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Meet the food and farming innovators using technology to bolster food security

Increasing efficiency and using innovation to reduce waste and save money was a common theme among startup food and drink companies looking for investment as part of the FoodBytes! global pitch competition in London. Olivia Midgley reports.


Olivia   Midgley

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Olivia   Midgley
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From new protein sources to robots which can manage fleets of agricultural machines and pioneering technology which can control viral diseases in livestock, the future of the food and drink industry will be reliant on the best in science, technology and innovation.

 

And there was an abundance of it on display at FoodBytes!, a global pitch competition run by agribusiness bank Rabobank to find the world’s most disruptive food and agriculture innovators.

Many of the start-up companies, who had flown into London from all over the world, displayed futuristic ideas which they hoped would revolutionise the sector.

 

In addition, they have all demonstrated commercial viability and all have one common denominator – a focus on sustainability throughout the supply chain through pioneering new products and technologies.

 

Nick Fereday, executive director, food and consumer trends at Rabobank and FoodBytes! London said: “This is Rabobank’s first FoodBytes! event in London and we are blown away by the calibre of the presenting companies that are developing technologies and products to disrupt the food system, whether it is to improve the transparency of the supply chain or bring alternative proteins to the market.”

 

As part of two day process, the companies were invited to meet a range of retailers and potential investors before making pitches of between 1.5 and 3.5 minutes in the hope of securing mentoring and or capital.

 

Robots are often touted as the solution to various agricultural problems but the cost of the technology means many farmers and growers could only dream of seeing the latest in technology in their field.

 

EarthRover is a UK precision farming startup setup in partnership with Harper Adams University and the RAL Space Autonomous Systems Group.

 

Alina Costache, who works at the Saïd Business School at Oxford University, has been working with the team, which includes Prof Simon Blackmore of the Harper Adams Hands Free Hectare project, to bring the products to market.

 

“Earth Rover is focused on integrating the best available robotic agriculture technology into working applications that farmers can use and rely on at scale,” said Ms Costache.

 

“For example we know organic farmers in particular have a big problem with weeding. We can provide a robotic solution to this on a per hectare basis.

 

“This is a much more cost effective solution for farmers and would allow those smaller growers not to lose out as well.”

 

Looking to the future, she predicted farms would rely on a ‘mixed fleet’ of robots and drones, but added the technology was ready to plug in and play now – farmers just needed the access to it and the expertise to make it work on their operation.


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For Frederic Ventre, chief executive and founder of organic baby food company Yooji, breaking into the UK market was key.

 

“France is our biggest market and we have 600 outlets that distribute our products but there is a lot of competition in the baby food market and we are keen to export to the UK and other countries,” said Mr Ventre, who already has backing from Danone.

 

“We export to Luxembourg and the Netherlands because this is relatively easy for us. The packaging does not have to be translated so it works well.

 

“E commerce is important for us as parents want to be able to get the food delivered or click and collect.”

 

The product is unique because the food is frozen in portions which allows parents to mix the so-called ‘stews’ made up of a variety of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.

 

Recognising an emerging market was also a key driver for the team behind Innovopro, a new protein made from chickpeas.

 

“New sources of plant-based proteins are being sought by the food industry, as growing numbers of people adopt vegetarian and vegan diets,” said Karina Bedrack, operations and logistics at the Israel based firm.

 

“The food industry is on a quest for novel plant-based proteins in order to meet rising demand.”

 

The global proteins ingredients market was valued at USD 21.89 billion in 2015 and is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.4 per cent by 2023.

 

Ms Bedrack said the protein could be used as an alternative to whey protein, eggs, gluten and acted as a ‘binder’ to make cakes, mayonnaise and crackers.

 

It was also gluten free, safe for those with food allergies, non-genetically modified and, in addition, contained 70 per cent protein.

 

“We are looking for investment to scale up our manufacturing," she added.

 

"We are operating in a small factor in Canada at the moment but ideally we would like to be in Europe as that is where the biggest market is for us.”

Satisfying the burgeoning market for consumers with food allergies while at the same time formulating a healthy snack bar which tasted good led Julianne Ponan to start up Creative Nature Superfoods.

 

Suffering from anaphylaxis, she was allergic to all nuts, some seeds and certain additives and so set about creating a range of bars and baking mixes.

 

Paula Usackaite, sales and marketing executive, said: “We are looking to meet retailers who may want to stock our products and we are trying to raise brand awareness in order to grow our exports. We already export to several countries including Iceland, Portugal and Switzerland but two key areas for us are Belgium and New Zealand. Achieving this growth would mean we would need investment to be able to get the stock and deliver it.”

 

The products are currently stocked in Asda, Co-op and Ocado and high street retailers including TK Max, The Natural Kitchen, Vital Ingredient and Sourced Market.

 

Tackling the thorny issue of food waste is South London firm Oddbox, which delivers imperfect boxed fruit and vegetables from growers in Lincolnshire down to Kent.

 

Any growers looking to sign up to the scheme can email hello@oddbox.co.uk.

Other innovative startups showcased at Foodbytes!

Connnectera - Building an artificial intelligence platform that will help grow food sustainably. Ida, its intelligent dairy farming assistant, helps dairy farmers run the worlds’ most efficient dairy farms.

Trapview - An automated pest monitoring and forecasting platform, which enables daily and reliable collection of pest monitoring data. Trapview’s AI-based pest insect dynamics forecast optimises crop protection activities and makes farming operations 10 percent more profitable.

ViroVet - Dedicated to the development of disruptive and innovative technologies for the control of viral diseases in livestock.

Ubiqutek / Rootwave - Pioneering the use of electricity to kill weeds and offer a scalable and sustainable alternative to herbicides.

BeeHero - On a mission to improve crop pollination by saving and empowering bees. Its technology allows commercial beekeepers to keep their colonies stronger and farmers to increase their yields dramatically.

EggXYt - Makes it possible for farmers to count their chickens before they hatch by using a biomarker on the male chromosome of a chicken embryo, making its sex detectable once an egg is laid. EggXYt is saving billions of dollars and unnecessary chick-death.

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