The director of business creation at Europe’s EIT Food discusses the quest for disruptive technologies to make food healthier, affordable and sustainable

By Murielle Gonzalez

Portrait photo of Benuit Buntinx of EIT Food

Benoît Buntinx, director of business creation at EIT Food, describes the European not-for-profit organisation as an inspirational community. In this ecosystem, food corporations, research centres and universities, start-ups and investors come together to play an important role in preparing the industry for the challenges ahead. It all began in late 2017 when these players joined forces to create EIT Food united in the belief that the industry has to change if it is to succeed in feeding people in the future.

“This food system is not sustainable, so we need to make it more sustainable, but also healthier for the people,” says Buntinx. “This can be done in different ways, one of which is innovation, by finding new solutions and transforming the food system with new technologies that can help players in the food space improve what they’re doing.”

Three years on and EIT Food is a well-known name in Europe’s food industry. The organisation has built its reputation by developing a series of initiatives to educate the community, incubate businesses, accelerate start-ups, and connect big corporations with the new generation of food entrepreneurs who have disruptive ideas to improve the food system.

“All activities developed at EIT Food go around what we call ‘the knowledge triangle’,” says Buntinx. He explains that this concept includes engagement activities across its network, co-funding R&D initiatives, and new business creation. To deploy all these activities, EIT Food has a budget generated from the contributions of its members and EIT, the European Institution of Innovation and Technology, a body of the EU. This year, EIT Food has secured a budget of €60 million.

“The Covid-19 Bridge fund, which invested €5.4 million in 13 start-ups in the first half of the year, is probably making EIT Food the lead investor in this period in Europe,” says Buntinx. He explains that the Covid-19 Bridge fund was designed as a one-off investment vehicle to help seed-stage companies weather the storm that has been Covid-19.

EIT Food: The mission

Buntinx says the start-up ecosystem in Europe is growing and that a new generation of companies is developing solutions that can make a difference in the long-term. “Entrepreneurs are on a mission to do business and do good, making a contribution to reducing the impact of the current food system, making food more affordable and sustainable.”

EIT Food has four verticals of work – innovation, education, entrepreneurship, and public engagement. It’s under the entrepreneurship vertical that Buntinx and his team carry out activities to incubate, accelerate, and scale food and drink businesses.

“EIT Food aims to fill the gap that’s not covered by traditional venture capital companies in supporting seed and early-stage businesses,” says Buntinx “Our mission is to detect and support high-potential companies that are impact-driven, and our role is to de-risk collaboration between new companies with their clients by connecting them with food corporations and investors,” he adds and explains that the investment model is similar to venture capital funds in that EIT Food supports seed and early-stage companies with limited resources and that investment continues only if it works.

Investment programmes

The business creation division that Buntinx spearheads at EIT Food has three key programmes tailored to the different stages of new businesses.

The Seedbed incubator has been designed to validate and launch new businesses. The programme works through hubs located in Northern Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Spain and Poland.

The accelerator network supports fundraising activities of start-ups and helps them gain visibility in the market. The network is run in hubs located in Haifa, Munich, Bilbao, Lausanne and Cambridge.

“For example, the hub in Cambridge supports up to 60 companies in a four-month programme. We don’t directly fund them, but we help the start-ups by connecting them to the right investor and corporate to develop pilot projects together,” says Buntinx.

The third programme is Food Sparks, a seed fund currently raising capital to support companies in the accelerator. The fundraising is done in collaboration with EIT Food partner PeakBridge, a fund management company with offices in Israel and Malta.

Buntinx said the investment cycle is of 10-to-12 years with a four-to-five years investment period. “We expect the first close of the fund this year at €10 million. Investments will happen in 2021-2025, and hopefully, a second fund will follow and so forth,” he says.

Food Sparks seeks to raise €30 million for the fund and plans to invest in companies with a cheque size ranging from €200,000 to €500,000 each.

EIT Food has also created the Rising Food Stars, an association of agrifood scale-ups that have been selected based on the unique technology or innovative proposition they bring to the market. There are 69 companies in the association today, and they participate as partners in all EIT Food activities.

Benoît Buntinx

To the point

What is the driving force behind EIT Food?

The imbalance of nutrition across the world. While two billion people are overweight, two million people are malnourished. In Europe, for example, the World Health Organization estimates that 62% of Europeans are overweight, and 25% are obese. At the same time, more than 30 million people in Europe can’t afford a quality meal every second day, a meal with the basic vitamins and nutrients to be healthy. Data show that malnutrition cost the European health system more than €120 billion a year.

Then we have the environment – 20% of food production goes to waste, that’s 90 million tons of food a year! And 26% of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change come from the food industry.

What are big food companies doing to help to solve these challenges?

All the big companies that are part of EIT Food are well aware of the challenges and are doing probably much more than we think to adapt to the new landscape and develop products to put on the market that are healthier and kinder to the planet.

Danone is a prime example. The company recently converted into a B Corp, and is actively looking for new technology and solutions that will disrupt the industry as we know it, which will then be included in its business lines to improve products and reduce the carbon footprint.

Do you see big food corporations catching up with the pace of innovation we see in start-ups?

Start-ups have an agile way of working and innovative culture, and their new disruptive technologies will make the difference in moving faster, but the big companies are also important in transforming the food system. We need to reach out to the majority of people. We cannot fix the food system by designing new technology or food products that can only be found in one country or in one segment of the population.

What are EIT Food’s selection criteria for start-ups?

Most of the start-ups we work with are companies with a business-to-business model, and we choose them based on the innovation and the traction they have to move forward. The team is also a factor as is having a strong intellectual property that can make a difference.

We look for impact-driven companies, and the impact is in the reduction of obesity and other non-communicable diseases, and the sustainability of the business measured by its greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater use.

How do you define innovation?

We have general strategic objectives with a focus on a set of six areas: alternative protein; sustainable agriculture, which includes smart farming, efficiency, and carbon footprint reduction; aquaculture; personalised nutrition; the digital transformation of traceability; and the circular food system.

Buntinx insists that one way to move the industry forward is by introducing new technologies for the benefit of everybody.

“We need to make [food technology] scalable and affordable to change the system at a global level. That can only be achieved by partnering with big companies, adding their production lines, distribution channels, and collaborating with start-ups,” he concludes.

Date published: 30 September 2020

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