A Multi-Angled Look at the Future of Food

Sustainability, consumers and the right strategy were at the forefront of the American Food Innovate Summit, a two-day conference focused on innovation in packaged food. Speakers touched on all facets of new product development from identifying the right consumer problems to successfully formulating the product itself. Industry leaders gathered at the Summit to learn from each other and discuss the future direction of the food industry.

Sustainable innovation: A long-term battle

The first keynote speaker was Chris Jones from JUST, Inc. JUST aims to make healthy, sustainable and tasty food affordable and accessible for everyone. Currently, JUST offers products like an egg-free mayo and a plant-based egg substitute. Collaboration between like-minded individuals with varying strengths and backgrounds is key for production innovation; members of the JUST team range from accomplished chefs to computational biologists and food scientists. This type of diversity within a research and development (R&D) team allows for more well-rounded idea generation and problem-solving.

Companies working towards sustainable innovation have two main hurdles to overcome. The first is to develop a disruptive product, and the second is to produce at a cost that makes it widely accessible. In the short-term, brands like JUST are achieving success by simply tapping into the growing market for plant-based foods where premium pricing is the standard. For plant-based and cell-cultured foods, the technology is available to bring these products to market, so the product development itself is becoming less of an obstacle to overcome. The true challenge now is to make these products cost-effective and affordable so they can deliver the large-scale impact these brands hope to achieve.

Innovation with consumers at the core

Applying a consumer-centric approach is needed in order to create relevant products for shoppers. During the Summit, it was made clear that a business need may differ from an actual consumer need.  If companies only focus on the former, they can lose sight of what the consumer really wants and fail to deliver a proper solution as a result.

To address the right problem, it is crucial for companies to understand consumers by living, breathing and feeling their actual needs. Only after undergoing this process can companies develop products that are both relevant for the consumer and successful for their business. The consumer-centric approach that drove much discussion at the Summit left us thinking about the importance of market research for brands that want to disrupt a market. It should be the first step in any innovation process; without it, companies lack a full understanding of the industry they are about to disrupt.

Big data and artificial intelligence (AI) were two major topics discussed at the Summit that embody the consumer-centric approach. We learned how companies can utilise big data and AI to understand what the consumer really wants at the start of an innovation venture. In a process called “humanising data”, companies learn what consumers are saying about their brands, products, competitors and any unmet needs they may have. Data pulled from online platforms used together with AI can be a powerful tool to predict social behaviour, and thereforemeet consumers’ needs.

A mixed strategy for product innovation

Companies are constantly looking for new revenue streams and new disruptors to keep their business alive. But, how can a company accomplish that? Well, this complex process can take place in two main ways: investing in in-house R&D and acquiring a startup.

Choosing a strategy is without question a complex decision to make—both options have advantages that depend on the company size, the company budget, project timelines, etc. But, what about finding a mix of both strategies and getting the best of both worlds? Agropur, the leading dairy company in Canada, showed how their company is changing the way they produce innovation. In 2016, the company launched a competition, Inno Challenge, to support startups in the process of developing a product and, in turn, promote innovation in the dairy industry. Inno Challenge gave participants both financial support and access to their own R&D department. In the end, the winners formed part of an accelerator program to help launch new products to market.

Combining these strategies benefits both the company and the entrepreneur. Companies, on one hand, get exposed to new ideas brought by a different group of people with a fresh mindset. On the other hand, entrepreneurs get access to an experienced R&D team and solid financial support.

Final thoughts

There was one common thread among all the topics discussed at the American Food Innovate Summit: market research as a core component of every innovation process. Once companies start the journey of understanding consumer needs, it becomes crucial to learn what categories are growing, what brands are out there and whether any market entry opportunities exist. Market research is not simply a jumping off point, but a critical tool to be utilised throughout any innovation process.

American Food Innovate Summit 2020 will take place on March 2 – 3 in Chicago.