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Sustainability and health driving innovative startups [Interview]

The most disruptive innovation in any industry comes from startups, and small companies are starting to transform the F&B landscape.

This is evident by the number of major international brands, such as Unilever, now starting to invest in startups to support their overall R&D strategy. But where can companies find these exciting new startups?

F&A Next, organized by StartLife at Wageningen University & Research, is one of a number of events for startups and investors, highlighting innovation in food & agri. It takes place in Wageningen on 30th & 31st May. We caught up with Thomas van den Boezem, Program Director at StartLife, ahead of the event to get some tips on scouting new talent within the industry.

Can you tell us a bit more about StartLife and your upcoming event, F&A Next?

'StartLife is the Netherlands-based incubator for food & agtech startups, co-founded by Wageningen University & Research. Since 2011 we’ve supported over 200 startups from across The Netherlands with pre-seed funding, a vast mentor network and access to corporate partners like Unilever and METRO Group. We aim to make startups investor-ready for their follow-on funding. That’s why we’re proud to co-host F&A Next, the leading European event for startups and investors in food & agri.''At F&A Next, we provide the latest insights on technology and innovation, and provide ample match-making opportunity. Moreover, 8 of the most promising food & agtech from all around the world will pitch their company, and 15 more will showcase their innovation.'

Are you able to give us some examples of some of the startups that will be pitching at the event?

'There will be startups that target every part of the food value chain, from those developing advanced robotics for agriculture, sensors for precision ag and AI platforms to support outdoor and indoor farmers, to those developing clean meat and novel ingredients for sugar replacement.'

What about success stories? Can you highlight any previous F&A Next participants who are doing particularly well as a result?

'Last year, Koup won the audience choice award at F&A Next with their protein-rich ice-cream. They received the award from Prince Constantijn van Oranje. The event gave them the connections to break through internationally. A great success story!'

Are there any categories or sectors within F&B that you are seeing a lot of startups working in?

'Absolutely! On the pre-harvest side we see ag robotics really taking off in terms of startup activity, and investors are paying close attention. There are many hurdles still, which will be discussed at this year’s F&A Next, but progress is being made. On the post-harvest side, sustainable protein is receiving a lot of interest from startups, investors and corporates as well. We see all kinds of new technologies to unlock plant sources, insects and even cultured ingredients as novel protein sources, to solve the sustainability and health issues associated with meat production.'

What is the biggest challenge for startups entering the market? And how do you see industry collaborating and supporting them?

'Food & agtech startups often need more capital, specialized knowledge and facilities to develop, validate and scale their proposition. Corporates are of paramount importance in supporting startups in that journey. We see corporates more and more engaging both in R&D collaborations with early-stage startups, and distribution or marketing partnerships with later-stage companies. For example, Unilever R&D just signed a partnership with StartLife to support early-stage startups in our ecosystem.'

StartLife are supporting the Startup Innovation Challenge at Hi Europe this year. Why did you choose to collaborate with Fi Global on this? And what are you most looking forward to about the competition?

'Novel food ingredients to make environmental and health impact are a major focus for us. Wageningen University & Research performs extensive research on this topic, and as a result we see more and more startup activity in this space as well. But we recognize that other ecosystems in the world often have creative new solutions that we’ve never seen before, so for us this challenge is a great way to stay engaged. Of course, in the reverse, we’re also here to help those startups any way we can in Wageningen.'

F&A Next takes place in Wageningen on Wednesday 30th & Thursday 31st May. Find out more on their website: https://start-life.nl/events/fa-next/

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