In a world increasingly focused on sustainability, the collaboration between Estonian deep-tech startup ÄIO, Finland’s biggest food exporter and largest milk processor, Valio, and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland stands out as a beacon of innovation. The three companies have formed a unique partnership, kickstarted during the EIT FAN Helsinki Acceleration Programme. VTT provides the R&D expertise and facilities for the production in a pilot project where ÄIO upcycles Valio’s milk industry side-streams to produce fats and oils. Valio explores their use in Valio’s plant-based products in the future.
The Power of Collaboration: ÄIO, Valio, and VTT
Valio’s Alternative Raw Materials and Emerging Technologies team explores cellular agriculture, focusing on creating sustainable and tasty next-generation food products. This exploration also aims to enhance ingredient self-sufficiency, given the vulnerability of the current food system to factors like global political issues. Meanwhile, the plant-based food sector is constantly improving the texture and mouthfeel of the products, meaning that the focus is shifting from only proteins to lipids and other biomaterials that give tastier and juicier results. Thus, when ÄIO presented their concrete plan to upcycle Valio’s sugar-rich milk side streams back to plate, Valio was enthusiastic about grabbing that opportunity.
“The collaboration with ÄIO and VTT is significant for us at Valio, and we are happy to put our side-streams into use and test out ÄIO’s lipids in our plant-based products. This also represents a shift towards finding new and innovative ways of improving sustainability in the food industry,” says Dilek Ercili-Cura, Senior Research Scientist at Valio.
Luisa Nora, Head of Strain Engineering at ÄIO, shares her enthusiasm about their project: “ÄIO upcycles different side streams in the agri-food industry to produce premium fats and oils. It’s a thrilling journey, blending innovative science with practical applications – providing key ingredients back to food companies by valorising their side streams.”
ÄIO’s approach is not just about creating new products; it’s about rethinking how resources are used, emphasising the importance of a circular economy in food production. Read more about ÄIO from Food & Beyond’s blog.
On the other hand, VTT, the leading research organisation in agri-foodtech in Finland, joined to further accelerate the pilot project by providing R&D expertise and fermentation premises. With VTT’s resources, ÄIO is able to validate their technology on large-scale fermentation tanks while gaining invaluable expertise in bioprocessing, centrifuging, and drying the biomass. VTT also leads the EIT FAN Helsinki Hub, of which acceleration programme ÄIO was selected in 2023. “VTT indeed sees its position in applied RDI as a facilitator of building a sustainable future,” says Mirva Lampinen, Co-creation Manager at VTT and the EIT FAN Helsinki Hub Leader.
To EIT FAN and beyond!
The collaboration between ÄIO, Valio, and VTT was facilitated by the EIT Food Accelerator Network (FAN), which provided a platform for these organisations to connect and leverage their strengths.
During the programme, the startups participated in a workshop aiming to build a tech validation project. Luisa shares that the guidance from the EIT FAN Helsinki hub experts helped the ÄIO team to put together a robust project plan, which was then presented to a jury and brought ÄIO second place in the tech validation pitching competition. The monetary prize enabled the Estonian startup to set and scale up their pilot project.
“The EIT FAN period was crucial for us. We were interacting with Valio even before that, but this programme really brought our efforts into focus,” Luisa Nora reflects.
Valio is also very familiar with EIT FAN, as Valio was the Helsinki Hub’s corporate partner from 2020 to 2023. Dilek praises the acceleration programme’s quality.
“EIT FAN has also been an excellent testbed for Valio, and it has provided us with many valuable connections with agri-foodtech startups. ÄIO wasn’t the first FAN startup we started collaborating with, as during the EIT FAN Helsinki 2020 programme, Valio participated in Enifer’s (formerly known as eniferBio) pilot project and later became their investment partner. I would like to commend the excellent work being done by EIT FAN and VTT.”
A Vision for the Future
According to the World Food Programme, a whopping one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste globally. Thus, this collaboration is not merely about combining expertise; it’s about shaping the future of food production. The pilot project between ÄIO, Valio and VTT highlights the potential of cellular agriculture and the importance of side-stream valorisation, turning what was once considered waste into valuable resources.
The project also underscores the importance of industry collaboration in tackling global challenges. By joining forces, these organisations are not only driving innovation but are also paving the way for a more sustainable and efficient food system.
The tech validation project is about to end in May 2024, but both ÄIO and Valio look forward to continuing this win-win collaboration. Excitingly, the organoleptic properties of the biomass are already impressive, and the fermentation process has been further optimised, yielding excellent analytical results.