Toronto, ON -- (SBWIRE) -- 02/25/2015 -- Take Hampton Creek, a San Francisco food technology start-up which used a computer algorithm to analyze hundreds of thousands of plant species to find out what compounds can be genetically recombined to make a tasty source of protein.
Nestlé, the Swiss food and beverage multinational, claims to have had the Hampton Creek idea sitting in its drawers for ten years. "Did we know how to commercialize our sleeping beauty?" asked Valerio Nannini, Senior Vice President and Head of strategies and performance at Nestlé. "No."
Stories like these, involving start-ups out to shake up the food system, were common at the Food Innovation Summit in Brussels on Tuesday (3 February). One company demonstrated how it is engineering a new type of meat from squashed plant compounds, another its edible insect range and a third was showing off a liquid drink made from algae by-products.
These start-ups are wrong-footing giants because the skills required to run existing product lines in a large business can clash with the creativity needed for invention, said Nannini. "Big organisations are slow because of the politics; because of the 'not-invented-here' syndrome," he said.
There are better ways
"We need to be humble. Start-ups teach you there's always a better way to do things," said Nannini. "[The lesson is] to re-open the doors on your 'sleeping beauties' from time to time."
It's just desserts, said many delegates; a natural corrective for bigger firms which have failed to make their size count. "The most expensive sentence in business is 'we've always done it that way'," said Sebastian Emig, Director General of the European Snacks Association.
Big firms might not like it, but a fixation of the event was how to open the door more fully to outside challengers.
Patrick Berry, Vice President for marketing at Blendhub, a Spanish company making food powder products, mused on the prospects of what he called a "Tesla moment for the food industry," referring to the car company announcing last year that, "Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology."
What about a similar direction for food? "We might see intellectual property rules gradually watering down in the future," said Emig. "[I predict] we'll reach a point where we need to be less protective." Representatives of big food companies in the room, pointedly, did not engage with the question.
For the new wave of food industry disrupters in the mould of Hampton Creek, which has the former head of data analytics for Google Maps and YouTube on its payroll, food knowledge is not the most important tool.
With smartphone usage the new daily ritual for most people, cracking the data code and taking advantage of mobile platforms is one way of getting into the market.
At the conference, France-based Noteo showed off its smartphone-friendly index which allows customers to compare food found on the shelves on aspects such as budget and environmental impact.
"We measure 60,000 goods, each with 400 data points," said Anne Himeno, Head of business development for the company. Noteo relies on customers to crowdsource new products which it then adds to its repertoire.
So far, Noteo cannot give a measure for how healthy a given food is, but that is something which will become the company's main selling point in the future, Himeno noted.
In the meantime, Toronto-based Tellspec has the potential to destroy marketing efforts with a few clicks. "How do you really know what's in your food?" asked Isabel Hoffmann, the company's Portugal-born chief executive. Labels can mislead. A manufacturer can change the composition of its product within a 20 per cent margin without having to alter the label, she said.
After seeing her daughter become struck down with an allergy that was later traced to gluten, dioxins and other allergens, Hoffmann developed Tellspec, a handheld scanner, or spectrometer, which calculates the molecular makeup of whatever is on the dinner table and sends the information to your phone.
Manufacturing practices and environmental toxins can leave their mark on foods and Tellspec's job is to sniff them out. Rice is vulnerable to arsenic contamination; a harmful chemical called bisphenol A can be found in some canned foods.
"I love macaroons but sometimes they contain dyes, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they have gluten, sometimes they don't," said Hoffmann.
After foraging the buffet outside, Hoffmann was able to show delegates bread containing 320 calories, unexpectedly more than the croissant she tested had (305 calories).
These start-ups are threatening to change the food scene and, predictably, there are some ruffled feathers.
"We're completely disruptive. Because of our device, people will avoid certain foods in the future and manufacturing processes will change," said Hoffmann.
When the Tellspec device scans a corn chip, for example, the user will be sent to a webpage to learn about tartrazine, a yellow dye with side effects that can include aggression. Predictably, this drew a complaint from the manufacturer, Hoffmann said.
However, it is not all adversarial. "The scanner can save a company lots of money down the line by flagging potential problems before a product gets to market," said Hoffmann.
Drawing a plausible comparison with the EU's eco-label, found on the side of washing machines sold in Europe, Noteo's food index could encourage innovation in the food world. The eco-label, which measures environmental impact, was a nuisance for manufacturers when introduced, but eventually lead to an 80 per cent gain in energy efficiency for appliances.
Nutritionists look at Hoffmann's scanner and see a medical device with implications for studying diseases like diabetes. "We've been approached by six of seven Horizon 2020 groups already," she said.
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