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Cross-Collaboration Critical for Sustainable Innovation

Climate change and the growing population are putting immense strain on our already overburdened food system. Calls for cross-industry collaboration that drive innovation and meaningful change are attracting novel and proactive responses, despite the pandemic.

Innovative agrifood brands are accomplishing a lot, together. Startups, investors and industry leaders have the potential to secure the future of our food system. By working side-by-side and utilizing game-changing insights from agile startups, the food and ag industry, as a whole, can share ideas, pool resources and spur innovation. The global Covid-19 pandemic has shone an even brighter spotlight on our need to meet the United Nations (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and to work together to strengthen our fragile ecosystem.

“The pandemic has brought the fragility of our food system to the forefront,” ​shares Anne Greven, Global Head of Food and Agribusiness Startup Innovation and the FoodBytes! platform, Rabobank. “The combination of accelerating climate change, our growing population and a global pandemic is putting our food system in peril.”

Amid the pandemic, food and agricultural (F&A) brands are focusing on stabilizing their core offerings because these garner the strongest consumer appeal. However, this is causing the food system to become more entrenched; slowing innovation and delaying investment announcements.

That said, “we can see the pandemic has accelerated growth in some areas,” ​expressed Greven. In fact, F&A is seeing record investments in innovation. Investment doubled between 2019 to 2020 within Rabobank’s FoodBytes! network, for example.

Creating Industry-Wide Virtual Innovation

The pandemic has challenged the industry to manage innovation, from farm to fork, without physical environments and in-person collaboration. In the age of video conferencing, virtual meetings and back-room brainstorming, innovation has undergone its own transformation.

In a nod to the collective sense of hope that 2021 brings, brands are demonstrating their commitment to innovation and sustainability – through the power of partnership. 

“The virus has taught us all a valuable lesson on our ability to solve big problems with innovative thinking and creative discovery,”​ highlights Greven. 

Fresh perspectives, resource-sharing and technological ingenuity are necessary to apply innovative problem-solving and design thinking to our sustainability needs.

Commenting on the critical role collaboration plays, Greven urges: “Working independently won’t get us there fast enough. If we come together with our collective influence, we can co-create a truly sustainable food system.”

Where Cross-Collaboration and Innovation Meet

In response to calls to build a more secure and sustainable food system, collaborative innovation opportunities have grown for many agrifood brands.

Innovation platforms, such as FoodBytes! by Rabobank, help connect agrifood businesses of all sizes. Last year, Rabobank expanded FoodBytes! from a pitch competition to a holistic platform to drive industry change towards a sustainable food system. The platform brings together innovative startups, investors and industry leaders to help them achieve both their individual business goals and collective aims toward a more sustainable planet.

We take a look at how some of the champions of cross-collaboration are fostering innovation by sharing ideas, networks and resources.

Learn more about how FoodBytes! Pitch alumni are cross-collaborating

1. Retail Opportunities Diversify and Flourish

The F&A sector has seen progressive innovation in direct-to-consumer (DTC) models, particularly in delivery systems. Pivoting restaurants and food service operators are capturing their audiences’ attention to meet demands for sustainable convenience.

Imperfect Foods

With its mission to eliminate food waste and develop a better food system, California-based Imperfect Foods has seen a boom in popularity amid the pandemic.

Imperfect Foods has responded to the current climate by redirecting excess foodservice supply directly to customers. The brand takes food that may previously have been discarded, deemed unfit for consumption or unattractive in supermarket settings and routes it directly to consumers through its subscription service. In this way, the company is actively  contributing to a more circular and sustainable economy.

Afresh

Fresh food is vital in the global grocery industry. Yet, supply chain inefficiencies create huge amounts of waste and lost profits annually. Insufficient stock, empty shelves and overwhelming demand have dominated the supplier and retail landscape.

Technology innovator, Afresh, has seen a skyrocketing need for retail optimization as grocers strive to find accessible technology that helps boost sales, eradicate waste and grow profitability.

Afresh raised nearly $30 million in funding in 2020 over two capital rounds. Using cutting-edge technology, the fresh foods segment can improve its capabilities to order, forecast and handle store operations.

In the age of advanced technology, it is tempting for agrifood players to focus their energy on full automation.

“In some circumstances, if there are perfect data and perfect processes and perfect predictability, that can be effective,” ​states Matthew Schwartz, Co-Founder, Afresh. “What we saw in the pandemic was the opposite of all of that.”

By bringing people and artificial intelligence (AI) technology together, retailers could keep products in stock and shelves full. Grocers could access reliable information on their stock levels – both in the real world and for their digital quantities.

“If a third of fresh food goes to waste, that is a huge indicator of there being a ton of room for increasing efficiency,” ​says Schwartz.

Supply chain optimization is no longer a nice-to-have. Grocers who have experienced profit loss due to waste or empty shelves are investing in retail technologies that reflect their ever-evolving omnichannel approaches.

2. Evolution in consumer demands for health, wellness and sustainability

Growing a healthier and more sustainable food system for both people and the planet is a key priority for brands. Covid-19 has heightened consumer interest in health and wellness, with plant-based curiosity growing in recent years.

New Wave Foods

The potential and popularity of plant-based products are set to grow in 2021 as health and wellness dominate.

Plant-based seafood company, New Wave Foods, is answering calls for increased interest in health, wellbeing, immunity and nutrition. Collaborating with early-stage investors, Tyson Ventures, the 100% plant-based brand appeals to consumer health and wellness demands by offering sustainable, environmentally-friendly, vegetarian and kosher seafood with zero cholesterol.

In addition to teaming up with the Culinary Institute of America on product development, New Wave Foods plans to expand onto restaurant menus by partnering with the foodservice sector.

Better Meat Co.

Collaboration has brought insights and innovation opportunities to plant protein ingredient innovator, Better Meat Co. Through Rabobank’s FoodBytes! platform, the brand met one of its major investors and was given access to new networks and resources in the protein industry.

Better Meat Co. is currently focusing on its product innovation pipeline. By closely following the trend to move plant protein directly into the meat aisle and supermarkets, the ambitious brand has decided to go further and move plant protein directly into the meat itself.

Pandemic challenges have slowed innovation partnerships and announcement roll-outs. Better Meat Co.’s Paul Shapiro reveals: “They are not having their research and development (R&D) staff in the office, in the lab, collaborating; they are trying to stay alert.”

Despite this, the brand has seen an increased demand for alternative proteins. Better Meat Co. is gearing up to launch its next generation of ingredients in 2021.

3. Smart Technology For Full Visibility and Transparency

Advanced digital infrastructure and innovative technologies such as AI, big data and blockchain are fostering connectivity and collaboration throughout the F&A industry, regardless of location.

Startup Bushel provides digital infrastructure for the grain supply chain. The FoodBytes! alumni sought strategic support on implementing long-term connectivity into the consumer packaged goods (CPG) sphere.

“When we started our work, we said data moves slower than the grain itself, physically moving in the supply chain. The truck full of grain will move quicker than what we can move data today,” ​highlights Jake Joraanstad, CEO, Bushel.

The digitization of that process is vital. When Covid-19 first hit, US facilities including grain buyers struggled without their traditional physical locations.

“There was a significant slowdown in decision-making,” ​says Joraanstad. As Bushel is all about using data to inform better decisions, the startup saw a “massive uplift”​ in the adoption of its technology. The startup’s electronic signatures grew 200% in 2020.

While using innovation to optimize internal systems is important, the critical challenge is how to achieve true collaboration. Problem-solving is paramount. “The real problem in the supply chain is cross-collaboration amongst multiple players,”​ adds Joraanstad.

Harnessing the power of cross-collaboration via CPG expertise, Bushel is now focusing on understanding what grain buyers need to provide CPG companies. “That's been a big change in our thinking,” ​highlights Joraanstad.

4. On-the-ground Resource Management

With so much of our lives shifting to the digital space, our understanding, sharing, comfortability and trust in the use of data is vital. The adoption of virtual solutions has accelerated the uptake of technologies in F&A, enabling active monitoring of operations in real-time.

Farm resource management innovator, Arable, is using data to meet changing consumer behaviors. By teaming up with large-scale corporates such as Bayer, Ferrero and BASF, as well as like-minded startups, including FoodBytes! alumni, Arable has been able to understand the entire F&A ecosystem.

The beauty of cross-industry collaboration is that it provides knowledge on the entire “ecosystem of people around the farmer,”​ says Arable’s Adam Wolf. This ecosystem comprises bankers, lenders, insurers, product buyers, seed or irrigation information providers. “All of those people need data,” ​adds Wolf.

Providing a “richer picture of the food supply chain,”​ Wolf says, data enables F&A to produce a more resilient supply chain that can respond to emerging environmental and business shocks.

PepsiCo is known as a top innovator, thanks to its collaborative approach with F&A initiatives, research institutes and media partnerships.

In December 2020, PepsiCo pledged to produce 100% recycled plastic bottles by 2022. The beverage brand will use 100% r-PET bottles recycled from post-consumer packaging, while simultaneously aiming to increase the availability of reuse and refill systems. To enable the F&A industry to access recyclable packaging, reduce waste and make it easy for consumers to recycle, PepsiCo will work with policymakers, waste management systems and collectors.

“PepsiCo is proud to participate in Rabobank’s FoodBytes! Pitch program as we look to identify new, innovative technologies with the potential to have a significant impact on our business and the goals we’ve laid out as part of our accelerated sustainability agenda to deliver positive outcomes for the planet and people,” says Austin Kozman, R&D Senior Director, External Innovation at PepsiCo. 

The Future of Innovation

As we move through 2021, we can expect to see significant innovation in the supply chain.

Collaboration is critical to creating connectivity, communication and sustainable change across the globe. And, it is important to balance recovery and maintain market position with looking ahead.

“Companies that are planning for the next 10-15 years are investing heavily in innovation today, and they are seeing those investments pay off much sooner than they imagined,” emphasizes Greven.

Now is the time for the entire F&A industry –  ambitious startups, investors and leading multinationals – to team up to edge us closer to realizing our individual and collective goals for food, agriculture and sustainability.

“That is my call out to companies as a whole,” ​says Rabobank’s Greven. “Yes, we are in a pandemic, but we can't forget what we are investing in for the next five to ten years. And we need to be looking forward.​” 

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