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Tapping into the North American innovation ecosystem [Interview]

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Food tech startups have an opportunity to be part of a robust innovation ecosystem in North America. Rahul Shinde, Director of Front-End Innovation at Givaudan, discusses key market opportunities and trends, and what startups need to do to bring bright ideas to market.
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Innovation is hard work. It addresses real world challenges, and requires tremendous effort and resilience. Through collaboration you can accelerate innovation and improve your probability of success. Rahul Shinde, Director of Front-End Innovation at Givaudan, sees an important part of his job as bringing together different parts of the innovation ecosystem for co-creation and collaboration.

“Front End Innovation (FEI) was set up by Givaudan five years ago,” he explains.
“Our goal is to understand market needs, and drive innovation to market. Startups are a major part of the solution. So, they come to us to either validate and accelerate what they are doing, or to establish long term collaborations.”

One such collaboration has been with CURA Global health, a company that makes Koji Fermented Wholefood Minerals.

“CURA had good IP and strong clinical evidence for their products, and was looking for a commercial partner,” says Shinde.
“Within a short span of time we were able to start our partnership and launch their products through our global sales network.”

Innovative ideas and partnerships can develop in a wide range of ways, from startups looking for financial backing to accelerators and ecosystems that bring companies together.

Shinde is also on the leadership team at MISTA, a San Francisco-based innovation ecosystem that brings together major industry players like Givaudan, Danone, Mars and Ingredion along with 40+ startups and SMEs. MISTA’s objective is to help create a healthy and sustainable future of food through innovation and collaboration.

“We try to make startups part of the innovation ecosystem,” says Shinde.
“A good example is TerViva. They make sustainable plant-based proteins and oils from Pongamia trees native to East Asia. TerViva now grows these trees in barren land in Florida, where they are able to productively extract proteins and oils from the Pongamia beans. Being part of the MISTA ecosystem enabled them to market this innovation to large CPG and ingredient companies effectively.”

Following the trends

Shinde notes that consumers in North America have a significant impact on certain global trends. A dominant trend at the moment is plant-based, with consumers demanding more clean labels and natural and organic ingredients.

“All these things need to be front and centre when developing ingredients for the North American market,” says Shinde.
“Another key trend that is directly related is demand for sustainably sourced protein. There is also a growing trend for upcycling, for developing new food applications and products from side streams.”

Fitting with these trends, Shinde sees a bright future in North America for natural fermentation applications. Highly sustainable protein sources with a lower environmental footprint are already being heavily pushed by well-funded companies along with a strong pull from consumers.

Another trend that is only set to grow is health & nutrition and personalised nutrition.

“Consumers want products that work for them as an individual,” says Shinde.
“I think that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this aspect in a big way. Companies are increasingly aware of the need to tap into products that work for specific consumers based on their genetic makeup and the environment they interact with.”

Part of the solution

Shinde is well placed to understand the needs of startup companies. After completing a master’s degree in food science and technology followed by a master’s degree in business administration, he began his career working within startups.

“This was about 15 years ago, when the environment was very different,” he says.
“There was less support and funding available. We had to bootstrap our way to market adoption and business success.”

This experience nonetheless gave him an understanding of what it takes to be successful in North America.

“First off, startups need to understand what it is they are trying to solve,” he explains.
“They need to be clear about the challenge their customer faces, and how their technology or innovation can help solve this problem.”

Startups also need to be patient.

“Being successful in the food space takes time,” he says.
“Companies generally don’t see success quickly. In fact, it can take about eight to ten years to actually see an innovation come through. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have spent years experimenting with their solutions before seeing market success.”

And finally, startups need to be prepared to cooperate.

“The North American innovation ecosystem is very strong,” says Shinde.
“But new companies have to realise that they need to actively participate and contribute to this ecosystem. They need to learn to give and take from the ecosystem.”

For companies with innovative solutions to current challenges, along with a good understanding of consumer trends and a desire to collaborate, the North American market has plenty of opportunities to offer.

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