Nurturing the next generation: Ecotrophelia’s vision for sustainable food

May 10, 2024

Maarten Van der Kamp is a key figure in Ecotrophelia, Europe’s premier competition for student-driven food product innovation. Ecotrophelia embodies a unique blend of eco-innovation and entrepreneurship, aiming to equip students with the necessary skills to address challenges within our rapidly evolving food system.

This annual contest, often likened to a “Champions League” of food innovation, encourages students from diverse European institutions to prototype sustainable consumer packaged foods, ready for market deployment. This initiative not only fosters creativity and practical skills among young talent but also propels them toward impactful careers in the food industry. SIAL Newsroom spoke with Mr Van der Kamp in an exclusive interview about the evolution, impact, and future aspirations of Ecotrophelia, illuminating how it continues to shape the sustainable food landscape.

Mr Van der Kamp, can you briefly explain what Ecotrophelia is and its mission?

ECOTROPHELIA is Europe’s largest and oldest annual student competition for product development in the food sector. It is our mission to promote eco-innovation and entrepreneurship and to give students the mindset and skills to build suitable and equitable solutions for a rapidly changing food system.

We do this by convening an entire ecosystem of national competitions which encourage student teams at different universities to engage in eco-innovation of consumer packaged foods, and which culminate in a European final based on the principle of a food innovation “Champions League”. This means that each participating European country organises its own national competition to select the most innovative food project that will then be presented at ECOTROPHELIA Europe. Each country selection is coordinated by its national food federation as the network of multipliers. The teams are composed of 2 to 10 students from either public or private European higher education institutions.

All products coming through the entire competition ecosystem have been prototyped and are market ready due to the presence of a clear business plan and the inclusion of relevant food regulations in the requirements for the dossier that the students must submit.

How has Ecotrophelia evolved since its inception, and what inspired its creation?

ECOTROPHELIA started in 2000 in France as an initiative by the Chamber of Commerce and six universities to experiment with a challenge-based way of teaching food innovation, and as a result to prepare students for a career in industry. These ambitions still form the foundation of our work, but ECOTROPHELIA has of course evolved a lot since then! The competition expanded into Europe in 2008, with eight countries participating, and in 2011 the competition gained a very clear focus on eco-innovation to reflect the need to put sustainability considerations central to innovation.

Over the past decade, the focus on entrepreneurship has become ever stronger, as more students want to take their product to market—they now consider venture creation as a real career possibility. Therefore, in 2022 we teamed up with EIT Food to strengthen the training of entrepreneurial skills, and we are looking to introduce support for students after the event to help with commercialising their idea.

Innovation is a key focus for Ecotrophelia. Why is fostering innovation in the food industry so important?

What started out as a simple question of competitiveness, over the past 25 years the challenges facing the food system have become much more complex. Last year we asked the participating national federations to comment on their key priorities for 2030, and health, sustainability and safety are the common concerns. As the effects of climate change and unsustainable resource exploitation are really starting to bite and rising costs of care for non-communicable diseases and an aging population put further pressure on healthcare systems, the food sector has a crucial role in finding novel solutions for a sustainable, fair and healthy food system.

Innovation lies at the heart of this task. Of course, finding solutions takes different forms of innovation: some of it may be incremental, for example reducing salt or sugar or rethinking packaging and crop protection. It may be harnessing the potential of plants, insects and algae in protein diversification. It may be side stream valorisation or introducing minor crops in new products. It may be more systemic, engaging consumers in innovation processes, raising transparency throughout supply chains, or pursuing open innovation. The key is an underpinning inquisitiveness and fundamental belief that there are other ways of doing things—and a drive to make a difference.

Ecotrophelia focuses on nurturing young talent. How do you see the role of young professionals in shaping the future of the food industry?

It might sound cheesy, but they are the future! A recent study found that the demand for highly skilled individuals will grow to 25% by 2030, up from 16% in 2020, particularly to deal with the increased complexity of the bioeconomy in a rapidly changing world, to shape the technological development of the sector, to drive research and innovation, and to experiment with social innovations.

This of course sounds very exciting, until you realise that many systems are heading for tipping points and an unprecedented level of volatility. Against a backdrop where the average employee has 17 jobs over 5 different careers it means that young professionals need to demonstrate a high level of leadership, creativity and resilience while being able to deal with significant uncertainty and risk. As such, they need as much support and opportunities as possible to develop the mindset and skills that will prepare them to solve issues that we can only imagine!

On that note, I’d like to put a challenge to all readers of this piece: have you recently spent some time thinking about how you can support the young talent that you have in your organisation to develop these skills?

Sustainability is a major concern in the food industry. How does Ecotrophelia encourage sustainable practices among its participants?

The rules of the ECOTROPHELIA competition stipulate that the consumer packaged product must be eco-innovative, where this may relate to raw material, packaging, the manufacturing process and/or distribution and logistics to make it easier for companies to integrate the environmental dimension throughout the life cycle of a food product. But it’s also clear from the entries that participating students are at the forefront of food innovation: all products over the past three years used either side streams or non-traditional food sources in the formulation, or alternative proteins.

We are now in conversation with our partners, the national federations that organise the national competitions, to explore the introduction of new prizes that focus on for example truly innovative sustainable packaging—stay tuned!

Can you share some success stories of past Ecotrophelia participants who have gone on to make significant contributions to the food industry?

Tempty Food was the winner of Ecotrophelia Europe 2021 represented by competitors from Denmark. After the competition, we were proud to see their launch and success. The startup defines itself as a “food company dedicated to creating the foods of the future, with a focus on green proteins.” Their flagship product, “TEMPTY”, is the next generation alternative to tofu and meat, offering a great taste experience instead of imitating meat. At its core is mycoprotein, a super sustainable and nutritious protein sourced from nature’s mycelium. Tempty Food now has 7 employees, is working with many sponsors and investors, and has won several awards. They have successfully launched in the Danish foodservice market, and are ready for growth!

Panggies is a pancake mix with added vegetables helping families increase their vegetable intake. The Dutch team behind the product noticed a problem concerning the health of the new generation: most kids do not meet their recommended daily vegetable intake. The team came up with a solution combining an easy, tasty, and fun product with vegetables. Pancakes + Veggies = Panggies. In 2018, Panggies joined the ECOTROPHELIA Dutch competition and won the first prize. Then, the prize for best communication strategy in the European finals in Paris. There was a lot of interest in the products and at the beginning of 2021, Panggies launched three products both online and at selected retail locations in the Netherlands.

Sauces Papillon won the Entrepreneurship Spirit Award of Ecotrophelia Europe 2022. Right from the moment they entered the room, it was interesting to note how the two students were psychologically ready to launch their start up. Their prize was the key to follow their ambition. Their proposal is simple: artisanal sauces for starches in the fresh department that vary with the seasons. Their goal is to offer sauces without heat treatments, kept under vacuum. This keeps all the vitamins contained in vegetables as well as their flavours. By offering tastier and more nutritionally interesting sauces, Sauces Papillon encourages consumers to increase their intake of fibre and vitamins for a better diet. The sauces, in addition to being better for the consumers, are greener because they are made from organic, downgraded and seasonal local vegetables. By promoting short circuits, SP limits the surcharges related to transport and intermediaries, which allows us to better remunerate farmers, and the packaging is plastic-free and infinitely recyclable. The startup has now about 10 employees and is scaling production.

What are Ecotrophelia’s plans for the future? Are there any exciting developments or initiatives you can share with us?

This year is the 25th anniversary of ECOTROPHELIA, and we want to mark this milestone by looking back at the impact that the competition has created over the years and celebrating with our partners, alumni and stakeholders—if any alumni who have participated in ECOTROPHELIA however long ago are reading this, we want to hear from you, and hopefully meet up at SIAL during one or more of the open sessions we are organising!

Also, as already mentioned, we are looking at how we can support students beyond the competition. Many of the ideas we see are excellent and market-ready so it’s a matter of putting together a package that will help clear some hurdles while also signposting to already existing support and incentives to commercialise a food product.

What advice would you give to young innovators who want to make a mark in the food industry?

What matters most is to find a real problem that many people are facing and that you truly want to solve. That way you can focus on creating solutions that make a real difference, and you will find likeminded people who share your passion, but who bring in different strengths from you. Take time to truly understand food system challenges and take a systems approach to solving them in a sustainable way—and think about unintended consequences before you create them. And learn from experience, especially from failure, and then try again!

Could you tell us about Ecotrophelia’s partnership with SIAL Paris? How did this collaboration come about, and what does it entail?

ECOTROPHELIA has held the European final at SIAL ever since 2008. There is of course a strong familiarity as ECOTROPHELIA originated in France, but in any case it is a natural fit: SIAL Innovation is one of Europe’s main platforms to showcase innovation and market developments. For students, being exposed to the food sector at the scale and reach of SIAL is a unique experience that really inspires them.

Working with the SIAL team also is very natural: they understand our needs and work closely with us to showcase the competition in different ways, and the students’ products in the Innovation Zone. The SIAL Talks are always a fantastic platform to engage with SIAL visitors, and we look forward to having many more interesting conversations!

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