An Interview with Thorsten Koenig, Director Business Creation, EIT Food

Ahead of Future Food-Tech London, we spoke with Thorsten Koenig, Director Business Creation, EIT Food to hear his take on what the future of open innovation in food looks like.

You’re speaking on the panel discussion “How is Open Innovation Shaping the Future of Food” at Future Food-Tech in London. What has been the impact of open innovation for the food and drink industry in Europe right now?

EIT Food is a consortium of over 50 partners from leading businesses and academia (e.g. Nestle, PepsiCo, Givaudan, DSM, Technical University of Munich, University of Reading, Cambridge, Madrid – to but a few), combined by 42 European agro-food start-ups.

Open Innovation is being understood as individual players, companies, collaborate with other players, such as universities and start-ups, to improve and accelerate their innovation capabilities. Most of this happens today in the food sector in bi-lateral relationships with a party from the step before or after in the value chain – e.g. with your immediate supplier or customer.

We at EIT Food are going steps further with partners across the value chain collaboration. We bring together the competent partners from all along the food value chain (from farm to fork) to create a network of competences and to approach challenges in a multi-disciplinary and holistic approach.

To what extent are open innovation partnerships bridging the gap between tech innovators and the big problems facing the food industry?

The challenges the food sector is facing are enormous. EIT Food has identified the emerging ones in its strategic agenda. All of these challenges are too big and too far reaching that a collaborative approach from industry academia and also the consumer is required – and this will be facilitated by EIT Food.

The challenges facing the Food System (from EIT Food strategic agenda 2018-2024):

Distorted nutritional habits: 3.5 billion people suffer from hunger and micronutrient deficiencies while unhealthy lifestyles and worldwide numbers of overweight (~2 billion) and obese (>500 million) people are still growing.

Food sustainability: Almost one-third of total food production is being wasted. Global population growth and changes in dietary patterns require an increase in overall food production by more than 60% to feed 10 billion people by 2050.

Fragmented food supply chain: Highly fragmented food supply chains and unbalanced trading practices put pressure on value creation, capture and distribution. This limits the potential for efficiency gains and advances in food safety measures.

Limited entrepreneurial culture: The European food sector is characterised by a wide range of company sizes, with 99.1% SMEs delivering 50% of the turnover and with innovation lagging behind other sectors. The lack of a vivid start-up culture within the food sector, reflected by a low 2.6% share of all EU start-ups.

Slow adoption of emerging technologies: The food sector has been slow to adopt new technologies compared with other industry sectors.

Can you tell us more about EIT Food and its core mission?

EIT Food mission is to be a catalysis of the food system’s transformation – ‘The Food that Connects Us’.

With consumers at its core, the mission of EIT Food is to empower a trusted multi-stakeholder community that includes market-leading and start-up businesses, technology innovators, best-in-class research institutions and educators, advanced farmers and consumers. Together, they will catalyse the transformation of the food system and effectively meet the global food sector demands of present and future generations.

By following an integrated seed-to-fork approach, systematically leveraging the opportunities of digital technologies and engaging consumers in the process of change, EIT Food, together with its partners, will improve nutrition and make the food system resource-efficient, secure, transparent and trustful. EIT Food will boost skills and entrepreneurial spirit in the sector, unlock the potential of small and medium sized enterprises, accelerate innovation, create jobs, benefit business impact and increase global competitiveness.

EIT Food is in a unique position to fulfil its mission, based on the combination of leading committed partners together with significant resources of 1.6 Billion Euro over a period of 7 years.

The programme has some very high-profile partners involved. What role will they play?

The strength of EIT Food is the combination of agro-food start-ups and leading businesses and academia. Our partner network is based on excellence and complementarity not only along the whole value chain, but also consisting of partners from adjacent technologies which are most relevant for the future of the food sector (e.g. digitisation, packaging, robotics). They are all collaborating on the same eye level, and this enables all partners to innovate differently than they have done before.

EIT Food’s strategic agenda was built by all partners. This demonstrates the alignment and commitment of all partners to address the challenges mentioned above.

A good example are our RisingFoodStars. This is a club of start-ups, which are participating in EIT Food activities and projects in the same way as our high-profile partners.

A substantial fund is being established – are you able to share more information about this, when it will be launched officially and who can access/benefit from it?

EIT Food is already established since last year November, 2016. Together with our partners we already build a portfolio of 51 projects, which are addressing the challenges of the food sector I mentioned above – 13 of those are starting as we speak.

The funds for those activities are not only public funds, but our partners themselves are contributing the most of it – as they want to create impact and contribute to address the aforementioned challenges – less than 25% are publically funded.

All players who meet the criteria of excellence, commitment to the strategy/vision and complementarity qualify to become an EIT Food partner – and we have developed a partner’s growth strategy, which we will follow in the years to come.

Let me be clear about one thing; the real benefactor of EIT Food will be the consumer. It will be you, me and everybody reading this interview – and therefore EIT Food will establish close collaboration with the consumer, me and you.

What are your plans for EIT Food over the next 12 months, and why is the Future Food Tech Summit important to this strategy? What are the biggest challenges facing this programme?

EIT Food clearly is focused on impact and understands itself not as a classical funding organisation – approving and executing projects.

We are almost a startup ourselves, and we are not even one year old. After we have developed our strategic agenda for the next 7 years and our business plan for 2018, it is now time to implement and execute.

Our program is quite ambitious as well as broad, and this may be perceived as a challenge. Therefore it is great to experience the commitment and the enthusiasm of our partners, which creates the entrepreneurial spirit, which is required to develop new product, new technologies, support start-ups, train your entrepreneurs and professionals, and most importantly collaborate with the consumer as she and he is at the centre of EIT Food.

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