“Innovation is definitely needed in food," said Filip Fontaine, interim CEO of EIT Food at the INNOVEIT awards in Budapest last week. "Maybe the most important thing [to note] is that we are slowing down in innovating in food compared to the rest of the world.
“I think this is because of the way we look at start-ups and new ideas. Europe is quite reluctant to embrace new ideas and that’s where EIT Food has a real role to play, to push for these new ideas and bring them to life."
The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) was set up 10 years ago as an EU body to foster entrepreneurship in areas where it is needed the most, such as energy, health, climate and food. EIT Food is one of its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs) that works to implement EIT’s objectives.
Fontaine believes this is partly to do with the fragmented nature of the industry.
“If you look at food, 99% of the players are small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). I’m not saying that SMEs are not open to innovation – a lot of them are very creative – but in general, their budgets for R&D and innovation are rather small.
“Of course, you have Nestlé and PepsiCo with big budgets but they only [count] for a few per cent of the market," Fontaine said. "In the basket of the consumer, Nestlé is only good for 1.5% of the things in the basket. So they are huge but the impact they have on the market is still quite small.”
This is where EIT comes in, creating 'innovation ecosystems' where all players come together to find solutions.
According to Fontaine, EIT has the biggest impact by creating networks where big players can mix with small start-ups; academics can meet entrepreneurs. This is more important than the financial rewards it brings – although it also invests in entrepreneurs.
Fontaine said three areas of Europe’s food sector need innovation.
“The first is about consumer behaviour. Understanding and agreeing with them on what is healthy food. It’s obvious that we have to work on protein, fat and sugar reduction but if nobody is going to use those new products, there will be a lack of effect.
“Secondly, […] we need to make food more healthy and make healthy food more accessible. The third most important area is food waste,” he said.
“The main topics here will be packaging. On the one hand packaging is creating waste but on the other hand, it prevents food from being wasted because you can preserve food for longer. We have to find a balance.”
When asked to pick out some companies as examples of EIT Food success stories – entrepreneurs that were working to tackle the challenges above – Fontaine referred to two companies: Rethink Resource, and its online platform Circado, which allows manufacturers to buy and sell their industrial co-streams, and Entomics, a UK start-up that transforms organic food waste into feed for insects that are then used to feed livestock for the food industry.
TellSpec is a UK-headquartered company that has benefitted from EIT Food funding. It has developed a tool uses artificial intelligence to detect fish fraud in real time and at a low cost.