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The way forward: Networking is key

No man is an island, as 17th century poet and clergyman John Dunne once proclaimed. The same can be said about the different players in the New Food industry. To bring new fermentation-derived ingredients to the market, many different skillsets and perspectives are needed. ‘No one can do it alone’ is a truism that very much applies, and that’s why startups, incubators, food producers, suppliers of equipment and expertise for food production and academic institutions now get together in different collaborations. This is networking with a purpose: From every perspective, there is a deep and genuine need for these products, and we need to be good at communicating what New Food is all about. It is of course a question of marketing, but it goes beyond individual consumers. In essence, this is about finding new ways to feed the world.

Tetra Pak operators and tank

“Looking at the entire food value chain, we think biomass and precision fermentation technologies are essential parts of the future of a sustainable food industry,” says Hannes van Lunteren, the head of KrinovaFOOD, a Swedish incubator and science park for food companies.

These technologies make it possible to produce ingredients with characteristics that very much add to their potential.

“Precision fermentation is unique in its ability to create a close-to-nature, or even improved, profile of known ingredients. That similarity is important, both from a regulatory and an industry integration perspective,” adds Noga Sela Shalev, Chief Executive Officer of Israeli food incubator Fresh Start.

One of the ventures Fresh Start has supported and co-generated is Eggmented Reality. Specializing in analytical chemistry, fermentation and protein synthesis, Eggmented Reality started up in 2022 and is just in the process of scaling up its first product: a functional alternative to egg and methyl cellulose.

“Instead of trying to replicate animal proteins and simply change the source, we ask ourselves: why does the food industry require egg or dairy proteins…. What’s its food function, and was the chicken or the cow actually the best source of this functionality? Using technology, we now have the ability to identify the best source of a particular functionality and then produce it using precision-fermentation. A food manufacturer can even specify technical requirements like the conditions of a particular application - pH, temperature, allergenicity index – and we can then identify and produce solutions to the desired requirements,” says Jon Rathauser, CEO and co-founder of Eggmented Reality.

Animal-based proteins replicated and to some extent replaced – that is a tangible example of the protein shift that is needed to reduce carbon emissions. And this shift is starting to happen now. But is it happening fast enough, considering the urgent climate situation and the world’s growing population1?

Good connections create mutual growth

“Things are moving with high speed,” says Micael Simonsson, Director of Processing Development at Tetra Pak®. “But no player has all the knowledge. We act as ambassadors, connecting people and helping all players in this field to grow. We understand we still have lots to learn in this area, but we also understand we need to share knowledge about all the things we do know – food processing on an industrial scale, food safety, connections to global food manufacturers and so on.”

In a market that is likely to boom, the growth potential is enormous and there are many organizations working on bringing new solutions to scale. On the other hand, in an immature segment where the roles of the players have not yet fallen in place, couldn’t a state of fierce competition, a scramble for the position of market leader, also be a logical consequence?

“Well, no one wants to give away their trade secrets, of course. But who will have the most knowledge tomorrow? We don’t know that today. That tells us we need to collaborate. We all need cooperation to keep up. Many startups are coming from universities, so there is a natural link to learning from each other already from the beginning. The accelerators and incubators supporting these startups are also focused on collaboration. And first and foremost, there is the sustainability perspective. The growing population poses a massive challenge. We simply cannot wait – we need to work together to ensure that future generations have access to sustainable, safe and nutritious food,” says Micael Simonsson.

Yes, networking is at the core of an incubator’s operations. Heidi Høy is an Innovation Manager at Food & Bio Cluster Denmark, a cluster organization with the mission to strengthen the innovative power of the value chain for food and bio resources in the country. She explains:

“We connect industry-specific public and private actors with each other. For instance, we can put an innovative fermentation startup in contact with greenhouse producers who don't currently know how to deal with surplus vegetables. We also run professional networks where corporations meet startups, small and medium-sized companies and scientists with special, common interests such as green proteins.”

“Startups are often radical when it comes to new solutions and ideas, and our job is to help these entrepreneurial companies go forward. We ask questions, coach them, and try to find the answers they seek,” adds Hannes van Lunteren.

Solving the challenge of scaling up

The benefits of teaming up are recognized by the startup scene. One example is BioGNR, a Lithuania-based startup developing technologies to produce mycoproteins. They are anchored in the world of academia: BioGNR has collaborated with Vilnius University and several other European institutions from the start. They have also spent three months with an incubator, which led to a number of contacts, good practices and financial support. Their proof of concept is now finalized, and they are currently working on optimization – and scaling up their operations. Business Development Manager Ugnė Butvilaitė explains:

“When you are a startup, to be able to optimize the technology and adapt the product to customer needs, more partners need to be involved in the later stages of technology development. Right now, we are collaborating intensively with our partner, a company with 14 years’ experience of food ingredients and final applications. We are testing every one of our prototypes in their application centre, and we are getting feedback from their experts on what needs to be improved for our next development stages.”

Eggmented Reality also sees collaboration as fundamental to move their business forward..

“Precision fermentation companies are complex endeavors. Biotech capabilities will provide you with the ability to produce your ingredient, but that only brings you to the beginning of the food science work that is required. Small companies cannot deliver on all these functions by themselves. We seek out collaborations with organizations with significant expertise in other areas of the value chain and align our collaborations as closely as possible,” says Jon Rathauser.

Any clouds on the horizon? Although the developments are groundbreaking, the complexity of these initiatives means that speed – or rather, the fact that there sometimes isn’t enough of it – is still one of the biggest challenges. Noga Sela Shalev sees room for improvement here.

“We need to work much faster. A one-month iteration between discussions is simply too long. One solution could be dedicated innovation agents in crucial business, production and R&D units that could promote the engagement to a Go/No-go level as quickly as possible. The key is to accelerate scalability and reach the cost reduction needed to utilize precision fermentation for bulk production. There are still broad gaps to close in that space.”

Hannes van Lunteren also sees the end-consumer perspective. “New proteins are high on today’s agenda. Eating food with as low environmental impact as possible is important to many consumers, but it is also a matter of nutritional value and flavour. The proteins must be useful and nutritious – but in the end, they must taste OK too.”

The key to success: Getting well connected

There is not much doubt about the path that lies ahead though. For success, it very much comes down to working together.

“We must get involved in each other’s processes. Break down barriers and reach out when opportunities arise, without doubting that more collaboration is the only way to tackle common challenges. And keep doing that, even though not every outreach bears fruit on the first try,” says Heidi Høy at Food &Bio Cluster Denmark.

Her Swedish colleague at KrinovaFOOD emphasizes the value of personal connections.

“Needless to say, we need processes, work models and structure. We need to work together through the entire value chain with mutual benefit models as a base. But the social perspective is also very important. It all comes down to people. Personal connections are critical,” says Hannes van Lunteren. 

“With good collaboration, a scale-up can turn into a business that is commercially viable for the long-term. And it is also about the established big players in the industry needing to find other solutions, reduce their environmental impact and transition into the future. We connect people, support them and help everyone find the best solution – for them,” concludes Micael Simonsson..

1: According to the 2020 World Population Data Sheet released by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the world population will reach almost 10 billion by 2050.
 Source:
https://sdg.iisd.org/news/world-population-to-reach-9-9-billion-by-2050/

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