Meet Victoria McKellar and Elizabeth Biggs, the clever and driven friends behind the popular probiotic and bio-fermented tonic company, Akesi. The two first met over eight years ago during the wonderful yet demanding early days of motherhood - raising babies and toddlers as expats in Singapore...
Sharing stories of health and with differing yet complementary career backgrounds their friendship evolved into a business partnership when together they realised their dream of creating Akesi, “We launched in November 2017 after spending over a year in research and development. We are a probiotic company and believe in the importance of nurturing the gut microbiota. We both really wanted to create a health and wellness brand that people could identify with, and provide a platform to educate people in the area of fermentation and probiotics,” explains Victoria.
Elizabeth trained as a medical doctor and practised in Ireland and Australia, while Victoria has a background in creating and building brands, mainly while in Tokyo. Both have travelled wildly and with a shared keen interest in their own families health and wellbeing (Elizabeth has four children and Victoria has three), they are fully immersed in the products they create and the benefits for the whole family. Victoria is candid about the catalyst for her passion for gut health and overall wellbeing, “My health journey was my inspiration behind forming Akesi. I had a lucky escape with a thyroid tumour over six years ago which led me down the holistic wellness path.” She recalls. “This, compounded by my third child being born prematurely and developing necrotizing enterocolitis, led me to enthusiastically research the importance of the microbiome and to search for ways to help my tiny baby, and my entire family.”
On creating a business with a friend? “We have certainly taken on roles that play to our individual strengths”, says Elizabeth. “Respect, patience and empathy belong to all friendships but they are the essential principles that enable you to transition from a friendship to a partnership.” This is a tale about optimising health, family, friendship and inspiring entrepreneurs.
We chat to Victoria and Elizabeth about raising families in Singapore, expat life, travel gems, and of course, the art and science of fermentation, and gut health and happiness for the entire family.
What are your most vivid memories of your childhood? Where did you grow up? How many siblings do you have? How did you spend your time?
Victoria: I grew up in Auckland and experienced a typical Kiwi upbringing – I was outdoors more than indoors; the TV was never on instead I was rolling down hills, picking fruit from the assortment of trees we grew (or from the trees on the walk to school!), helping Dad in the veggie patch, constructing tree huts, and had more pets than my parents would have liked! I am a middle child and I used to pack ‘supplies’ and go off on ‘big’ adventures with my brothers into the neighbourhood bush. I loved being busy so threw myself into as many activities as my mum could manage.
Elizabeth: I spent the first five years of my life in Vanuatu – an island nation in the Pacific that is now independent but was the only British-French dual colony in the world back in the late 1970s. I suppose you could say it was an expatriate lifestyle, to begin with – I was the youngest of four children and whilst I do have fond memories of my Melanesian nanny, perhaps that was because I was left with her more than my eldest brother! We attended the local French school and spent a lot of time near Port Vila harbour and on boats.
When did you move to Singapore and why? Where else have you lived?
Victoria: We moved to Singapore in 2011 following a 6-year stint in Tokyo. My husband’s job led us to both Japan and Singapore.
Elizabeth: I moved here with my husband and family in 2011 from London. I was, dare I say …’the trailing spouse’ and certainly on the lookout for an opportunity to work again.
How did you meet each other?
Elizabeth: We met through a local kindergarten but connected when we recognised each other in the Botanical Gardens… we were both trying to run some energy out of our kids! Over the last eight years, we have known each in Singapore we have shared stories of living in Asia, health (and ill-health!), children and travel. It was a natural extension that we decided to embark on the Akesi journey.
Tell us about your careers before Akesi.
Victoria: My personal journey led me to the wellness industry. Prior I was passionate about creating and building brands and worked for some great brand agencies in Tokyo and Singapore.
Elizabeth: I trained as a doctor at Trinity College, Dublin Ireland – so lived there for seven years which was a fabulous experience, right through the Celtic Tiger period. I worked as a doctor both in Ireland and back in Australia, however, I still felt that wanderlust and decided that another overseas adventure was right for me. I moved from clinical medicine into management consulting and worked within healthcare in the UK.
When did you launch Akesi? Can you explain what you provide? What was the inspiration behind launching?
Victoria: We launched in November 2017 after spending over a year in research and development. We are a probiotic company and believe in the importance of nurturing the gut microbiota. We both really wanted to create a health and wellness brand that people could identify with, and provide a platform to educate people in the area of fermentation and probiotics. We currently sell two ‘synbiotic’ powders (which are a combination of probiotics and prebiotics), two bio-fermented tonics and one delicious bio-fermented spritzer. My health journey was my inspiration behind forming Akesi. I had a lucky escape with a thyroid tumour over 6 years ago which led me down the holistic wellness path. I needed an impossible answer – or perhaps just solutions – as had felt I was already balanced and healthy. This, compounded by my third child being born prematurely and developing necrotizing enterocolitis, led me to enthusiastically research the importance of the microbiome and to search for ways to help my tiny baby, and my entire family.
Has an interest in health always been a priority of you? Has this changed since becoming a mother?
Victoria: Health is a priority for me, sometimes it is a case of simply not wanting to feel unhealthy that drives me – when you feel healthy you want to always feel that way. As a mother I want to help my children be as healthy as they can be; at home, we eat the rainbow, but I do loosen the rules for parties. I believe my approach is working as they are rarely sick and are happy well-adjusted children.
Elizabeth: I suppose medicine gives you a certain perspective on ‘health’, it’s predominantly the science of ‘ill-health’. Within medicine, the fields of public health, epidemiology and health promotion don’t always make the headlines but are really where the expenditure related to the health dollar can exert significant outcomes at the population level. I’ve always been interested in promoting health – it seems logical to help people make the most appropriate choices related to their health on the available evidence.
What piqued your interest in gut health as a way to harness overall health?
Elizabeth: Gut Health, the microbiota, the microbiome – none of this existed 20 years ago when I studied medicine. It’s really a new frontier, much like the revolution around the human genome. To consider that the microbial world that resides on us and within us has impacts far beyond the gut wall is really quite staggering from a medical perspective. This is an incredibly exciting area for not only the researchers in the field but the implications for clinical medicine.
What’s the best way of getting your children to eat a balanced diet and protect their gut health?
Victoria: Make their meals attractive by eating the rainbow; Homemade snacks – you can easily halve all sugar in a recipe plus replace regular sugar with a non-refined option (such as coconut sugar or mashed banana). Sugar is terrible for gut health (in fact for all parts of their little bodies!); It’s an education process – don’t just make them eat their vegetables explain why they should. Failing that, meals with hidden veg all the way. Microbes need plants (fibre!) so add some to every meal; Talk and talk and walk the walk – this means I eat well too; Only drink water (or Akesi Berry Spritzer of course), they don’t need anything else. Sugary juices and sodas are terrible for gut health (and overall well-being).
Can you share any insights for other women wanting to set up a business in Singapore?
Elizabeth: It’s relatively straight-forward – don’t let any perceived bureaucracy prevent you from chasing down that business idea! I would advise that you seek out appropriate professional advice with regard to MOM (Ministry of Manpower) requirements for work permits/letter of consent to enable you to work.
Do you have clearly defined roles in the business? Can you share any tips for a partnership that began as a friendship?
Elizabeth: We have certainly taken on roles that play to our individual strengths. Respect, patience and empathy belong to all friendships but they are the essential principles that enable you to transition from a friendship to a partnership.
Who or what inspires and motivates you on a daily basis?
Victoria: The desire to feel good and be my best self. To be an example for my children.
How do you practice self-care?
Victoria: By starting my day well I can’t then go too off-piste. This means warm lemon water, a shot of ACV and Akesi Turmeric Tonic, followed by my matcha, exercise and green smoothie. We eat organic and wild where possible and I buy natural beauty products; I love my weekly reflexology and having a ‘do anything, eat anything’ day. I enjoy listening to podcasts while I am walking or driving and reading before I turn my lights off. I love a spa day or failing that a DIY facial at home.
What has motherhood taught you?
Elizabeth: That I am not an island and I still need to practice being patient
What’s been your favourite age and stage with your children?
Elizabeth: Our house is loud, chaotic and generally runs on a controlled mayhem principle. I don’t miss the sleep deprivation of caring for gorgeous newborn babies, but I do lament that they grow up so quickly! The trick is to find the fun at every age – as it really is a privilege to raise children.
Has your fashion style changed since you became a mother – what’s a typical look for you?
Elizabeth: Neutral palette, flats or wedges, cotton, linen or silk in Singapore’s heat ideally, and I spend time at the alterations since nothing really fits properly after having children!
What are your time management tips – how do you get everything done in a day?
Victoria: It’s all in the planning. I write lists and figure out the priorities the night before. Feeling balanced is key to my ability to function optimally so exercise is always one of those priorities, if I know have too many commitments in a day I simply get up earlier – and don’t press snooze!
What are your favourite travel destinations?
Victoria: I love Europe, who doesn’t! But there are also some gems in Asia and the Pacific. For Asia, I love Laos and Cambodia but also little beaches in easy family-friendly destinations like Batu Batu and Lang Kawi, I am also a big fan of Chiva Som in Hua Hin. I frequented islands in the Pacific when I was a child so Hawaii, Tahiti and Niue are special to me.
Elizabeth: Sri Lanka and Myanmar – absolute musts if you’re in Asia.
Favourite thing to do with your children?
Victoria: Swimming, playing at the beach, going on adventure walks, reading together, family movie night.
What are the positives about raising your children internationally?
Elizabeth: Their normal is an exposure to difference rather than to sameness. Ideally, they learn a foreign language (please don’t quiz my children on their mandarin) and through travel see the world as it is – an endless potential of incredible people and places.
What would you recommend (3-5) as must-dos for families visiting Singapore?
Elizabeth: Singapore Zoo South East Asia (SEA) Aquarium Macritchie Reservoir (older children – 10 and above) Gardens by the Bay followed by Satay by the Bay Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum
What are your favourite day-to-day Singapore haunts?
Elizabeth: Check out Katong 112 – level 1 – if you need Singapore gifts Books Actually – Tiong Bahru although I lose hours in Kinokuniya – Ngee Ann City Forty Hands – for coffee and Asian fusion food (The Creamery 3 doors up for ridiculously good ice cream) Violet Oon – National Kitchen within the National Gallery or Restaurant Po within the Warehouse Hotel – both signature Singaporean fare The Atlas bar – for wow factor, Maison Ikkoku for bespoke cocktails
List 8 or so things you’re loving right now –
Victoria: Setting aside time to soak in a bath with Pursoma products
The Broken Brain podcast series
Nutraorganics Velvety Latte and also their selection of bone broths
My homemade ‘healthy fudge’ (see blog!)
Vital Protein Matcha Collagen Powder
Pilates and boxing