Meet Kai, the Singaporean Who’s Trying To Make TCM Gummies a Thing in New York
All images courtesy of Kai Lim
In ‘Singaporeans Abroad’, we share the stories of locals who—thanks to living in a globalised world—have found success in different corners of the globe, whether financially, romantically, or for the pure joy of adventure.
We recently heard from Christian Ho, a Singaporean-Korean teenager living alone in the UK to chase his Formula One racing dream. Then, there was Danelle Tan, a footballer who gave up a college scholarship to chase her sporting dreams in Dortmund, Germany.
Now, we bring you Kai Lim, who started his own business in the Big Apple selling Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) gummies. 

2020 was a turning point in my life. I’d graduated from Harvard Business School and was set to return to Singapore. I would have gone back as a management consultant at Boston Consulting Group—on track to be a project leader. It was a great trajectory with a great salary. The partners liked me, the clients liked me, and I was having a great time.

Instead, I decided to leave my consulting career behind, pay back a 6-figure MBA sponsorship, and move to New York to take a chance at my entrepreneurial dream.

Today, I’m the proud co-founder of Reprise Health, which puts Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbs into gummies. It’s not easy—most people here have no idea what’s ling zhi or goji—but I’m loving the start-up life. 

The Birth of an Overachiever

My childhood was pretty interesting. When I was two, I was sent to live with my grandma in Choa Chu Kang while my siblings remained with my parents in Bukit Panjang. Those are some of my fondest memories.

I have an elder sister and a younger brother. We’re all one year apart. Three kids in a row was really intense for my parents, so I was sent to live with my grandma. They had to choose one child to go, and I like to say I was chosen because I was more obedient. But maybe also because I’m the middle child, and it made sense. 

I followed my grandma around to wet markets. She was a businesswoman, essentially—she made and sold traditional kueh. I was just two, so I wasn’t even thinking about being an entrepreneur. It was just fun for me to tag along. 

Kai Lim grandma TCM gummies
With my grandma.

In hindsight, those early days with my grandma planted the entrepreneurial seed in my brain. It was inspiring to see her waking up before sunrise to get everything ready. I would follow her to the markets to sell the kuehs (illegally, I think). We would run when we saw the authorities. She always put her customers first—she made the best kuehs and would continue selling even when she could have stopped.

But I would say a bigger part of my childhood revolved around academic achievements. 

If you think about Singapore’s history going from third world to first, it’s natural that not everyone in my parent’s generation got the opportunity to attend college—my mum included. And so when I eventually began my academic career at Bukit Batok Primary School (now Bukit Timah Primary School), there was a lot of pressure on me and my siblings. There was a massive emphasis on performing well academically.

This pressure to do well academically actually started even when I was going to kindergarten. I remember it was a 20- to 30-minute walk to the school. Rather than taking the bus, my mum would walk with me, hand in mine, and just do math problems. “What’s two times two? Four. What’s two times three? Six.” That’s how it went. 

After my A Levels—which I thankfully did well for—I moved on to Nanyang Technological University for a double degree in accounting and business. I’d always chosen the ‘safer’ path—taking triple science in secondary school, for instance. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, hence the business degree, but I took accounting as a hedge so that I could also have a professional career if I wanted to. 

Throughout my academic career, there was definitely inner conflict. While I was facing all this pressure to perform well academically, my friends saw the other side of me, which was very goofy. I like spontaneity. I like not knowing what comes next. 

I think part of that is also the influence of my late uncle, who has always been a pillar in my entrepreneurial endeavours. He’s always encouraged me not to think in terms of books but to open my eyes and really look at what the world has to offer, to try to keep a very open mind and to explore.

Bitten by the Travel Bug

I’ve always been risk-averse. Most of my academic decisions, like choosing to take a double degree or triple science, had been guided by one question: What would maximise my chances of a ‘successful’ career? The first time I decided to take more of a risk was when it came time to apply for undergraduate internships. 

Most of my friends in the same programme were aiming to intern at the big four accounting firms, and I actually took a chance on myself.

I’ve always really enjoyed travelling, so I wanted to intern outside of Singapore. There was this Wilmar Scholarship that would give students $10,000 to intern for 10 weeks in another country. I was eyeing an internship in the Netherlands, but there was only one spot, and the competition was stiff. 

While my GPA was decently high—around 4.7 or 4.8 out of 5—I was competing against people whose GPA were even higher at 4.95. And so when I applied for it, I was kind of like, “Okay, I’m just going to take this shot.” And I actually got chosen for the internship.

During that internship, I could also travel around the region to places like London, Paris, and other parts of Europe. Eventually, it got a bit addictive. I started doing exchange programmes, one in the US and one in Thailand. I just enjoyed learning about the different cultures.

Exchange Thailand
I spent my fall semester of 2014 in Thailand on an exchange programme. 

I started to think about what I could pursue that would allow me to travel, and entrepreneurship was one option. But I never really did anything about this because I got into consulting right after graduation. 

Leaving consulting wasn’t easy by any means. I absolutely loved my experience at Boston Consulting Group. As a management consultant, I worked with businesses to solve their problems, to put it simply. There were many projects across different functions and industries around the world, and I had to put on many different hats. It was a job that I really thrived in. 

Another element that made it hard to leave was the fact that BCG actually sponsored me to do my MBA at Harvard Business School. 

Kai Lim Reprise Health Harvard Business School TCM gummies
I graduated from Harvard Business School in 2020.

Growing up, my mum put a huge emphasis that your words mean something. When you break your word, you lose credibility. 

So when I applied for my MBA, I had every intention of returning to BCG. But after Harvard, I couldn’t let go of my dream to become a founder. I met lots of great people, one of whom was my Reprise Health co-founder, David Yu.

We started thinking about what we could work on together. We had over 20 ideas on the board but we eventually settled on one idea, which became Reprise Health. 

David’s an Asian-American who grew up in Oakland, California. I’m from Singapore. But we both had the same grandma. Not literally! But our grandmas would give us these traditional Chinese remedies and herbs. Like if it’s too hot, you drink liang cha (herbal tea). If you fall sick and you want better immunity, you take ginseng.

But as adults, we almost completely lost touch with this practice. Even with that cultural background, we found it intimidating to go to a herbal shop. It was always quite complex to understand, and the herbs could be very bitter.

We thought the TCM industry was ripe for disruption and wanted to rethink how to make it more accessible for a modern consumer—hence the gummies. We also thought about how TCM has been passed down from generation to generation, and we want to make sure this ancient practice continues to thrive.

We founded Reprise Health to address these pain points. The word ‘reprise’ means renewal, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do: make a highly revered ancient tradition relevant for the modern consumer.

To do that, we put authentic whole herbs—not just the extract—like ginseng and goji berries into tasty and convenient gummies.

It wasn’t easy to turn our idea for TCM gummies into reality, but I like to say we were standing on the shoulders of giants. We were able to tap on the expertise of a team of doctors from Harvard, as well as KPC Herbs, a fifth-generation family business from Taiwan, to ensure that our herbs keep their potency even after they’re put into gummies.

Kai David Reprise Health Gummies Herbs TCM gummies
Packing gummies with my Reprise Health co-founder, David. 

When Reprise was conceived, we had the wider American population in mind. We wanted to make this cultural practice accessible to all. This holds true today—more than 50 percent of our customers aren’t Asians. Reprise’s gummies are many of our customers’ first time trying herbs. Of course, we do have a sizeable Asian American customer base. 

All in all, most people are surprised that we can make TCM herbs taste good—our best seller is our Korean ginseng and pineapple flavoured gummies—and something they actually want to take daily. 

Growing a TCM Business in New York

Another consideration I had with this fledgling start-up was that I had to find a way to pay BCG back with interest, which amounted to over US$200,000 (S$266,566).

When I was discussing it with one of my mentors at BCG, I told him, “Maybe in two or three years, I’ll come back.” 

He told me very honestly: “No, it’s not going to happen. It’s not a decision for two or three years.”

He explained that once I chose the start-up path, I would start building my business network in the US, my expertise. All this would mean a lot of sunk costs that would make it hard to leave. 

“And so this decision, you have to look at it; what are you doing for the next 10 years?”

That put things into perspective for me. I knew if I wanted to do this, I would have to commit fully—no half-baked efforts. 

I pretty much used up all my savings and even went into a little bit of debt. All while taking a massive pay cut from a management consulting salary to a founder salary.

Moving to New York City was quite a spontaneous decision. David and I were actually working on Reprise remotely until I went to visit a classmate there in 2021. 

I was just crashing on his sofa when I texted a few friends to see who wanted to meet up. I soon realised everyone was pretty much one block away. That’s precisely why New York is amazing. Everyone is condensed in this city. There are so many opportunities and people that you can connect with in the city. 

Our plan was to come here one summer and see what we could do with the company. We ended up staying for two and a half years.

Kai David Reprise Health Gummies Herbs TCM gummies
Showcasing Reprise Health’s gummies at an event booth. 

In that time, Reprise Health has managed to grow quite a bit. We’ve been featured in Forbes and W Magazine. When we first started focusing on retail stores last December—we’d mainly been online before that—we were only stocked in around five brick-and-mortar stores. 

Now, Reprise is in roughly 60 stores in the US. We’re on track to go nationwide and have even gotten some interest in bringing our products to Asia.  

A significant factor in Reprise Health’s success thus far is the strong Asian network and community here in New York. There’s Gold House, Asian Hustle Network, and Welcome To Chinatown. 

Plus, there are business networking opportunities here all the time. For example, at a Singapore Global Network event, we were connected to the Singapore Tourism Board, which ended up using our TCM gummies for their corporate gifts. 

Another example: I was out at a bar called Singlish. I was chatting with the owner, and we decided to collaborate on a cocktail incorporating Reprise Health’s gummies. 

The challenge, of course, is bridging the education gap here. At sampling events, I’d explain what a ginseng root is, and I’d get reactions like, “Oh yes, I’ve tried ginger before.”

It’s one of the most revered herbs in Asia, but here, we have to really educate people on the specific herbs we use in our gummies. A lot of times, it’s about simplifying, simplifying, and more simplifying. 

Chewy Gummies

When you start your own business, you have a deeper understanding of what it’s like. On the outside, it always looks so glorious. You see the news articles: Someone’s been featured on Forbes, someone just raised a huge funding round, someone just got their company acquired. But the pain that goes into it is often unspoken. 

It’s tough being away from home, even though I get to visit once or twice a year. The toughest part is that my parents are also getting older. 

Harvard Business School Reprise Health TCM gummies
My family and I on the day I graduated from HBS. 

The other challenge I have is missing out on significant life events. My uncle has always been an inspiration for me. He passed away last year, which was very heartbreaking. I had intended to fly back to Singapore a few days later to visit him, but when he passed, I had to move my flight up. There were so many flight delays that I feared I might not make it back in time for the funeral. 

I was a mess—sobbing while rebooking my flights—and even pre-empted my family that I might be too late. When I touched down back in Singapore, I went straight from the airport to the funeral, caught a last glimpse of my uncle, and just broke down. 

It’s things like these that tilt the balance of when I should return home. I just cannot imagine something like that happening again.

These ‘rough seas’ are something I only show to my close circle of founder friends and my fiancée, who’s based in Boston. And I fully appreciate my support system. Sometimes on the drive back home from work, I’ll be so stressed. I’ll just call one of them and they will pick up and hear me rant. I think that’s what keeps me going. 

My hope is that I can build a Singaporean brand that is globally known. Of course, I’m not the first, but I hope to become the inspiration for other entrepreneurs one day.

I hope to see more entrepreneurs from Singapore and more people taking a chance on themselves to follow their passion. Once you know the risk and accept it, it’s not that scary. It might be rough, but it’s not scary.

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