Consumers set high standards. They are always on the look-out for the right product offer in the right circumstances. It's challenging for the industry to meet these demands, now and in the future. To Puratos, innovation is not an ad hoc activity: it is something that is integrated in the total business strategy, and works across all departments and disciplines. 'To meet the future expectations of consumers, we invest 2,5% of our total revenue in R&D — an unprecedented amount in our sector.' Filip Arnaut, R&D director at Puratos explains how long-term innovation is structured in the day-to-day business of Puratos.
'Innovation can be incremental or disruptive, but to be successful as a company you need to focus on both. Incremental innovations are those that build on existing insights and technologies. Disruptive innovations, on the other hand, are, by definition, new. Some typical elements of this type of innovation is an enormous speed of change, and that it is generally started by new technology that has not yet been defined.'
'There are lots of small businesses that are experimenting and trying to define such new technologies. At that moment it is often not yet clear how this new technology will be of added value to Puratos. This is a tricky stage. As so many people and businesses are working on it, development goes exponentially fast. At Puratos, it is crucial that we constantly monitor that going on around us so that we are well informed and able to pick up the signs of accelerated development.'
Ten areas of disruption
'Currently we have ten technologies or areas of disruption that we follow very closely. All managers in my team have been given the task to follow one of these ten technologies. What articles appear in the press? What research or studies are being published? They keep track of all relevant information and report internally. We are continuously working to broaden our networks so that we can get information and insights right from the source. This is a fairly structured approach and our way to ensure that we are on time to detect relevant developments, start-ups and technologies; and that we are able to identify them even while they are still operating under the radar.'
'A concrete example of a disruptive innovation in our industry that we are following closely is 3D printing. There is a lot being said about it in the media, but until now, within the food industry, it has remained a bit of a gimmick. In the baked goods industry it is not yet clear how 3D printing will be of added value on a large scale, but it will be for sure. Worldwide, several small groups are working to develop this technology and apply it to food. On the food matrix of chocolate for example, which is one of the most obvious applications. But it could also be relevant for other foods such as fruit fillings or pastes.'
However, it is not the task for Puratos, or other large companies, to develop these new technologies in-house. 'There are hundreds of small companies working on it simultaneously. As a big company, we would never be able to match the creative power of the masses.' It is therefore important to be in close contact with creative and technology start-ups, and to find the networks where these developments take place at an early stage. 'We need to find the right partners and networks to cooperate with in order not to miss out. That is our biggest challenge.'
Partnerships: the only way forward
In the future, the only way in which we will be able to respond swiftly and effectively to changing market conditions is by starting partnerships. Especially in the area of fundamental research, this is Puratos' vision for the future. By entering into partnerships, we gain quick access to technologies. It can be inspiring and motivating to be able to work on projects with other experts that are passionate about their fields of expertise. It is also more time and cost-efficient, as everyone brings in unique knowledge and resources.
'To give an example: we have started a long-term collaboration with the University of Leuven with whom we have established a collective research platform. This guarantees both continuity and confidentiality. We work on different kinds of projects: from fundamental research to applied nutritional research and studies that are initiated to detect new business opportunities and chances for innovation. The final stage — the development of new products — is always done in-house by Puratos product developers. It's a very profound form of collaboration that has been going on for several years now and from which both parties benefit.'
Integrated supply chain approach
It’s not only universities that we work closely with. We also enter into partnerships with suppliers and customers: we look at how we can add value in the supply chain. It is the integral supply chain approach and the selection of the right partners that, in the future, will make the difference between being at the forefront or in the shadows. Transparency in the food chain will, to a great extent, give direction for future innovation. Market players are not isolated elements, but interdependent links in the supply chain.
Consumers have high expectations and demand that all aspects of a product are validated. Not just the product itself, but the entire production process which precedes it. In innovation processes, we take this into account. That's a challenge, but also an opportunity. To make clear to consumers that the product is entirely correct: nutritional, but also considering food safety or sustainability issues. When it comes to chocolate for example, it means that everything — from bean to bar — is controlled and guaranteed.