Exploring open innovation in the food industry

June 7, 2024

François Deprey, Managing Partner at SprintProject, spoke to the SIAL Newsroom about the SIAL Survey on Open Innovation sent out to industry players recently.

Open Innovation, as defined by Chesbrough, “encourages a more collaborative and open approach to innovation, where companies work with external partners to create value and remain competitive in the market.”

Could you give us a detailed presentation of the study? 

The aim of this study is to provide a vision of the development of open innovation in the agri-food sector. It’s intended to shed some light on how to use this methodology for working on innovation for all the participants in SIAL and beyond. It’s a bit more than a working methodology. It’s a way of opening up these innovation issues to the outside world, as we often call it, open innovation. Today, it’s a practice that has developed across all industries, and which has been around for fifteen or twenty years in the food industry. First of all, manufacturers in the food industry are very attached to their R&D and to the specificity of their recipes. Product innovation is a very important issue. Over the last few years, a number of players have begun to open up their innovation processes to the outside world in an attempt to speed up their innovation model, innovate more rapidly and also take advantage of technological innovations that they are not necessarily capable of carrying out themselves. Historically, the agri-food industry has been highly skilled in its ability to formulate recipes and build innovative products. But it turns out that it’s not just about the product, but also about other aspects of a company’s activity. If I take the example of digital technology, which has largely flooded the transformation of companies over the last twenty years or so, digital technology obviously has less to do with the product and it’s not necessarily the skills that are at the heart of the activity of agri-food companies. So, in fact, the idea is to be able to grasp innovation from the outside. There are several ways of doing this. There’s the way of opening up innovation by working, which has been quite the case in the agri-food world with research centres historically identifying new ingredients, developing products with new benefits, whether nutritional or, more recently, that have less impact on the environment. But there are also innovation challenges in terms of processes, relationships, etc. So, in fact, the aim of this study is to provide an overview of the way in which companies today meet the challenge of being able to innovate on several dimensions at once, not just product innovation, and that means opening up to the outside world. 

Historically, players in the food industry have opened up, and always have done so to some extent, with research centres, to be able to work upstream on product innovation or with historical partners on packaging, for example, but increasingly there is a need to turn to new players such as start-ups that will develop innovations and forge partnerships that can take several forms. The aim of this study is to provide a sort of overview of the current practices of these players, to try and distinguish whether the larger players have structures that are a little more developed in this respect, how the players approach this, whether they do it or not, and whether these innovations, the innovations they’ve been able to carry out with outside partners, have borne fruit. Do they find it worthwhile, do they derive interesting benefits from it, to what extent do they feel it’s essential, how does it fit into their strategy in general and what form might it take? The idea is to have a study that can investigate the state of the art of open innovation in the food industry. And we’re trying to do this on a global scale so that we can analyse it and come up with some conclusions that will enlighten SIAL participants about this type about method and international best practices.

And the study is currently ongoing?

Yes it is currently being carried out. We have begun an analysis. We’re working in three areas. The SpringProject teams, specialised in economic intelligence, are trying to identify the major trends in innovation and the themes being addressed by companies, based on all the information we can detect, and to make a qualitative assessment of the initiatives being taken in this area and what companies are finding out. Then there are two waves of studies. The first is quantitative, so that we can assess the number of players who have done something, what they are getting out of it, and a certain amount of quantitative data. At the same time, we’re working with a number of players who have initiated this kind of project, whether they be SMEs or large groups, or even investment funds in the food tech sector, for example, to assess their slightly more qualitative opinion of the potential of open innovation, and to take stock of what has been done in recent years, on the mutual interest between players, particularly between start-ups and major groups, a little 360 of how, as the title of the study suggests, open innovation can really help companies to collaborate in ways that are, I would say, beneficial to all parties and that enable them to accelerate their innovation strategy. 

You mentioned start-ups and major industry players, who are the main targets of this study? 

The purpose of the study is precisely to try and identify whether there are any differences between the players who are indeed major international groups, who probably have structures that are fairly well developed in this respect, and smaller companies that may not have the resources to set up dedicated structures, but which will rely on external support to do so. We also need to understand how this fits into the strategy of different companies, because today, let’s say, there are changes at work, two main ones being the ecological transition and trying to have less impact. And there are a lot of start-up initiatives in these areas, to see if this demand or this need or this constraint that may exist for all the players makes them turn to start-ups. The other dimension is the digital dimension, which is not necessarily at the heart of the players’ skills, and to see how they are trying to incorporate innovation into their processes. In terms of targets, we’re looking to benchmark best practice, which is going to be more on the side of the big groups that have been doing this for a long time, but also to look at how things are starting to emerge on the side of structures that are more SMEs, in the agri-food sector, that want to initiate this kind of thing to be able to speed up their innovation process too. 

What criteria did you use to select the players for this study?

We worked in collaboration with SIAL to draw up a questionnaire and distribute it to the SIAL ecosystem, mainly targeting senior managers, either in general management or in the innovation department, so that we could see the people working on these issues and how they approach the theme of open innovation. Then we tried to get a representative sample of people to interview, so that we could get different points of view: the view of an SME, the view of a large company, the view of someone who is more involved in finished products, someone who is more on the side, and then people who are also close to the ecosystem of start-ups and food tech, particularly investors. The idea is to have a few testimonials that can give different points of view on all the players. And the last point, which is important because it’s really SprintProject’s first area of expertise, is the ability to access a certain amount of open-source information in order to review the state of the art in terms of the publication of initiatives, the major innovation trends, and how they relate to the food industry. We’re also going to take advantage of this study to say that innovation in the food industry today is all about these subjects, which we’ll be looking at during the sky in the village dedicated to start-ups. We’ll be seeing innovations of different kinds, whether in ingredients, recipes, the use of technology, innovations that also provide an opportunity to get a vision of trends and how these trends are leading to the fact that forging partnerships and working in collaboration with its external environment is becoming increasingly important for the food industry. 

The point is that, given the issues affecting the agri-food industry today, particularly environmental issues which are in fact ecosystemic problems, it’s undeniable that we need to get out of our own house a bit and be able to open up to the outside world, identify innovative solutions that may exist, and find ways of collaborating. 

The driving force behind open innovation is the ability to innovate in a collaborative way on certain subjects where it’s virtually impossible to do it alone, and so it requires a new model of partnership or collaboration which means that companies open up, as the name suggests, open innovation is the ability to open up the field of innovation. What does this mean? It necessarily involves issues of confidentiality and differentiation, but there are also issues that require joint work. For example, tomorrow, let’s take the question of packaging recycling, or the very question of new forms, new models that would succeed in having less impact on packaging. These are all issues that need to be tackled collaboratively. And one of the aims of the study is to demonstrate the collaborative nature of the issue and, in a way, to enlighten players who may still be wary of saying “yes, but innovation is in-house, it’s my own R&D, it’s done in-house, so what’s the point of turning to the outside world to try and work differently?” It’s a vision that’s tending to develop and to be shared, because innovation concerns everyone. In fact, we can see that the big companies have adopted this approach and have structured their approach and know how to manage innovation by integrating this dimension. But there’s still work to be done to systematise this kind of approach, which can sometimes seem a bit inaccessible because companies have other short-term priorities and may find it difficult when you’re an SME to say to yourself, I’m going to devote time to trying to identify solutions that suit us. It’s SprintProject’s job to help our customers, to sort out the innovations that are right for them, to identify solutions that correspond to their operational or strategic issues. And one of the challenges we face is to try to identify the extent to which players are becoming more open to this kind of working method, which, even though it has been established for some time now, is still relatively new for many players who, once again, in the current economic climate, have other priorities. It also requires time, organisation and working methods, and one of the aims of the study is to find out where the players stand from that point of view. It’s also about bringing out the point of view of these innovative players who are developing intelligent solutions and who need to work with the big groups to refine their model and be able to develop and expand their solution. 

What advice would you give to an SME, for example, that wants to make open innovation central to its business strategy? 

My first piece of advice is that you need to integrate more or less all the internal forces, i.e. innovation can, once again, historically in the food industry, when we say innovation, we often mean product innovation. So it’s very closely linked. Virtually all food companies have R&D teams that are constantly trying to develop new recipes, incorporate new ingredients and do new things. So the first point is that innovation is in fact potentially broader than that. In other words, there are economic gains to be made. Sometimes there are areas of transition, such as environmental or digital issues, which require us to look outside for external skills. So the first point is to mobilise all the forces at work. The second point is that this innovation strategy must be compatible with the company’s strategy. In other words, you see something coming along, you think you could do it, and then you throw yourself into projects in a rather opportunistic way, when in fact it’s more of a model that needs to be structured. We need to be clear about our needs and define our expectations. You can look at everything that’s going on, but the idea is that when you start to form partnerships, they have to contribute to something that makes sense for the company and not just an opportunity. And then the last point, which goes hand in hand with this, is to integrate methods because, in fact, like all innovation, there’s a certain amount of risk involved and that necessarily means putting energy into developing things and reducing the risk by being sure, once again, that you’re compatible with the solution you’re looking for and that, for example, a large group or even an SME has a working rhythm that’s not the same as that of a start-up. So when you start working with a start-up, there are a certain number of rules to be respected in the way you work. Even when you’re working with several players on a very specific subject, the collaborative model or trying to produce collective intelligence requires a minimum of methodology if you don’t want to ‘burn gas’, waste energy and end up with the feeling that you’ve spent a lot of energy for very little. The point is that behind that there are working methodologies, there is the ability to set up a cutting-edge monitoring system, and that’s what we help our customers with, to be able to monitor innovation, identify its level of maturity and choose the right moment to seize it, depending on their own level of internal maturity. There are companies that don’t necessarily have the capacity to take co-development too far, that need to already have solutions that are mature enough to integrate them internally. So it’s really from one point of view, I’d say one word, first word, mobilisation, second key word, compatibility with the company’s strategy and the third is methodology and structuring the approach. 

How do you plan on sharing the results of this study?

We’ll probably have some initial results a few weeks beforehand, and we’ll certainly be sharing them with the press, etc. We’ll be talking about some very important lessons to be learned from the study. We’ll be sharing some of the key findings. I’ve given you a little bit, but I think we’ll have a lot more to go on from September onwards. We are currently carrying out the study, we will publish it during SIAL Paris. In fact, we’re planning a session at the very beginning on the 19th of September, on Saturday, to share the main results of the study at a SIAL Talk, and the idea is that all the participants of the show will be able to take part. So that will be one of the benefits of registering for SIAL Talks. 

At SprintProject, what do you ultimately expect from this study? 

We organised it in collaboration with SIAL, of course, but what we want to highlight is an approach, open innovation, which we think is extremely relevant to the sector. If it’s properly implemented, it can bring a great deal to all the players, including small businesses. It’s something that can be put in place effectively and methodically. Our aim is really to highlight this open innovation approach that we know so well, to show that it’s also, I’d say, in the air of the times, but a little more than that. One of the challenges facing companies is to open up to the outside world and find collaborative models. In a way, there are fields of application that require a certain amount of competition and confidentiality, but there are probably others in innovation that can enable high-potential collaborations that can go beyond the relationship between large groups and start-ups or SMEs and start-ups. The idea is to work together on innovation, and we tend to think that certain subjects require collaboration anyway, because you can’t do it on your own. Opening up to the outside world is, in our view, a key factor in performance. And we have to do it using the right method. The collaborations that are, I would say, born of this kind of methodology, of open innovation and all the benefits we can derive from it by trying to show that we can address more issues than we think if we use this method. 

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