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Collaborative, Sustainable and Scalable Innovation Thrives Despite Pandemic

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Collaborative, Sustainable and Scalable Innovation Thrives Despite Pandemic

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Ambitious startups, investors and leading multinationals are teaming up to edge the food and agriculture (F&A) industry closer to realising individual business goals and collective sustainability targets. ​Climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed deep and urgent vulnerabilities in our global food system, while also posing uncharted and unexpected business challenges for new market entrants and large agrifood companies alike.

In the face of this unprecedented disruption and uncertainty, the F&A industry is showing incredible resilience — ploughing ideas, investment and innovation into agrifood-based solutions.

“The pandemic validated the need for real innovation and substantive investment to solve the challenges we’re facing,”​ says Anne Greven, global head of food and agribusiness innovation and the FoodBytes! platform​ at Rabobank.

By engaging in an open-minded, forward-thinking and collaborative approach, we can create rapid change and achieve ambitious agrifood goals – even amidst a global pandemic.

“Cross collaboration allows you to get a much wider understanding regarding the issues and challenges that are being considered and addressed by businesses the world over,”​ shares John Marten, program manager of food innovation at Meat & Livestock Australia​ (MLA).

The Virtual Shift


Nathalie Gibson, head of innovation, knowledge & networks for APAC at Rabobank has worked in the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific (APAC), and has seen the effect of the pandemic on the agrifood sector: “It’s unifying the globe in a way we have never seen before and bringing the best of what the entire industry has to offer.”

The pandemic has levelled the playing field for innovation, as all brands – regardless of location – must collaborate within the same virtual parameters for the first time. Innovation hubs and platforms, such as FoodBytes! by Rabobank, offer opportunities for businesses of all sizes.

“It is vital for businesses today to understand their core competencies and to stay abreast of how they can flex, grow and expand these competencies into other potential markets and sectors,”​ asserts Michael Lee, group manager of science and innovation at MLA.

The digital climate is creating more opportunities for collaborative innovation.

Comparing the APAC landscape pre-pandemic with now, Gibson highlights: “The biggest challenge pre-pandemic was accessing US and Europe based partners and investors.”​ Travelling overseas to access these opportunities created associated costs, time implications and impacts on resources.

“APAC is a diverse region with an incredible depth of culture and range of languages, time zones and climates,”​ Gibson emphasises, “but now in our current virtual environment, brands can grow their businesses and find new solutions, unconfined​.”   

Asia-based F&A companies gained a total of USD $3.8 billion (€3.1 billion) of venture capital (VC) investment in 2020, more than double the $1.5 billion (€1.2 billion) accrued in 2019, Pitchbook reveals. In 2020, approximately 30% of these deals went to companies in China, another 30% to those in India, followed by 8% to Australia, 6.5% to Japan, and 6% to Singapore.

Bringing Talent to the Forefront

“Absolutely!” ​is Gibson’s response to whether there is a real sense of entrepreneurial spirit and encouragement for innovation in F&A in APAC.

In 2020, Rabobank’s innovation discovery platform for startups and multinationals, FoodBytes!, saw 18% of its top 45 startups hail from the APAC region. These APAC brands made up 27% of the programmes’ 15 finalists, with Australia-based SWAN Systems earning top honors in the agtech category at the platform’s culminating virtual pitch competition.

“On a global stage, this is an impressive achievement for an APAC-based startup,” ​Gibson highlights.

Accessing startup talent is vital to realising agrifood innovation opportunities. Virtual global networks are helping overseas multinationals to recognise the level of talent in APAC.

In 2020, FoodBytes! saw an overall increase of 8% in the number of startup applications from the APAC region. The innovation platform is hoping for a further rise in 2021, as it aims to have approximately a quarter of its applicants represent emerging innovation from APAC.

“The talent coming through the APAC region is exceptional,” ​adds Gibson.

F&A technology is driving innovation in APAC. Previously, FoodBytes! by Rabobank’s applicant pool consisted of 50% consumer goods, 25% food tech and 25% agtech innovations. Due to the increase in tech-focused applications from APAC and Latin America startups in 2020, the platform saw an even split between the three sectors for the first time.

Pioneering Innovation in the Pandemic: A Case Study

This article delves into thriving cross-collaboration projects that have created meaningful innovation and long-term F&A partnerships. We look at the exciting pilot collaborations between leading APAC-based multinational player, MLA, and several diverse startups through the FoodBytes! Pilot program.

Industry accelerators and initiatives, such as FoodBytes Pilot, which drive positive cross-collaboration environment between large companies and startups can help the F&A industry create real change through innovation.

For MLA, failing fast is “critical in ensuring that MLA’s resources are committed to identifying the fewer, bigger and bolder project opportunities that will provide the Australian red meat sector with the best possible return on investment,”​ highlights Marten. “Knowing when to pivot, stop or keep going requires shared expectations between the parties, including appetite to fail fast,”​ Lee adds.

Businesses can gain the most from cross-collaboration through partnership, Marten shares: “It is important for all businesses to understand that they do not operate and live in a vacuum.”

2020 was a huge year for MLA's cross-collaboration and innovation efforts. Through FoodBytes!, the brand engaged in separate pilot projects with four ambitious startups: Shameless Pets​, The Better Meat Co.​, Phyto Corporation​ and Corumat Better Materials​.

“Working with FoodBytes! to source partners from Europe and the US to collaborate with MLA has meant we can continue to innovate and develop global relationships despite being grounded during the pandemic,”​ said Lee.

Shameless Pets - Logo

1. Sustainability, Nutrition and Upcycling with Shameless Pets

With a shared vision for sustainability and growth, MLA joined forces with US brand, Shameless Pets, which produces nutritious, upcycled treats for pets to reduce pet food production’s environmental impact and support animal health.

MLA wanted to gauge how US consumers would respond to Australian meat in pet treats — an unfamiliar and potentially differentiating ingredient — from a higher value brand. Shameless Pets was keen to identify new upcycled ingredients for its natural, grain-free dog treats.

Together, they explored the rising US trend of pet humanisation, where ‘pet parents’ view their pets as family members and are willing to invest in premium products. The collaborators’ aim was to see if they could increase demand for Australian meat while simultaneously lowering food waste and creating novel upcycling opportunities.

Along with aggregating a wealth of consumer and market insights on the sustainable pet market, the duo rolled out four new products, along with consumer surveys to gain a deeper understanding of their perceptions about Australian red meat. Cross-collaboration enabled MLA to validate the supply chain capabilities for upcycling and test the value proposition of Australian meat in the US pet segment. 

The duo is currently exploring the long-term potential to produce a full jerky line that includes goat and lamb products. The partners are also moving forward with consumer insights on sourcing information and supply chain transparency.

2. Alternative Proteins with The Better Meat Co.


Understanding consumer demand for alternative proteins is vital as both startups and big businesses strive to access opportunities in this space.

In 2020, MLA partnered with The Better Meat Co., a plant-based protein formula developer for institutional food-sellers. Together, the two brands set off to further explore the category and develop a new blended meat-protein offering that provides nutrition, taste and sustainability.

MLA sought to further invest in market research for blended products and understand blended meat sticks’ market potential. The duo also aimed to produce blended lamb meatballs and lamb dumplings. Development, production and testing of the products occurred during the pilot timeframe, with the lamb meatballs undergoing further testing to optimise their texture.

MLA and Better Meat Co. conducted consumer focus groups, which revealed encouraging favourability for blended meat-plant products as consumers perceive them to offer greater nutritional value. And in recent months, a variant of the blended products manufactured using Better Meat Co ingredients with Australian beef launched to positive response in Australian grocery retail.

3. Sustainable Food Resources with Phyto Corporation

Phyto - Logo

Securing the future of our food system is a key agrifood innovation goal. Sustainable food resources are integral to meeting our future food supply needs.

MLA partnered with Phyto Corporation, a future-focused brand that creates a product range extracted from Salicornia, a sustainable food ingredient that is mass-cultivated by seawater agriculture. Together, their pilot saw them use the ingredient Salicornia, which had amassed successful technology-related patents, with Australian beef.

Tapping into the Korean market (a strong market for Australian beef), they also looked at the prospect of combining Australian beef with plant-based salts to create a new superfood that might appeal to Korean consumers. MLA wanted to explore Korean consumer preferences around preventative health and wellness, and identify potential pain points and opportunities for Salicornia ingredient use in meat products.    

The pair developed a product range for weight loss and a bone broth to prevent memory loss made of Australian beef (bones). After receiving a promising response from Korean shoppers in consumer surveys and market research, the collaborators extended the opportunity to other interested Australian Beef brand-owners.

4. Sustainable Packaging with Corumat Better Materials

Corumat Logo - Mike Waggoner

With sustainable packaging high on consumers’ agendas and essential for the long-term sustainability of our food system, it is vital for companies to explore alternative packaging solutions that deliver on consumer expectations of quality and reduced plastic and food waste. 

MLA and high-tech, biodegradable packaging startup, Corumat Better Materials, set out to uncover the demand for sustainable packaging in their 2020 pilot. Corumat, a developer of 100% plant-based, compostable and renewable packaging, collaborated with MLA to co-create a new packaging product by upcycling food waste, including red meat waste streams.

The successful pilot saw prototypes developed, including a plastic-free meat tray made solely from food waste, which was well-received during preliminary testing with sustainability-conscious consumers and brand owners. The companies are now working together to define a business model that can create and capture value for Australian red meat sector.

Development, Diversification and Disruption in Agrifood

These examples of collaborative innovation from MLA and promising startups offer a taste of what’s possible for the F&A industry. Disruption and transformation are needed to create real change, produce a resilient food supply chain and provide lasting business growth. In 2021, we can expect to see significant innovation in the sustainability of the supply chain, improved resource management and better nutrition.

As we strive to create sustainable supply chains that provide greater readiness and responsiveness ahead of potential future threats to our food industry, the entire agrifood sector is progressing its innovative applications in several core areas. Traceable technology including blockchain and beyond, improved animal health and upcycled products will shape our supply chain going forward.

With a clear focus on improved resource management in 2021, the agrifood industry can expect to see increased cross-collaboration and innovation in carbon sequestration, water reduction, waste reduction and sustainable packaging.

As we move towards the next frontier of nutrition, startups and multinationals are embarking on unified explorations of key trends, such as food as medicine, increased exploration of plant-based applications, and the convergence of biotechnology and food.

Harnessing a New Innovation Era

While MLA’s Lee points out that Covid-19 has accelerated certain opportunities and trends, he highlights: “However, the big complex problems relevant to the wider agrifood sector need to continue to be investigated.” 

The rapid pace of change, development of new solutions, and advancement of technologies mean ambitious agrifood brands have a tremendous opportunity to pursue cross-collaborations with startups that result in innovations that meet consumer needs and fix our broken supply chain.

“We can’t keep waiting,” ​Rabobank’s Gibson urges. “Finding like-minded startups, investors and multinationals is key to achieving both our individual business goals and wider sustainability targets to secure the future of our food.”