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Rising to the challenge

At Enterprise Ireland’s recent inaugural Food Innovation Summit, food-sector leaders and key industry stakeholders gathered to learn more about the positive impact of Ireland’s innovation capability within the sector, and the strength of our food-research ecosystem. Bernie Commins discusses these topics with Enterprise Ireland’s Mark Christal and Nicola Nic Pháidín in the context of using innovation to exploit opportunities and rise to any challenge

Mark Christal, a divisional manager in Food and Sustainability with Enterprise Ireland, believes that Ireland’s dynamic food sector is one of the most important in the country right now. The success of, and interest in, the recent Food Innovation Summit, where more than 200 food-sector figureheads attended, along with some very healthy figures from 2022, back up this view. Last year, food and sustainability exports from Ireland increased by 23%, reaching €16.2bn; Enterprise Ireland-supported companies in the food and sustainability sector spent €209m in research and development (R&D); and 70 companies operating in the sector spent €100,000 or more on R&D activities in the same year. 

"We [Ireland] have a very attractive proposition at the moment and I believe it's evidenced by the kind of companies that are here now,” says Mark. “But looking ahead to the future, and food manufacturing, we are very interested in food technology and the innovation that will drive and develop new forms of foods, proteins, ingredients, nutritional foods, and such,” says Mark. 


Innovation and evolution

Food and sustainability sector companies accounted for 29% of total employment across Enterprise Ireland-supported companies in 2022. This equated to 63,858 people, which was an increase of 3% on 2021 figures. The sector is buoyant, reflecting the many things that Ireland has in its favour: high-quality raw materials; modern manufacturing facilities operating to international standards; world-class R&D facilities; a highly skilled workforce; and a Government that invests in innovation.

The most successful companies in the world are constantly innovating, problem solving, and addressing under-served markets. Innovation ensures evolution and evolution ensures a sustainable and profitable future. Part of the evolution of all companies today involves innovating to help overcome climate and environmental challenges. This is especially significant in Ireland, due to the close link that exists between our primary producers and wider food and drink sector. 

"There are deep commitments right across the sector to tackle these issues,” says Mark. “There is amazing engagement and discussion between Government departments and various agencies and organisations.

“From our point of view, we're really focused on what is happening inside the factory gate. I think food and drink companies are starting to really, proactively, address the issue of carbon reduction, which is an ambitious target – 35% reduction in terms of enterprise emissions. We are seeing projects start to come to us where companies are deploying new and best available technologies, changing the systems, and changing the processes to reduce carbon.” But it is not all about carbon reduction and all companies, now, must have a sustainability strategy. Sustainability goes hand in hand with innovation, says Mark. You simply can’t have one without the other.

“We want all our companies to have very clear environmental plans and understand their scope one, scope two and scope three emissions and what they're going to do as a business to drive these down. Because to be more competitive, and even just to be competitive to hold their market share, they must do this.”

Future tech

Nicola Nic Pháidín, who is manager of Prepared Consumer Foods, Drinks, Seafood, Petfood and Horticulture at Enterprise Ireland, discusses some other challenges that the sector has experienced, and the ways in which innovation is helping to overcome them. Over the last few years, a host of issues have impacted the general economy such as Covid-19, rising input costs, rising energy costs, the war in Ukraine and associated pressure on food security and supply. These challenges have hit food producers particularly hard. However, innovation can play a key role in helping to address some of the challenges. 

Nicola explains that developing new and innovative food products for customers drives growth and exports, but innovation is also a key factor in managing costs. Companies are innovating across all parts of their businesses to maximise efficiencies, eliminate waste, and reduce costs. “We [Enterprise Ireland] support companies that make food. But to make food while addressing these challenges you need to have very, very strong innovation within your company. That sounds difficult but our clients are really good at this,” says Nicola.

AI and big data

So what are some of the newer innovations at play, and what kind of technology is being used? “In the realm of food production, a notable development is the growing integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data expertise by companies, especially large multinationals,” says Nicola. “This integration is playing a significant role in informing innovation pipelines and driving advancements in the field of food production,” she adds.

From a practical perspective, what does that look like? Nicola explains: “If I want to develop a new chocolate bar for example, the first thing I need to explore is what is the market telling us? AI technology can support gathering vast amounts of relevant data related to chocolate preferences, market trends, consumer feedback, and nutritional information. 

"This can include surveys, online reviews, social-media data, sales data, and any other relevant sources. AI algorithms can then analyse the collected data and identify patterns and correlations between flavours, ingredients, and customer preferences. This analysis can help optimise the formulation of your chocolate product to meet consumer demands. 

“Going a step further, predictive modelling can be applied to forecast consumer behaviour. This can assist in predicting the potential success of different (chocolate) bar variations and inform decisions regarding product development. Comparing this approach to how we traditionally gather and analyse data, we’re witnessing how AI technology can provide more accurate market insights to significantly expediate and de-risk food-product-development cycles,” says Nicola.

Continuing with the chocolate bar example, if the insights influence the development of a product that supports gut health, for example, then that triggers a complex and time-consuming new product development (NPD) path involving lab work, development kitchens, prototype development, product testing, and so on. “This all takes time. It takes money, manpower and resources,” says Nicola. 

However, by using AI, huge strides in NPD are made. “You could create, for example, digital twins of a product and test different variables. So, if I put a little bit more of this ingredient in, how will that affect its taste, and its texture?” she explains.

And once you've developed your prototypes and your test bars are ready, instead of the traditional focus-group route, you use this advanced technology to reach vast numbers of target consumers, enabling you to really ramp up the scale of your testing procedures.

Embracing new technologies can help companies to be more sustainable and more competitive, too, through digitalisation and automation. “The food companies we work with are exploring and implementing these technologies, and we can help them with this,” says Nicola.

“Innovation is relevant to everything you do in your company. So, you need to be thinking about innovation as the way of doing things better to stay profitable – digitalising systems, automating production lines, taking out manual processes. That allows people to do more added-value work in the factory. It’s not about reducing employment, it's about providing added value employment,” she says. All of this just scratches a very big surface of opportunity that exists for companies, and is supported by Enterprise Ireland.


Big data – what is it?

Big data involves huge amounts of data produced very quickly by many diverse sources. Data can either be created by people or generated by machines, such as, for example, sensors gathering climate information, satellite imagery, digital pictures and videos, purchase transaction records, GPS signals, and more. It covers many sectors, from healthcare to transport to energy. Source: European Commission.

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