The EIT FAN Helsinki acceleration programme shifted into a higher gear this year, focusing on startups in the cellular agriculture category, shortening the programme length, and holding the Demo Day at the 1st International Cellular Agriculture Conference. By combining Demo Day with the conference, the ten Helsinki Hub startups were given a chance to pitch in front of over 250 cellular agriculture experts and investors from 30 countries.
The EIT FAN Helsinki 2023 programme
The EIT Food Accelerator Network Helsinki acceleration programme was renewed for 2023, focusing on alternative protein startups to help scale their businesses within Europe. In addition to the switch from market specificity to thematicity, the programme was designed to last two intensive months instead of the previous four months. The programme content was also tailored specifically to the needs of theme startups, helping them refine their go-to-market strategies and validate their technologies.
The EIT FAN Helsinki Hub 2023 programme was divided into ten sprints:
- Programme kick-off
- Design sprint (2 weeks)
- Go-to-market practicalities & introduction to piloting
- Corporate Startup Collaboration Week in Finland
- Tech validation case week
- Pitch week
- Cellular Agriculture Conference week
- How to sell to corporates
- Final week
The sprints were designed and executed in collaboration with programme content collaborators and corporate partners.
As in previous years, the highlight of the FAN Helsinki programme was the Demo Day, which was not just a Demo Day this year but a Demo Day on steroids – held during the 1st International Cellular Agriculture Conference.
The 1st International Cellular Agriculture Conference: Business development and policy viewpoints
The EIT FAN Helsinki Demo Day took place during the 1st International Cellular Agriculture Conference, organized by VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, which also runs the EIT FAN Helsinki Hub. VTT’s purpose is to bring together people, business, science, and technology to solve the world’s biggest challenges and create sustainable growth, jobs, and well-being. Aligned with their purpose, VTT is at the forefront of R&D in cellular agriculture and has been the birthplace of several groundbreaking startups, such as Solar Foods, eniferBio, and Onego Bio.
As Tua Huomo, Executive Vice President at VTT, stated in the event-opening speech, cellular agriculture is one of the solutions to mitigate the global food system’s greenhouse gas emissions and conserve freshwater resources, 70 % of which currently go to food production. These, along with animal welfare, were the reasons why over 250 people gathered in Helsinki.
The future may seem unpredictable and even scary, but the keynote speaker Tim Geistlinger, Chief Science Officer at Perfect Day, assured us that we should be optimistic about the future. He pointed out that the solutions for a sustainable food system are already available. We should keep in mind that novel foods need to function as drop-in products that are either identical to or better than the ones currently in the supply chain.
“The market is also ready for novel food products made with modern technologies. A study conducted by the Hartman Group shows that 90 million consumers in the United States are interested in precision fermentation food and beverages once they learn about their benefits. What’s hindering industry growth is the need for more investments and lighter regulatory processes,” Geistlinger stated.
Investments & business creation
“The cellular agriculture field is underinvested,” stated investor Jim Mellon, Executive Director at Agronomics. The investable universe among cellular agriculture consists of approximately 300 companies globally, and the industry requires substantial capital to scale production. The upside is that more significant amounts of capital are beginning to flow into the rapidly expanding industry. The costs of production are also decreasing rapidly, which affects the investability of companies. However, there is still a long way to go to catch up with the capital deployment of other disruptive technologies, such as renewable energy.
Mellon suggests that the key elements for a company’s success in the eyes of an investor are:
- Top management teams with commercial acumen
- Defensible intellectual property
- Clear and realistic go-to-market strategy
- Large addressable markets
Other enticing features of the cellular agriculture industry from an investment perspective include:
- Potential for good profit margins
- Price stability of products
- Products not prone to animal illnesses
The cellular agriculture industry should also be distinguished from the plant-based food sector, highlighting bioidentical foods over over-processed foods.
Overall, in all R&D activities related to novel food products, listening to customers’ needs is the key to success.
One way to counteract the massive farming lobby is to get farmers on board with the new food revolution, for example, by substituting their production lands for fermentation tanks and other facilities.
Novel food regulatory policies
The stringent Novel Food Regulation in the EU has driven food technology startups outside EU borders. More and more companies, such as Solar Foods, are focusing on the Singaporean markets due to less bureaucracy in the process.
“Solar Foods submitted the novel food application simultaneously to the European Commission and the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). In October 2022, we received novel food regulatory approval from the SFA. At the same time, after almost two years, we are still stuck in the first step of the EU process, which is the suitability check,” shares Solar Foods’ CEO Pasi Vainikka.
So what can be done to expedite the go-to-market process?
In addition to companies and investors, policymakers were also present at the 1st Cellular Agriculture Conference, such as Estefanía Noriega Fernández, Scientific Officer at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Noriega Fernández provided three tips on what companies can do to expedite the regulatory process:
- Focus on the quality of the studies. EFSA offers guidance on novel foods risk assessment, and by contacting EFSA early enough, a lot of time can be saved.
- Get familiar with the administrative phase, including what’s involved and expected.
- If you have any doubts about the application process, contact EFSA as soon as possible to seek advice.
Lawyer Karin Verzijden, specializing in the area, adds that to reduce bureaucracy, a lot of PR work and public education needs to be done in EU member states to gain public support. Due to the lack of education, novel food products are less accepted in some member states, such as Italy and France. Another critical factor is to ensure choosing the right regulatory path: determining whether your product is considered novel food or whether the correct path could be, e.g., novel flavourings.
As long as EU regulations remain the same, Vainikka advises new companies to go global and launch their products on another continent first. EU policies must change but should not restrict startups from aiming high.
The high-aiming FAN Helsinki startups in 2023
The 2023 cohort had a clear message for the plant-based food industry: it is officially time to move beyond proteins.
Instead of solely focusing on nutrition and global protein supply, the conversation has expanded. It now encompasses flavours, textures, fats, and other properties that make food more closely resemble its animal counterparts.
The other message conveyed by the FAN 2023 cohort during the pitching session was that these startups have what it takes to conquer the world. The pitches were well fine-tuned and presented with a high level of expertise. The startups received many questions at the end of their pitches, and the pitchers confidently provided immediate answers.
We want to thank all the fantastic 2023 cohort teams for applying and joining the EIT FAN Helsinki Hub. The past two months have been intensive and educational for all parties involved. In many ways, this year’s programme was the first of its kind with its truncated length and theme: “Scaling the alternative protein revolution.” We have gathered the learnings from this year and cannot wait to work with more revolutionary foodtech startups in the upcoming years and see where the high-aiming alumni startups will land in the future.
A big thanks to the EIT FAN Helsinki programme 2023 enablers:
- Corporate partners: Paulig (+PINC), Valio, Lantmännen, ICL, Danone, IFF, Südzucker group, Ingredion Incorporated, Friesland Campina, and Nordic Foodtech VC
- Content collaborators: SkipRed, Vertical, Elsa Ervasti, VTT design team
- The organizing team from VTT and the University of Helsinki
Read more about the 2023 cohort in the team introductions published on Food & Beyond’s blog:
- Adamo Foods
- Äiö tech
- Cultimate Foods
- Cultivated Biosciences
- Nordic Umami Company
- Time-travelling Milkman
Until next year,
Mirva Lampinen, EIT FAN Helsinki Hub leader and Co-creation Manager at VTT