CEO, EIT Food
CEO, NapiFeryn BioTech
Co-founder and CEO, SwissDeCode
The food industry has been put under huge pressure by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s why food entrepreneurship will play an important part in the sector’s future development.
One thing is certain in this uncertain world: if consumers were taking food for granted six months ago, they’re not doing so now. COVID-19 has seen to that. It’s focussed our minds and made us think differently about food, from farm to fork.
The pandemic has also put the global food system under huge pressure, exposing its greatest weaknesses. For example, how can food producers operate at full capacity with social distancing measures in place and a reduced workforce? If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we need food entrepreneurs – innovators who disrupt the food system with dynamic new products and services – more than ever.
“The industry needs innovation,” agrees Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food, a European food innovation initiative, which aims to create a sustainable and future-proof food sector. “It’s the key to many of the challenges we face.”
It’s why EIT Food – a consortium of key industry players, start-ups, research centres and universities from across Europe – is on a mission to encourage food entrepreneurship and innovation with a social purpose. Its community of stakeholders are collaborating with consumers and each other to develop new knowledge and technology-based products and services that will deliver a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle for all European citizens.
Helping companies continue their R&D projects
One way it’s doing this is by investing €5.4 million in 13 high-impact agrifood startups, via its COVID-19 Bridge Fund, and a further €6.17 million in 13 innovation projects, via its COVID-19 Rapid Response Call for Innovation projects. As part of EIT’s Crisis Response Initiative, this activity directly contributes to the European Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the Bridge Fund’s beneficiaries is NapiFeryn BioTech, a Polish startup which extracts protein from the side streams and waste generated in rapeseed oil pressing. Its potential as a source of protein hasn’t been explored by the food industry yet but could provide a sustainable alternative to meat. Rapeseed oil is considered to be one of the healthiest oils available, and eating a healthier diet is particularly important during this crisis.
Unfortunately, when COVID-19 struck, the company’s work was threatened by the pandemic. “We’d initiated various research and development projects but began to experience a slow down in decision-making from our partners,” says Magdalena Kozłowska, CEO of NapiFeryn BioTech. “That meant we were running into all sorts of challenges.”
Kozłowska says the Bridge Fund investment is helping the company continue its R&D plans, and will ultimately lead to the commercialisation of novel, plant-based, functional food ingredients. Because these are derived from existing rapeseed production methods, it’s a solution that’s both healthy and sustainable. “Looking to the future, food entrepreneurs will have to balance the nutritional demands of a growing population without exploiting any more of the earth’s resources,” she notes. “We’ll need to use our current resources more efficiently.”
COVID-19 and the future of the food industry
Meanwhile, SwissDeCode – a Lausanne-based company which develops rapid on-site tests for bacteria and viruses – is using the funding it has received from EIT Food to build a COVID-19 diagnostic platform. Called COVID-19 BEAMitup, it will provide farmers, food manufacturers and other parts of the food value chain with coronavirus test results in just 30 minutes. “Food entrepreneurs are passionate about making a difference,” says Brij Sahi, Co-founder and CEO of SwissDeCode. “I have a saying which is: ‘Never stop learning, growing and building.’”
Indeed that’s the only attitude to have, insists Sahi, because COVID-19 won’t be the last virus the world will have to deal with. “As an industry, we’ll need to react very quickly when another virus occurs in the future,” he says, noting that big players, as well as small, can’t afford another downturn. “The dynamics of the food industry have changed forever because of COVID-19. Virus awareness and awareness of food safety has increased among all the major stakeholders and decision-makers in the food sector. As a result, it’s now easier to get a corporate organisation interested in innovation projects than it was in the past.”
Despite the problems caused by the pandemic, Andy Zynga is optimistic about the future of the food sector. “Food entrepreneurship used to be under-developed,” he says. “But now we’re seeing an explosion of innovation and entrepreneurship, so this is an encouraging time for the industry. I’m so glad we’re bringing all of these great minds together to tackle the crisis.”