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EXCLUSIVE! Food-Tech Trends for Sustainability with Dr Chris Aurand, Open Innovation Leader, Thai Union Group PCL


The food industry has been impacted by the pandemic and is looking for ways to increase productivity, lower costs and be better prepared for any future disruptions. Furthermore, consumers are increasingly interested in healthier and more sustainable food options, which is prompting the industry to explore how best to meet these demands.

To tackle the challenges of improving efficiency, adapting to changing preferences and demands, and enhancing the overall customer experience, the food industry is proactively exploring technology-enabled solutions. Technological breakthroughs, transformative processes and interactive platforms are the need of the hour.

No doubt, industrialisation and automation have already significantly increased the capacity and effectiveness of the sector, resulting in a continuous transformation of the global food industry across the entire value chain. The global food-tech industry has grown to include a wide range of companies that use technology to improve food production, distribution and variety. Nonetheless, there is much yet to do.

Startups, incubators and accelerators can play a powerful role in revolutionising the sector. They can bring together top food-tech entrepreneurs and corporates through one-of-a-kind mentorship, networking and financing.

A vibrant food industry is vital globally as it plays an essential part in determining the future of food production, and distribution around the world, contributing to sustainability, health and food security.

Through their creative ideas and innovative use of cutting-edge technologies, entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to positively impact the food industry. They foster innovation and economic growth while also advancing a more just and sustainable food system by actively bringing about change in the food industry.

All parties involved in the food system – from producers to consumers – could benefit from their innovations and ideas if they are implemented.

Food-tech innovations for a sustainable future

In an exclusive interview with OpenGov Asia, Dr Chris Aurand, Open Innovation Leader at Thai Union Group, PCL, shared the company’s strategies and solutions aimed at addressing gaps in the food sector.

Chris is appreciative of Thailand’s innovative culture and welcoming atmosphere, describing it as a wonderful place to live and work. In his role, he works to support startups and build the country’s food tech ecosystem.

He is responsible for developing the long-term strategy for SPACE-F, Thailand’s first dedicated food tech incubator and accelerator. This initiative is a collaboration between the Thai Union, ThaiBev, Mahidol University and The National Innovation Agency of Thailand, intending to establish Thailand as a hub for Foodtech startups. Additionally, Chris is a member of the Corporate Venture Capital team at Thai Union.

Thai Union Group is committed to fostering innovation and invests in early-stage startups with disruptive technologies and products that are in line with our strategic direction, “Healthy Living, Healthy Oceans” via Thai Union Ventures. Additionally, the company collaborates with third-party entities, including VisVires New Protein, and SPACE-F, the first dedicated global FoodTech startup incubator and accelerator in Thailand. These collaborations enable the group to access cutting-edge technologies and expertise, which help the company stay ahead of the curve in an ever-evolving industry.

“The initiative began in 2018 when we began collaborating with various country trade missions to scout startups and develop internally how we would work with startups. We realised that to drive innovation within the company and introduce fresh ideas, we needed to identify and collaborate with promising startups,” Chris recalls.

Seeing the potential, Thai Union Group established a fund to strategically support startups at the seed to series A funding stage in the areas of alternative proteins, biotechnology, functional nutrition and supply chain.

The company ensured that these investments fed back into the business unit, supporting its growth and contributing to its success. In fact, Thai Union Group’s support contributed to the growth of its first investment to the point where it was able to establish its own production facility in Thailand.

Chris believes that food tech companies introduce novel perspectives on food security and promote local production. Food tech startups can also assist in implementing new technologies to extend product shelf life while preserving product safety.

Moreover, food safety is becoming an increasingly critical concern as people become more aware of the potential emergence of diseases and bacteria due to climate change. Food security is not necessarily a matter of inadequate food supply to feed the world, but rather issues related to logistics, spoilage, and consumer preferences for specific food types. Chris believes that startups can introduce innovative solutions to address these challenges, particularly in the areas of sustainability and food safety.

Chris shared how startups supported by the SPACE-F are devising inventive strategies to combat food waste and promote sustainability. Some of the solutions include upcycling brewery wastewater into a source of protein, locating and distributing discounted baked goods and using food waste as feedstock to grow insects as a protein source for pet treats.

These initiatives not only help to reduce waste but also create new sources of sustainable protein, highlighting the potential for innovative technologies to drive positive change in the food industry. Chris points out that startups can build on previous ideas as well as offer corporations innovative solutions without significant investment.

As an example, he highlighted a Finnish startup, EniferBio that produces PEKILO® mycoproteins from a fungal strain, which was initially developed in the 1960s but later shelved due to changes in the pulp and milling industry’s processes.

The pandemic has led to increased awareness among people regarding the link between their diets and their health. Consumers are now more interested in healthier and more sustainable food options and are actively seeking out products that meet their dietary requirements and preferences.

As a result, there has been a growing interest in food technology, which is helping to drive innovation in the food industry. This has created an opportunity for food tech startups to develop new products and technologies that cater to these changing consumer demands, while also addressing challenges related to food security, sustainability, and food safety.

Startups in the food technology sector are gaining interest from investors and businesses due to their fresh ideas that have been tested locally and can be adapted globally. This is crucial in finding local solutions to global food supply issues caused by the pandemic.

Discussing their startup accelerator programme, Chris explained that it includes both domestic and international companies and highlighted the importance of regional production in promoting sustainability. They focus on regional production to promote sustainability, as well as address trends in the food industry, including the growing demand for sustainable and healthy products.

“We have an opportunity to incorporate healthy ingredients into their products while highlighting the importance of being mindful of additives and preservatives that could have negative long-term effects,” Chris points out.

Startups in Thailand are focusing on incorporating micronutrients, promoting sustainability, and developing healthier food options, while also considering the commercial viability and long-term benefits their products can provide. To support these efforts, incubators and accelerators are facilitating collaborations and the development of new ideas in the industry.

While perseverance and curiosity are foundational qualities for success in the startup community, context is as necessary. It is vital to engage with the local population and be prepared to alter products to satisfy customer demands. Understanding the consumer and being adaptable to branding and product changes are particularly crucial in the food-tech sector, as consumer preferences and demands are constantly evolving.

However, while consumers are becoming more aware of the importance of sustainability, they are not always willing to pay the additional price – cost can often be a deciding factor, especially during times of economic uncertainty. As inflation rises, consumers may prioritise affordable options over sustainable ones.

In the case of novel products such as plant-based and cultured meat, achieving the optimal texture and price point is essential for convincing consumers to make the switch. Rather than expecting these products to completely replace traditional meat products, Chris suggests targeting flexitarians who may be willing to regularly incorporate them into their diet.

Blockchain technology can help improve traceability and food safety in the food industry. By using blockchain, each step of the supply chain can be recorded and traced, from the origin of the ingredients to the final product. This makes it easier to identify any issues that arise and quickly address them.

The use of QR codes can also allow consumers to access information about the product they are purchasing, such as the origin and logisitcs, which can increase transparency and trust.

Implementing such solutions can improve the precision of logistics systems and ensure the safe delivery of goods. Traceability tools can also be utilised for marketing purposes by establishing a compelling narrative about the product’s origins and beneficiaries. Consequently, there is a growing focus on sustainability, reducing food waste and improving logistics.

Alongside AI and blockchain, other noteworthy developments are shaping the food technology sector. Advanced processing technologies such as high-pressure processing are gaining traction as a way to preserve food while maintaining its nutritional integrity.

In light of the increasing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria,  promising technologies that had previously been shelved such as bacteriophages are being resurrected. Additionally, there is a strong shift towards more natural and holistic solutions to promote sustainability and minimise food waste.

The use of such technologies can also contribute to ethical improvements by decreasing chemical and antibiotic use in animal husbandry and improving animal welfare. As consumers become more conscious of ethical considerations in food production, such as organic and sustainably sourced products, there will be a growing demand for them. To establish a sustainable future, it may be necessary to revive traditional agricultural practices and implement regenerative agriculture.

Chris strongly feels that consumer education should encompass not only fundamental food safety measures like washing vegetables and cooking foods thoroughly but also the ability to recognise potential sources of foodborne illnesses..

People need to have a solid grasp of food safety and hygiene principles and prioritise their own health and wellness. As the food industry advances and new technologies and products emerge, it will become necessary to strengthen oversight and regulation to ensure that these new technologies provide healthy and safe foods for consumers.

“Facilitating the development of innovative food products will necessitate cooperation among startups, corporate partners, regulators and consumers to ensure safety, effectiveness and transparency,” Chris says emphatically.

Urban Ideas and Solutions Through LKYGBPC

The Lee Kuan Yew Global Business Plan Competition (LKYGBPC), which began in 2001, is a biennial global university start-up competition hosted in Singapore. Organised by Singapore Management University’s Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, focusing on urban ideas and solutions developed by student founders and early-stage start-ups.

Chris is passionate about supporting startups and cultivating the food tech ecosystem to facilitate industry transformation.

In his role as Open Innovation Leader, he is responsible for implementing Thai Union’s open innovation strategy, collaborating with internal R&D stakeholders to understand their innovation needs and driving external collaboration; and being part of innovation platforms like LKYGBPC.

Working with youth is advantageous since they are not rigid in their thinking and can bring fresh and innovative ideas to the table, Chris says. But it is important to have separate tracks for ideation and revenue-generating businesses, while also promoting global collaboration and idea exchange.

Chris is convinced that “To inspire innovation among young people, it is essential to present it in a hands-on manner, similar to how LKYGBPC has done. Moreover, it is crucial to instill in them the notion that failure is an inherent and integral part of the learning process.”

He emphasises the importance of fostering an environment and culture of innovation that embraces trial and error. Failure must be embraced to allow learning from mistakes. Additionally, it is essential to comprehend one’s strengths, weaknesses, and dislikes.

To remain at the forefront of innovative entrepreneurship over the next five to ten years, the LKYGBPC must continue to evolve and accommodate new trends and challenges in the entrepreneurial landscape. This could involve broadening its scope and expanding its reach, partnering in new regions and industries.

They must be willing to embrace emerging tech and innovation and provide aspiring entrepreneurs with more resources and support.

Furthermore, the competition should continue to prioritise ethical and sustainable entrepreneurship, which is gaining importance to both businesses and consumers. They must encourage participants to develop innovative solutions to global concerns such as climate change, social inequality, and healthcare.

“The food technology sector has a substantial influence on daily life. One of the most exciting aspects for an entrepreneur in the industry is to develop a successful product and see it being sold on the shelves of a supermarket. This industry provides the opportunity to introduce solutions that have a significant, positive impact on people.” Chris concludes.


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