“The more detail you can provide the better”, says Tate & Lyle senior vice president of business development Mike Golembieski, who also heads up the firm’s open innovation group.
Vague technical briefs generate equally vague responses and waste everybody’s time, says Golembieski, who is preparing to launch an online open innovation platform in the coming year to add to a new breed of industry-led open innovation websites such as Unilever’s challenges and wants site and General Mills’ G-WIN platform.
While some people might worry about giving away too much about their R&D plans on these platforms, the secret isn’t in the problems, but in the solutions, says Golembieski.
In other words it should come as no surprise that Unilever et al are looking for new natural preservatives or sodium reduction solutions, or that Tate & Lyle is looking at novel natural sweeteners, he says.
“There is more benefit in being definitive about what you want. Being coy doesn’t benefit anyone.”
It’s important to ask those hard questions at the start of the process
But how best to cultivate the relationship once a potential partner has been identified?
The secret to success, says Golembieski, is starting with an “open and honest discussion about objectives on both sides”.
As in any relationship, it’s better to get the big questions out in the open (do you want children?) before you tie the knot, he says.
“It’s important to ask the hard questions at the start of the process, however difficult that is.”
Acquisitions are not always the best solution
And what kind of deals work best?
It depends, he says. “Whatever the deal, it has to be a win win for both parties, so we try and craft a structure that suits what both parties are trying to accomplish.
“That could be a licensing deal, it could be taking a stake in a company, purchasing IP or setting up a joint development relationship, or an acquisition. But acquisitions may not always be the best solution."
Tate & Lyle Ventures
One piece of the jigsaw is Tate & Lyle Ventures, the firm’s London-based £25m venture capital fund, which invests in high growth companies in renewable ingredients, food technologies, biomaterials and industrial processing technologies.
The fund, which is focused on early stage ventures looking for startup or expansion capital – ideally £1-2M as a first commitment - can offer start-ups technology, guidance and potential routes to market for new products through Tate & Lyle's global network.
To date the fund has invested in several start-ups in the nutraceuticals space, including Scotland-based Aquapharm Biodiscovery, which develops marine-based ingredients and Belgian firm Fugeia, which has a soluble and acid stable patent-protected ingredient from wheat bran fiber with prebiotic and antioxidant functionality.
Our scouting is very focused…
But what other kinds of ingredients and technologies is Tate & Lyle casting its slide rule over?
Scores of potential partners are being screened at any one time, says Golembieski, but his team is not just randomly scouring start-ups and university spin offs looking for just any hot new food ingredients or technologies.
“Our scouting is very focused. We’re looking to fill gaps and needs in defined platforms: Health & wellness, texturants and sweeteners.”
So what about hot ingredient of the moment: Algae?
Golembieski, who has a stint at California-based algae specialist Solazyme under his belt, acknowledges this is on his radar, although he won't go into specifics.
“Fermentation is involved in a lot of our products, so algae is an area of interest."
As for how wide Tate & Lyle is casting its net, most opportunities are in north America and Europe, but not exclusively so, he says.
“We are heavily oriented towards North America and Europe right now but we recognize that there is a lot of innovation in Asia Pac.
“You are seeing a lot more primary research coming from Asia Pac now, so we are definitely looking very closely at technologies and ingredients from that region.”
Click here to see our picture gallery of Tate & Lyle's new Commercial and Food Innovation Center.
Click here to read our interview with Karl Kramer, president, Innovation and Commercial Development, at Tate & Lyle.