as chicken feed. “This time it’s chicken, next time maybe something else. We have to be prepared for that,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in local media interviews at the end of May.
“I think the agricultural sector is going to have a very difficult time very soon,” says Chung, adding that he is interested in alternative proteins, sustainable agriculture and agricultural technologies.
He’s not alone. Other investors have already poured millions into food startups, even in the face of rising inflation and higher interest rates. For example, in late June, Hong Kong-based Avant Meats, which grows fish fillets and fish maw (swim bladder – a delicacy in China) using cell culture technology, raised $10.8 million in a funding round in late June. The funding was led by S2G Ventures, a Chicago-based food and agriculture company backed by billionaire Lukas Walton (a grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton), and will be used to build a pilot facility in Singapore used. Avant Meats is one of 16 Hong Kong startups to make this year’s 100 to watch list.
In Singapore, Next Gen Foods, maker of plant-based chicken alternatives, raised $100 million in funding in February to fuel its global expansion plans, including the US. His star-studded list of investors includes Southeast Asian firm Alpha JWC Ventures, China’s first food-tech venture equity fund Bits x Bites, English soccer player Dele Alli, Singapore’s global fund EDBI, Midas Lister Jenny Lee’s GGV Capital, Kuok Meng Xiongs (grandson of Malaysia’s richest man Robert Kuok) K3 Ventures, Singapore’s state investor Temasek and Daryl Ngs (eldest son of Singaporean billionaire Robert Ng) of food and beverage maker Yeo Hiap Seng.
“When we had this abundance of VC money, they invested in all these food tech companies. Now they’re finally becoming more profitable and scalable,” says Chung. “So they could become a target of private equity firms like us. We are really serious about this sector.”
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