Pooling resources to reduce the risks: A closer look at pre-competitive research

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Nutrition Research

Collaborations between big industrial players, small and medium enterprises, and research institutes is an important area of R&D. FoodNavigator.com takes a closer look at the benefits of pre-competitive collaborations.

Earlier this month we reported that five industry giants (Nestlé, Kellogg, Danone, Chr. Hansen, and Fromageries Bel) will work in partnership with TI Food & Nutrition to combine their resources and carry out pre-competitive, fundamental, scientific research into gastrointestinal health and the effects of probiotics.

Speaking on behalf of the Diet and Health Research Industry Club (DRINC), Phil Holliday told FoodNavigator.com that pre-competitive research was an important way to pool together resources and reduce costs.

“Fundamental research can be quite high risk, and not necessarily in an area a company would focus its R&D on. Collaborations provide a way of focusing research together with others in order to reduce the risks and costs,”​ said Holliday.

“Getting academics and industry together and understanding what each other want and need is very important in R&D,”​ he said.

Middle ground

Pre-competitive research is often described as the middle ground of research, laying somewhere in between publicly funded and often fundamental research conducted in universities, and the research conducted by industry that is generally concerned with product development.

“Companies can’t all be doing the big research themselves, a lot of the time they are asking the same basic questions, and so it makes sense economically for them to answer these together,”​ said Holliday.

Jan Maat, managing director of TI Food and Nutrition said thanks to R&D collaborations the innovation process for companies is shortening.

“Picking up the fundamental research is a big undertaking. The complexity of what it involves is high, but by combining efforts in longer term, and sharing the effort and risk, the industry can benefit,”​ said Maat.

“We sit companies with the same areas of interest together and ask them, what are the main questions you have? Then we work on the project brief, and try to develop the ‘how’ to find the answers to their ‘wants’,”​ he added.

Rising costs

Jens Bleiel, chief executive of Food for Health Ireland (FHI) – a new partnership between Irish dairy processors and public research organisations – said that given the high cost of intervention studies, in the future companies would increasingly have to work together to fund research, instead competing through the applications and marketing of their products.

“I think this is a model for the way that food research will work in the future,” ​said Bleiel.

Fundamental bridges

According to Chr. Hansen, their partnership with TI Food and Nutrition that will focus on fundamental research into gut health, forming a bridge with other big companies and research institutes, in the hope they can all gain benefits from the findings.

“All of the industrial partners have the same problems, so we can work together to create pre-competitive generalised knowledge,”​ said Benedicte Flambard, head of R&D for Chr. Hansen’s Health & Nutrition Division.

“The benefit of this project is that the probiotic field is multi-platform, you need to be an expert in many different fields. It’s very cross functional, but if you put people together from these areas, then it can help solve these problems,”​ she added.

Whilst according to Nestle’s Dr Mark Fowler, projects forming the DRINC group represent “world-class pre-competitive research that has the potential to underpin innovation in the food industry”.

“It’s particularly good to see some of the best diet and health researchers … alongside scientists and engineers from other disciplines making the most of interdisciplinary collaborations and drawing value from new and combined approaches to research,"​ said Dr Fowler.

Health claims

Speaking to our sister publication FoodManufacture.co.uk earlier this year, Dr Michele Kellerhals, Coca-Cola Europe functional ingredients and external technology acquisition director said that food companies will have to increasingly pool resources and work with each other in order to fund the kind of human intervention studies required to support health claims.

Kellerhals added that small and medium-sized companies would benefit from collaborating – at least at the pre-competitive stages of research - in order to meet the costs of the ‘gold standard’ studies needed to substantiate health claims.

However Maat said the potential for collaborative clinical trials is more limited because “they can become a competitive area”​, though through open innovation partnerships, he conceded that it could happen.

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