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Shaping the future of the food industry through disruptive innovation

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Disruptive technologies are driving step-changes in UK industries – from applying Formula 1 wireless sensing technologies in health and care settings, to the development of performance capture tools in making films and video games.

And the food industry is no different - I spoke at the Institute of Food Science and Technology’s Spring Conference last week on exactly this topic.

Food themes are relevant across Innovate UK’s programmes

Support for the food and drink sector features across Innovate UK’s programmes – particularly in manufacturing, our international programmes and as a priority theme within the health and life sciences area that I lead. For example, we support:

  • businesses working to improve food quality to make it more nutritious and of better quality
  • technologies that track and ensure safety of food, and modern manufacturing technologies
  • businesses that increase agricultural productivity - those developing precision engineering approaches to agriculture, new crop treatments and better healthcare and breeding techniques for livestock
  • businesses in the bioeconomy that use biosciences to improve agricultural efficiency and to support advances in healthcare

Improving food composition for the benefit of consumer health

Making food healthier is something that none of us can miss in the news, and this makes consumers more aware too. We recently ran a funding competition in the area of nutrition, focusing on optimising food composition by:

  • reducing fat, salt and sugar in food
  • increasing fibre

This competition has supported 20 projects with funding totalling just under £9 million. As well as economic return, projects like these could have a huge impact on addressing the challenge of diet-related disease.

A particular example from the food composition competition is the university-business collaboration between Ella’s Kitchen and the University of Reading. This project is looking at formulation and processing approaches to support a reduction in sugar and improvement in texture in baby foods.

Supporting businesses with the expertise they need to grow and scale

Ella’s Kitchen has worked with the University of Reading on a number of Knowledge Transfer Partnership projects, as featured in this video:

Partnerships like these help companies to benefit from skills and expertise they don’t have in-house, helping them to gain competitive advantage.

Targeting pre-diabetes through improving food

Phynova’s work was funded through our nutrition for life collaborative R&D competition. Along with their partners, Phynova, an SME head-quartered in Oxfordshire, have developed a product known as Reducose from mulberry leaves. When products are formulated with Reducose, they still taste sugary but less glucose is absorbed into the body. Clinical evidence shows that Reducose is effective at maintaining blood glucose levels – which could be useful in the fight against pre-diabetes.

Phynova have developed and tested their product, Reducose

Building UK-wide partnerships through Agri-Tech Centres

Through funding from the UK government, four Agri-Tech Centres – centres for agricultural innovation - have been created to encourage close working between industry and academia, focusing on:

The Agrimetrics centre headquartered in Harpenden is applying data science, smart analytics and bioinformatics to crops, livestock and food. One project they have underway is a collaboration with WRAP, a not-for-profit working towards a world where resources are used sustainably. Agrimetrics is providing tools and specialists to help with reducing waste along the agri-food chain.

Learn more about the agri-tech industry in UK.

There are four Agri-Tech Centres across the UK

Our Catapult network also works with the food industry

Innovate UK’s focus on food is wider than quality, it also focuses on quantity; on increasing the productivity of agriculture and harnessing biosciences and biotechnology in producing feedstock.

In addition to the Agri-Tech Centres, Innovate UK has created a network of Catapults to support UK businesses.

Catapults are national technology and innovation centres

The Satellite Applications Catapult, based in Harwell, has applied earth observation techniques to the challenge of illegal and unregulated fishing, working with Pew Charitable Trusts and exactEarth Europe. It is estimated that up to 26 million tonnes of fish a year are illegally fished; a considerable burden on the industry.

This Catapult has recently secured additional funding from the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme to expand its work to Chile, and also to Indonesia as part of a consortium led by Inmarsat with Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd, Hatfield Consultants, Sisfo and Marine Change.

Monitoring illegal fishing is a key focus of the Catapult’s collaboration with supermarket Sainsbury’s, along with trials of earth observation technology to verify that Lady Balfour potato crops in Egypt are organic.

UK businesses have an appetite for global partnerships

Growing enough food for the world’s increasing population, while maintaining and improving quality and healthiness, are global challenges that provide avenues for UK businesses to work internationally.

Innovate UK has 75 partnerships worldwide to date

Connecting businesses through the Newton Fund, for which Innovate UK acts as a delivery partner, provides UK businesses with opportunities to collaborate with international partners in promoting economic development and social welfare in developing economies. Now more than ever, it is important that UK companies retain strong links across Europe while at the same time building momentum at a global level to remain competitive.

In Brazil, for example, the Erva Mate Drying project sees Innovate UK and Brazilian funder SENAI supporting a collaborative project between:

  • Welsh small business Econotherm (UK) Ltd
  • Brunel University, and
  • Ervateira in Brazil

to develop innovative technology for a clean drying process for Mate tea leaves using sustainable biofuels.

Econotherm’s Newton Fund project is improving tea leaf processing in Brazil

The Food Innovation Network can help UK businesses to connect

Each example I have given is built on collaboration. Collaboration between businesses can drive new products, processes and services to market by sharing knowledge pre-competitively, developing supply chains and helping small- and medium-sized businesses to identify their lead customers. The Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Network coordinates the Food Innovation Network, a programme funded by

  • The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • The York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Local Enterprise Partnership
The KTN coordinates the Food Innovation Network

The Network will join-up and improve access to the right information, expertise and different funding mechanisms across the food industry.

The opportunity is clear

Our job at Innovate UK is to keep the UK globally competitive in the race for future prosperity. Whether this be by funding new developments or by connecting collaborative partners, the challenges the food industry can rise to are clear.

These are exciting times for UK research and innovation.

Follow me on Twitter @IanWCampbell

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