The Fi Global Start-up Innovation Challenge, hosted during Fi Europe, gave start-ups the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a jury of R&D experts, investors, and major F&B industry company representatives. Kern Tec won first place in the Most Innovative Food or Beverage Ingredient category.
We spoke with co-founder Luca Fichtinger about the role of innovation in tapping new healthy ingredient opportunities, the challenges of bringing something new to the market, and why recognition of sustainable solutions in the food sector matters.
Valorising fruit waste streams
“The inspiration for Kern Tec came straight from Austrian farmers and small fruit processing companies,” explains Luca. “They were complaining to us about the huge side streams that are created throughout the value chain. As we looked deeper into these streams, we discovered that some factories are having to deal with a couple thousand tonnes of pits every single year.”
Luca and his team realised that this massive amount of waste represented an untapped opportunity. “There are valuable seeds inside these pits, similar to almonds,” he says. “We know that the plant-based and nut market are among the fastest growing segments in the food industry. We saw an opportunity to create an exciting new process to better exploit this ingredient.”
Problem solving at every stage
Not everything was plain sailing from the beginning. “We had two main challenges at the start,” notes Luca. “First, we needed to develop a mechanical line to separate seeds from the different pits. As cherry pits differ in size and shape from plum pits, for example, this was a tough challenge. Finally, though, we were able to develop one line for all pits and seeds.”
Second, Luca and his team needed to ensure that the seeds left over were safe for consumption. This meant finding new ways of removing harmful substances, such as cyanide. “For this, we had to develop a method from scratch in our labs,” says Luca. “After many trials and errors, our team managed to invent a proprietary method to extract cyanide, not only from fruit seeds but also from other products such as oilseeds. This was achieved without impacting on nutrition or taste.”
Recognising sustainable solutions
After this hard work, Luca is delighted to be able to demonstrate his company’s sustainable solution to fruit pits at the industrial scale. “We are really excited about having an impact on the market,” he says. “This is one reason why the Startup Innovation Challenge was so important to us. Fi Europe is a very important platform from which to present latest innovations in ingredients. Being recognised as having the most innovative food and beverage ingredient makes us very proud and is a reminder that hard work pays off!”
Luca believes that Kern Tec is tapping into a fundamental shift within the food sector. More and more businesses are looking to invest in sustainable practices, driven in part by consumer demand for products that have minimal environmental impact.
This means working with more sustainable ingredients and going for zero-waste approaches. Achieving both these objectives will require more out-of-the-box thinking, as exemplified by Kern Tec. “We have big plans to further scale up our value chain, ‘rescue’ more pits and bring more and more products - mostly in the alt-dairy category - to market,” Luca concludes.