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Fi Europe Startup Challenge

Revealed: The 2023 Startup Innovation Challenge winners

Article-Revealed: The 2023 Startup Innovation Challenge winners

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Out of 60 applicants, only six startups walked away with a prize at this year’s Startup Innovation Challenge. We spoke to the winners and judges to find out what made their solutions, ingredients, and services stand out.
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Most Innovative Food or Beverage Ingredient

Winner: EQUII

San Francisco-headquartered Equii uses microbial fermentation to convert the carbohydrates in grains into protein, making staple products such as bread more nutritious.

Asked what it meant to be chosen as the most innovative ingredient, Monica Bhatia, founder and co-CEO of the company, told Fi Global Insights: “I’m really proud to be here.”

She added: “We have a technology platform that allows us to ferment grains and convert what I call the ‘extra carbs’ in grains into healthy, complete protein. Complete protein is something that helps us build muscle. So, it’s a win-win for the consumer to be eating the same products – bread, pasta, tortilla – but get so much more nutrition from them.”

Most Innovative Plant-Based or Alternative Ingredient

Winner: Arkeon

Vienna-based Arkeon turns CO2 waste into food via microbial gas fermentation.

2023 has been a year of victories for the Austrian biotech startup: it was voted the best workplace in Austria and scooped up first prize as most innovative alternative ingredient in the Fi Startup Innovation Challenge.

Michael Mitsakos, co-founder and president, said: “The way we are producing amino acids is very different. We are using CO2 and we take that from industries […] and then convert it using a microbe into amino acids.”

Mitsakos said he thought the Startup Innovation Challenge judges were particularly impressed by the fact that Arkeon is using industrial off-gasses.

“It’s a solution to decarbonise the planet while at the same time producing sustainable ingredients.”

Most Innovative Processing Technology or Technology Platform

Winner: NIUM

NIUM, a spin-off from the University of Luxembourg, has developed a model to replicate the conditions in the intestine that, when combined with computational models, can be used to test the impact of new ingredient formulations on gut health.

Asked which winning qualities impressed the judges, Alberto Noronha, co-founder and CEO of NIUM, said: “I think the fact that we are a spin-off so there has been a lot of research work done by many researchers over the years to develop this technology.”

He added: “The judges also saw the potential that it has. I think this is the new frontier for health. The gut microbiome is not completely unexplored but there is a lot that we don’t know.”

Most Innovative Service or AI Solution Supporting the Food & Beverage Industry

Winner: Deep Detection

Catalonian startup Deep Detection makes multispectral X-ray cameras to analyse products on high-speed continuous production lines. It can detect contamination by light-weight plastics and measure product characteristics and composition.

David Ciudad Rodriguez, CEO and co-founder, said what Deep Detection offers is “very different” to current alternatives on the market.

“The current technology is able to inspect every single product but [there is] a problem when we try to detect low density foreign bodies like plastic […] or glass. We can do it.”

He added: “We are going to be able to ensure the safety of the products and also the quality.”

Most Innovative Sustainable Solution

Joint winners: WNWN Food Labs and Planet A Foods  

For the first time in the history of the Startup Innovation Challenge, the judges jointly awarded the Most Innovative Sustainable Solution to two companies working in the same field. Both WNWN Food Labs and Planet A Foods have created a plant-based ingredient to replace cocoa in confectionery, baked goods, and other products.

Theresa Hingsammer, head of digital at Food Campus Berlin and jury member, said it was “super exciting” to see that sustainability played a key role for both startups.

“I would say this was the reason why it was so hard to choose which [company] would win the sustainability prize,” she said.

CTO and co-founder of WNWN Food Labs Johnny Drain said: “We shared this award amazingly with someone who’s actually kind of our competitor but it’s a beautiful, joyous moment: the fact that together we were awarded for the sustainability and the ethical angles that our companies address.”

Sarah Marquart, co-founder and CTO of Planet A Foods said: “We use local ingredients like oats and sunflower seeds so we can offer our clients CO2 savings. So, we offer both price savings [compared to cocoa] and CO2 savings – this is promising for our clients and I think also [impressed] the judges.”

A message from the judges: Corporates should be ‘open to these solutions’

For many entrepreneurs, creating their own food business is a way to play a positive role in addressing the challenges faced by the food industry, from climate change to the double burden of over- and under-nutrition.

But are such purpose-driven startups receiving the support they need to scale up their solutions and really have an impact?

Sandra Einerhand, head of Einerhand Science & Innovation and founder of the Fi Startup Innovation Challenge, said this was one area where the Startup Innovation Challenge had a key role to play.

“I think that is one of the reasons why Informa Markets is organising this: to give startups a lot of exposure by pitching here,” she said. “There are investors in the room, among the judges, but also in the [exhibition hall] so that could also possibly help them to make the right connections and get the funding for the next steps in their product development.

Kevin Camphuis, co-founder of Paris-based ShakeUp Factory and judge, had a clear message for the corporate audience attending Fi Europe: “To scale those solutions, startups can’t do it only with investors. It’s more a question of support from the value chain and […] how open the corporates can be to these new solutions.”

He added: “Corporates won’t be able to achieve their sustainability goals unless they use these technologies.