On May 11th, 2022, the Nordic & Baltic agri-foodtech ecosystem gathered under one roof in Epicenter Helsinki. The EIT Food Nordic & Baltic Startup Forum brought together startups, academia, corporates, collectives, and investors – all with the same question in mind: what is the state of agri-food innovations and investments up here, and how could we strengthen our position in the global markets. Through the lenses of actors approaching the food industry from different angles, the common conclusion was unanimous: The golden age of agri-food startups is here.
The EIT Food Accelerator Network (FAN) Helsinki Hub was established in 2020. Thus – unfortunately – the first two years of the EIT FAN Helsinki programme were held primarily online with few on-site meetings. However, as the pandemic now seems to slowly step aside, the Helsinki Hub managed to invite all actors of the Nordic & Baltic agri-foodtech space face to face to network and ideate how to globalise the innovations we have right at our fingertips.
The Nordic and Baltic Foodtech ecosystem – where are we now?
Even though the Nordics and Baltics make a small region both in population and geographically, all the event panellists shared the opinion that these small countries around here can be crucial for solving the global food crisis.
Food is such a sensitive, opinionated and culturally affected topic. We don’t need just to figure out how to feed the growing population, but how to do it sustainably so that the cultural heritage is respected and the trust towards the food system increases?
As new food innovations must first get stuck with a big enough group of people to upscale them globally, the Nordic and Baltic countries make eight perfectly sized testbeds. These eight countries have a few crucial features in common, making them ideal for such purpose:
- The food traditions are loose; thus, those do not set boundaries for new tastes & ideas
- Consumers are open to new technology
- High-quality education systems with either free or low-cost higher education
- Strong agriculture
- Great resources of fresh water
- The countries share similar cultural aspects, easing the networking & collaboration amongst the geographical proximity
- Small R&D circles may make it easier to try out new ideas without needing to jump straight into the spotlight
On top of the similarities, each of the respective countries has its own strengths and focuses they bring to the Nordic & Baltic agri-foodtech table. But as importantly, the blockers for new innovations and problems in scaling them globally were also addressed during the panel discussions.
Great research gets rotten in the labs
We have the tech, the research, and the facilities to innovate and create the sustainable tomorrow of food – so what’s the deal? The blockers in Nordics and Baltics discussed during a panel discussion led by Emilia Nordlund, Research Manager at VTT can roughly be divided into two categories: cultural or structural issues and politics.
The cultural aspects include the learned behaviour amongst the innovators and the local culture amongst consumers. First, all food doesn’t work in all regions due to the used spices, ingredients and food traditions. But under the hood, the behavioural traits may lead to a situation where great tech is developed without making enough noise about it.
The other side is the researchers’ lack of interest or knowledge, or insecurity towards entrepreneurship. Maija Itkonen, the CEO and Co-Founder of Onego Bio, quoted the former Prime Minister of Finland, Juha Sipilä, rather aptly: we have great research in Finland that gets rotten in the labs.
A great example of fantastic tech that remained forgotten for around 40 years before recently reawoken for a commercial purpose is eniferBio‘s Pekilo-process, and there must be potential in other forgotten technologies. Analogous to the previous issue is lacking the use of existing technology in other industries. The food industry has been known for its conservancy and is waiting to be reinvented.
Another aspect raised many times during the discussions was the regulatory landscape in the EU. For example, combining a circular economy and human food production is exhausting due to bureaucracy and regulations. But, on the other hand, European food has high demand because it’s known for its safety – which is assured by the regulations. Therefore, the policymakers should get more involved in the ecosystems’ discussions to get the message through.
We need to find a way to ensure that European food maintains its reputation for exportation, but the bureaucracy and regulations must be updated to ensure easier going to market.
The ingredients of global food transformation are accessible to us, yet the recipe needs to be shaped together and exported. The answer lies in interdisciplinary teams, outside-of-the-box thinking, and fast implementation. And the ones who have the best capability to solve such an ambitious challenge? Startups.
Greetings from startups to startups
EIT FAN Helsinki Hub consists of a unique set of academic and corporate partners that bring their expertise to the selected teams without fees or future commitments. The startup’s lifecycle from an idea to scaling up the business is not the easiest. The EIT Food programmes are committed to supporting innovative startups to get their ideas into action by shaping those together, offering piloting opportunities, and connecting the innovations with money.
The first two runs of the EIT FAN Helsinki acceleration programme were a great success and fulfilled the programme’s purpose: springboarding the selected teams on their road to success. The EIT FAN Helsinki alumni Matti Tähtinen from Volare (2021 cohort) and Bertrand Giorgi, a former COO of Tebrito (2020 cohort), also attended the EIT Food Nordic & Baltic Startup forum. They shared their experiences of the programme and tips for the future teams joining the EIT FAN Helsinki hub.
For both startups, the best giveaways of the four-month programme were the results of networking. Volare was introduced to Paulig, the programme’s corporate partner, which resulted in a long-term collaboration between the two companies. Tähtinen elaborates that the programme enabled a super fast and efficient way towards collaboration from freeform discussions with a corporate of almost a billion euros turnover in 2021 – an opportunity rarely received.
On the other hand, Giorgi highlights the importance of safe & healthy questioning from the programme’s experts that – together with the widened network – were crucial and instrumental for Tebrito’s two successful funding rounds afterwards. Both teams valued the visibility and boost received from the programme. The programme-ending demo day was also an excellent opportunity to showcase the business and practice pitching.
The duo listed their best tips for the teams attending the future cohorts:
- Use the momentum: be super active to get the most out of the opportunity
- Dedicate your team, don’t isolate one lonely cowboy to join the accelerator
- Be assertive, know what you want to get out of the programme, and go for it
- To find a collaborator, 1. find the right person from the company, and 2. Find common ground with them – they might not know beforehand what they want to achieve with a startup collaboration
The 2022 cohort has now been selected, and the ten new teams are shortly announced publicly. The Programme Manager, Aline de Santa Isabel, shared that the 2022 programme will include more on-site work and tailoring according to the startups’ maturity level. In addition, EIT is also about to empower the collaboration between the seven EIT FAN hubs to benefit the local expertise & partner networks better.
Talking about future rockstars of the agri-foodtech innovation space: the pitches
What would a startup event look like without startups pitching their businesses? We don’t know either. So, the EIT Food Baltic & Nordic Startup forum invited startups of any maturity level to showcase their businesses right in front of all the relevant stakeholders: corporates, colleagues, research institutions – and investors.
The ten startups that joined the event for pitching & networking:
Got Foods – Pea-based dairy alternatives, Latvia
EOD Europe – Nanowater & oxygen saturated technologies to increase productivity and plant health in commercial greenhouses, Finland
Montinutra – Challenging the food system by making food out of wood, Finland
Uute Scientific – Solving the problem of increasing cases of autoimmune diseases with food, Finland
Biovaaka – Has created a customizable platform for food waste management in professional kitchens, Finland
Biocode – Provides a digital solution for determining the climate impact of foods from crop to retail using LCA., Finland
Fermentful – Produces fermented dairy alternative made of green buckwheat, Latvia
Spices Chef – Produces organic and vegan bouillon powders making home-made vegan food tastier, Finland
SpirulinaNord – Has created an energy-sufficient, plug & play system for growing spirulina and produces nutritious spirulina drinks, Latvia
Koffeco – Recycles coffee waste into reusable materials to produce sustainable consumer products, Latvia
Monitor Fish – Optimises fish farming for any fish species with data & AI applications, Germany
The state of Nordic Agri-Foodtech Investments and six steps to successful funding rounds
The EIT Food Nordic & Baltic Startup Forum culminated in the last panel discussion of a unique set of panellists. The discussion was led by Lauri Reuter from Nordic Foodtech VC and gathered:
- a private investor, Carolina Sachs from Martas Explorers
- a bank, Vesa Riihimäki from Nordea
- a startup, Shiley Zhang from Solar Foods, and
- an incubator, Louise Rørbæk Heiberg & Marika King from Paulig incubator PINC (via video greetings).
And they brought good news to all of us: the Nordic food industry has started to attract global investors.
The startup’s global interest is one of the main features that make a startup shine in investors’ eyes, in addition to innovativeness and a solid go-to-market plan. Moreover, many industries require land, which takes acreage away from the agri-food industry, and makes land a depleting resource. This added to the global crisis culminating in the issues in the food system opens the eyes of generalists unfamiliar with the food system. At last, not only food-oriented investors want to invest in strengthening the food system. Therefore, there is more money and a larger number of investors than ever. Buying may have slowed down a bit due to the war in Ukraine, but there are no concrete signs of investors getting scared to invest in Nordics or Baltics, assures the Head of Startup & Growth, Vesa Riihimäki.
These signals, combined with the numerous startup programmes with financing opportunities, make this the golden age of startups, as Kristina Šermukšnytė-Alešiūnienė, the Coordinator and Cluster Manager of Agrifood Lithuania DIH, well said in a panel discussion earlier that day.
An aspiring idea is not enough to run successful funding round despite a startup’s available resources to jump on the bandwagon.
To attract investors, the startup needs to:
- Solve a real, preferably global, problem
- Have a big enough demand
- Be unique and innovative
- Have a scalable and sustainable solution
- Present a clear execution plan from production to distribution, and show reliable calculations that translate the plan for the investors
- Consists of an expert team with good team dynamics instead of one-two persons
Solar Food’s Shilei Zhang also reminds us always to keep the end customer in mind and test the idea early and often enough. In addition, it never hurts to have concrete short- and midterm goals to show the investor what achievements are expected already from the first investment.
Mirva Lampinen, the Co-Creation Manager and EIT FAN Helsinki Hub leader, put it in words during the first panel discussion overviewing the Nordic and Baltic Foodtech ecosystem: We are the forerunners, but it needs to be communicated to the world. The Nordic & Baltic agri-food innovation space has the elements to become the real forerunner in solving global challenges. Still, more co-creation, collaboration with the policymakers, increased PR, and even courage are needed to hit the jackpot and take the leadership status.
Fantastic startups arise from North & North-East Europe, but the agri-food startup space is not too crowded. More competition could encourage the startups to go live faster and bigger – but accelerator programmes like the EIT FAN can support and push the startups further.
The conclusions from the event, full of insightful conversations and inspiring pitches, are pleasant for all parties: The startups have more opportunities than ever before – both in accessing free mentoring & business sparring but also regarding the funding.
On behalf of the Food & Beyond collective, I want to thank everyone who made the EIT Food Nordic & Baltic Startup Forum happen and participated in the live event. More face-to-face interaction is needed to plunge the development forward, so it is great to be able to organise more live events these days.
PS. Stay tuned to find out what innovations fill the seats of the EIT FAN Helsinki 2022 acceleration programme – the team introductions are underway!
The EIT Food Nordic & Baltic Startup Forum was organised by EIT Food CLC North-East, EIT FAN Helsinki hub, VTT and the Food & Beyond collective, and the University of Helsinki.