Nurturing innovation: how AOCS industries are fostering progress
By Rebecca Guenard
- Innovation creates industry solutions and helps companies maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.
- How do AOCS-related companies keep producing new ideas at a pace that matches the speed of technology?
- Some invest in high-tech innovations like artificial intelligence and robots, while others use creative chemistry and biology to improve their products.
- They can also form partnerships, supply funding and infrastructure to help new ideas take root, or build cultures that nurture innovation from within.
Innovation means something different to everyone. But overall, it is the practice of following through on new ideas to create industry solutions and maintain consumer relevance. Non-stop advancements in technology set a breakneck pace for innovation in many scientific industries, and AOCS members are not exempt. An established brand name no longer carries the significance it did 20 years ago. Companies are now expected to evolve continually, but how do you assure a flow of effective ingenuity?
Here are some examples of successful methods companies use to initiate and support innovation that are sure to motivate some creative advances in your workplace.
Making innovation happen
In the past five years, a new business concept has developed that assists an idea as it transitions into the reality of commercialization. The concept originated in Silicon Valley, California, USA, where new computer technology and applications are continually germinating. Innovation centers, known as incubators and accelerators, were created to facilitate and speed new ideas to market by providing critical resources for the success of tech start-ups. Now, they are found all over the world and are no longer limited to product development in the technology sector.
There is a distinction between these two types of new business support. Accelerators only give support for a short time. "The goal of the accelerator is to help a start-up do roughly two years of business building in just a few months," says Mike Bott, general manager of Brandery, a successful accelerator in Cincinnati, OH, USA. In exchange for equity in their company, young businesses are given a small amount of money and the attention of a large mentorship network. By contrast, incubators nurture new ideas until they have a secure footing, providing capital, workspace, and mentoring to help refine the business plan and resolve any issues. Incubators are often sponsored by venture capital firms, government organizations, or major corporations. Following are a few examples of these types of innovation support centers. There is most likely either an accelerator or incubator in your area. If you have an innovation in need of cultivating, a minimal search effort could turn-up your ideal program.
Pursuing a new idea in biotechnology? If you are in Scotland, there is a network of government-supported innovation centers (www.innovationcentres.scot). The IBioIC, in Glasgow, focuses on connecting academia with industry to facilitate the development of new biotechnology (www.ibioic.com). In the United States, a similar biotech incubator functions within Lawrence Berkley National Labs. The Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (Fig. 1) is dedicated to enabling biofuel and bioproduct commercialization, verification, and scaling (www.abpdu.lbl.gov). The facility has helped launch several San Francisco Bay Area start-ups applying biotech to new fuels, materials, and food ingredients. If biotechnology is not your thing, other centers exist to promote ideas in beauty, health care, or food products.
FIG. 1. An example of the lab facilities available to biotech start-ups who collaborate with the Advance Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit at Lawrence Berkley National Labs. Source: www.abpdu.lbl.gov
The health-conscious consumer holds the reins of the food industry at present. To keep up with the small start-ups routinely entering this market, large companies are opening programs that nurture them. In 2017, Pepsico launched Nutrition Greenhouse to “support food and beverage entrepreneurs through a collaborative mentor-guided business acceleration program,” according their website (www.nutritiongreenhouse.com). Each year Pepsico selects 10 young companies for their six-month accelerator program. With the full suite of Pepsico’s business resources and an initial $20,000 grant, the companies are expected to show measurable success before their short tenure in the program is over—after which, one company will receive a $100,000 prize and agree to give Pepsico the opportunity to discuss a partnership with their company. The 2018–2019 class included the developers of a sugar-free drink for kids and high-protein snack made from popped waterlily seeds.
In 2016, Kraft Heinz launched the incubator Springboard in cities near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chicago. The program accepted its third class of entrepreneurs in November 2019. Past participation has resulted in allergen-free and legume-based snack brands.
Aside from the equity or a partnership that bigger food companies might gain from working with small start-ups, they are also reminded of what is important to today’s consumer. Brands known for reliability and convenience are being overlooked in pursuit of fresh, natural, and personalized food products. Innovation centers like these provide a sense of connection as companies grow and focus on their bottom line. While some large food companies have chosen a wholesale approach to supporting start-ups, others prefer to just invest financially.
Some big companies in the food industry have recently organized investment arms to supply venture capital. Once a start-up proves viable, these investors supply Series A financing, which helps the start-up establish itself in the market—typically in exchange for preferred stock in the company.
The French food and beverage company Danone set up Danone Manifesto Ventures in 2016, with headquarters in New York City. The investment fund was established with a budget of $150 million to spend on companies with a vision to meet the demand for healthy food produced in environmentally conscious ways. According to Reuters, “the fund is looking at sectors through the whole agro-food chain from organic farming to finding new protein sources.”
The world’s largest food vending and processing company, Archer Daniels Midland, is focused on investments that provide nutritional ingredients to human and animal food companies. In 2018, ADM Ventures began investing in start-ups that meet these standards. So far, they have supported biotech protein companies like Perfect Day and Sustainable Bioproducts. “ADM has long been involved in plant-based protein—many types of proteins from soy to pea to nuts and pulses—so we are always looking for alternative protein sources,” Victoria De La Huerga, vice president of ADM Ventures, told AgFunderNews. While some companies are looking to spark innovation through work done outside their doors, others find that all it takes is shifting attitudes to initiate creativity in a company.
Matt Close, an executive vice president at Unilever in London, told a conference audience recently that his company is adopting a start-up culture. The traditional business approach involves a lot of strategic analysis and creates too much drag, said Close. His company is shifting into more of a try-and-see methodology. “Dream big but start small and then scale fast,” he said. “No one wants to come into a company nowadays and work on something that is going to take four years to get to market.”
According to Close the key to succeeding in this culture is to accept a higher-level of risk. When he started at Unilever innovation meant strategies and papers and proposals. He says this approach is not appropriate in a fast-paced world. Now he encourages his teams to experiment when it comes to new product development. “We have really started to create a culture that drives speed, but also that drives empowerment, autonomy and just a much more exiting way to working.” said Close.
Game changing innovations
Geoffrey von Maltzahn says when people think about innovation, they tend to overlook the technology that every human being depends on – agriculture. He is the co-founder and CIO of Indigo, an international company with headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, established using plant microbiomes to improve agriculture (www.indigoag.com). According to von Maltzahn he helped establish Indigo to answer a basic question: What if a fundamental part of plant biology was being overlooked in agriculture?
Like humans, plants rely on a symbiotic existence with colonies of bacteria and fungi whose survival is self-serving. They encourage a vigorous root system for better water and nutrient up-take, while supporting the immune system in the fight against stress, pests and disease. Indigo has collected more than 50 thousand microbes from plants on six different continents that flourish in harsh environments while their competitors have perished. Coating the seeds of soybean crops with these microbes before planting has led to a nine percent yield increase per acre.
Similar microbial research has been underway since 2013, through a partnership between Novozymes and Bayer (formerly Monsanto) known as BioAg Alliance (www.monsantobioag.com). For the past three years the alliance has been field testing microbe-covered seeds to determine which garner the greatest yield while reducing fertilizer and pesticide costs. Indigo has gone a step further and created a software platform that connects growers with buyers to optimize the whole agriculture supply chain.
Companies are innovating crop science by prioritizing biology over chemistry. Instead of formulating chemicals to increase growth and kill pests, researchers are identifying living organisms already designed to accomplish such tasks thereby enhancing the sustainability of agriculture.
Sustainability is often a source for innovation. As the world’s resources shrink and its population grows, one company plans to develop new materials faster and cheaper using robots.
Kebotix was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2017(www.kebotix.com), with funding from Mission Innovation, a global initiative supported by 24 countries and the European Union established to accelerate clean energy innovation (www.mission-innovation.net). The Paris Climate agreement has indicated doubling the rate of research into new materials as one of its goals. Kebotix has the potential to achieve that with an autonomous robot laboratory that forgoes the repetitive, trial and error approach to science. Proprietary computer algorithms control commercially available robots designed to handle laboratory equipment. A scientist gives the robots a desired set of specifications for a new material and the machines optimize a synthesis procedure based on feedback controls that improve with each iteration of machine learning.
“Our vision is to discover new materials and chemicals more rapidly, to build a better world,” Jill Becker, the companies CEO, said in an interview in the November 11, 2019 issue of C&ENews. She says the company hopes to help their clients speed up the R&D process and take the serendipity out of science.
Molecular filtration for nutrient enrichment
Via Separations CEO, Shreya Dave, wants to save companies energy by reducing the use of thermal separations. The company that she founded in Sommerville, Massachusetts, USA, in 2017, seeks to revolutionize industrial separations by replacing ceramic or polymer membranes with graphene oxide sheets. The material, made of graphene functionalized with various oxides, is cheaper than pure graphene. In addition, Via Separations can layer the graphene oxide with a proprietary molecule. Linking the sheets in the way allows the company to tune the pore size to optimize filtration according to a customer’s needs.
By using filtration instead of thermal separations, Dave predicts that companies could save $20 billion annually in energy costs. She reports that nearly half of all U.S. industrial energy use can be attributed this type of separation and purification. Via Separation claims they can cut this energy cost by 90 percent.
Dave says that though energy savings are a big advantage for most industries, it is less so for the food industry. “The biggest advantage that our filters provide the food industry is their robustness,” she says. “What we do is filter in environments that most membranes cannot handle, like higher temperatures or acidity.” This mean manufacturing equipment can be cleaned more aggressively and thus fast leading to less downtime in a plant.
Via Separations is currently working on improving the inefficiency of separating whey in dairy processing. Dave says in the next twelve months her company will file with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to receive food contact approval for their products. “Our focus is on having our membranes work in places in a manufacturing process where current membranes haven’t gone before.”
Innovation can sometimes be hampered by issues outside of the innovator’s control, like crop yields or consumer whims. More and more companies are hoping to tame market turbulence using artificial intelligence (AI). Computer algorithms are being designed to predict the next big trend, conserving valuable resources and maximizing industry profits.
CiBO Technologies has sites throughout the Midwestern United States and headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts (www.cibotechnologies.com). The company launched in 2015, providing an analytics platform that models agricultural data. By inputting satellite images, weather history, soil conditions, and plant types their AI product can simulate crop yields. Unproductive fields are an agricultural norm and cost farmers millions in wasted fertilizers. According to CiBO, their tool can be used by the small farmer or the large corporation to inform decisions on land pricing, risk assessment, and product-market sales potential.
Table. 1. Low performing crop yields throughout the Midwestern United States. Source: Sci Rep, Basso, B. et al., 9, 5774, 2019. A similar example of a company using AI to predict sales potential is the global food company Kerry Group, which has partnered with IBM Watson to predict food and beverage trends. The companies have created a product known as Kerry Trendspotting which uses machine learning to evaluate consumer generated social media posts for food related information (www.kerry.com). The collected data are processed with AI to determine the next big thing. According to Kerry the tool will “give targeted guidance to the food industry on developing trends including emerging flavors and ingredient combinations and products with breakout potential.” They believe this innovation will cut down on product development time, giving users an advantage in the marketplace.
Bringing lipids in infant formula closer to mother’s milk
In December 2019, a novel blend of oleic-palmitic-oleic (OPO or SN-2 palmitate) lipids for infant formula developed by AOCS Corporate Member Bunge Loders Croklaan (BLC), the edible oil business of St. Louis-based Bunge Ltd., won the Fi Europe 2019 Innovation Award for Functional Innovation.
Since lipids are essential for nutrient requirements and contribute to almost half of the baby's energy intake, the correct lipid structure is key for proper digestion and absorption. OPO is a structured lipid naturally present in mother's milk, with 60–75% palmitic acid levels in the middle, or SN-2, position, and oleic acid in the outer SN-1 and SN-3 positions. This unique OPO lipid structure allows babies to absorb more nutrients. The new Betapol Plus blend developed by BLC offers a 60% OPO or SN-2 palmitate level—the highest level available on the market, up to 50% higher than current products (Fig. 2).
Until now, no ingredient supplier could provide an OPO or SN-2 palmitate level that surpassed 40–45% and most commercial infant formulas have mainly POP (Palmitic-Oleic-Palmitic) fats. Not only do the levels of OPO or SN-2 palmitate in mother's milk range from 60% to 75% of total lipids, palmitic acid is also more favorably absorbed in the OPO structure rather than in the POP structure. Furthermore, clinical evidence shows a dose-dependent response when OPO or SN-2 palmitate levels are greater than 40%, as levels above this threshold show increased calcium and lipid absorption.
FIG. 2. A comparison of the sn-2 palmitate levels in regular formula, formula with intermediate levels, Betapol Plus, and breast milk
The innovative solution is closer to the levels in mother's milk fat than any offering available on the market. Benefits of for babies include improved energy intake, increased bone mineral density, reduced constipation, healthy gut bacteria, less crying, and better sleep. "There is a strong need in the infant milk formula industry to get as close as possible to the composition and benefits of mother's milk, ensuring parents have the best alternative available when breastfeeding is not possible," says Emiliano Rial Verde, Vice President Nutrition at BLC. "With Betapol Plus, we are providing an option that is closest to nature. It adds significant value to infant formula brands where premium choices are in high demand and to the growing specialty infant formula market addressing diverse dietary needs."
The science behind the lipid blend is backed by robust clinical studies, scientific research programs, and established relationships with key infant nutrition authorities in Europe. "We all agree that breastfeeding is important for infant nutrition and bonding," says Wiola Mi, Global Human Nutrition Science Lead of the new generation Betapol. "But when breastfeeding is not an option, choosing the best infant formula, with the best evidence-backed ingredients, is key for babies' healthy growth and development."
There are many ways to innovate. Sometimes creativity comes from being able to run with an idea without getting bogged down with management procedures. Other times an idea just needs the right resources to help foster innovation. It could mean using something fundamental in a new way or inventing something completely original.
Keep in mind that no matter how original your idea is, you can never stop innovating. The pace of business must always keep pace with our rapidly evolving, technology-driven world, so the status quo is never an option. Ultimately, continuous innovation originates at the top, according to Jorge Barba, an independent innovation consultant based in Baja, California, USA. “Leaders who want to build an organization that innovates consistently must provide six things to employees: freedom, resources, diverse teams, support, encouragement, and challenge.”
Yield stability analysis reveals sources of large-scale nitrogen loss from the US Midwest, Sci. Rep., Basso, B. et al. 9: 5774, 2019.
Key factors affecting a technology entrepreneur's choice of incubator or accelerator, Isabelle, D.A., Technology Innovation Management Review, 16–22, 2013.
Exploring the innovation strategies of young firms: Corporate venture capital and venture capital impact on alliance innovation strategy, Galloway, T.L., et al., J. Business Res. 71: 55–65, 2017.
Microbes added to seeds could boost crop production, Broadfoot, M., Scientific American, Jan. 6, 2016.
Yield stability analysis reveals sources of large-scale nitrogen loss from the US Midwest, Basso, B., et al., Sci. Rep. 9: 5774, 2019.
Chemistry and structure of graphene oxide via direct imaging, Dave, S.H., ACS Nano. 10: 7515–7522, 2016.