Forward Fooding, is the world’s first collaborative platform for the food & beverage industry fostering innovation via FoodTech Data Intelligence and corporate-startup collaboration. Headquartered in London with satellite offices in Barcelona and Rome, they run a global network of AgriFoodTech entrepreneurs powered by entrepreneurs since 2015. They act as an ecosystem enabler to provide the necessary support and velocity to enable meaningful collaborations and partnerships between established food organizations and AgriFoodTech startup and scaleup companies globally. Alessio D’Antino, CEO and co-founder of Forward Fooding, shared his insights and vision for the future of the food industry with JNS Media International at Gulfood 2023.
In your opinion, what are the key trends in food innovation?
Over the last decade, we have seen food innovation shifting more and more towards technology-enabled solutions that can promote and bring more efficiency and sustainability to the food system. Looking back at 2022, it is clear that the FoodTech industry, the emergent sector of technology-enabled solutions across the supply chain, reached an inflection point. While 2021 saw a surge in investments and skyrocketing valuations, we saw a more measured approach to valuations in 2022. While some have suggested that this marks the end of an era of easy access to capital, this is not necessarily bad news for FoodTech. This shift can usher in more opportunities to focus on a broader range of innovations and improve existing solutions. In fact, this is already happening. Right now, we are seeing entrepreneurs becoming more creative and focused on developing a new generation of FoodTech innovations, building on the work that is being done so far. This is giving rise to a series of exciting developments. For instance, when it comes to alternative proteins we are seeing more attention being paid to market strategies and, in the case of lab-grown meat, more capital is flowing towards enabling technologies and services. Renewed attention has also been paid to hybrid meat products, which combine plant-based meat with conventional meat or biotech-made ingredients, due to their unique ability to merge the benefits of multiple products into one. On the other hand, when observing innovation on the upstream side of the supply chain, the current economic downturn has taken its toll on vertical farming companies, which are rather capital intensive and require new funding to scale up production methods through significant investments in R&D. However, entrepreneurs are developing new solutions to address vertical farming challenges. As a result, we expect to see a shift towards more scalable solutions such as precision farming, which optimizes resource usage, and biotechnology innovations that can enhance crop resilience. These solutions have the potential to ‘upgrade’ the vertical farming industry and make it more resilient and commercially viable in the long run.
How do you see the relationship between traditional food companies and food tech startups evolving in the Middle East?
The Middle East is undoubtedly an exciting emerging hub for food innovation, with numerous partnerships and initiatives which have the ambition of creating world-class innovation platforms. In my view, innovation will be a key factor in propelling this region forward, perhaps more so than in other areas of the world. Historically, the Middle East has been heavily reliant on imported foods in order to meet local demand. However, recent global events, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, have made it challenging to sustain this approach. Consequently, food companies in the region are proactively seeking ways to boost their self-sufficiency in food production. Collaborations with FoodTech companies offer an excellent opportunity to achieve this goal. As time passes, these two entities will increasingly come together, resulting in even stronger, more resilient, and sustainable food systems for the region.
With the increasing interest in sustainable food options, what role do you see foodtech playing in shaping the future of food in the Middle East?
I believe the Middle East has an exceptional opportunity to reinvent itself as a prominent food production region powered by cutting-edge technology. Consumers all over the world are increasingly demanding and expecting better products from food brands, placing greater importance on transparency and sustainability in their dietary choices. In this context, locally sourced products can offer a sustainable alternative to imported goods. Achieving this goal, however, requires adopting innovative production methods that reduce reliance on industrialized farming practices, for instance, and minimizing the environmental impact of transportation and overall carbon footprint. FoodTech is indispensable in driving this transformation, as it offers a wide range of innovative solutions that can be applied across the food production value chain.
How can established players in the hospitality industry collaborate with foodtech startups to drive innovation and create new opportunities for growth?
In a world of ‘policrysis’, the food industry, including the hospitality sector, is facing increasing challenges and pressure due to the increased volatility of the current economy. Innovation can address these issues while also creating economic opportunities. If we look at the issue of food waste, for example, measuring how much is wasted through technology (e.g., AI applied to smart scales) can help businesses lower their operating costs while showcasing more transparency and meeting the needs of more environmentally conscious customers. Another opportunity for cost reduction for the hospitality sector comes from the use of robotic technologies, which, in some cases, have proven effective in increasing sanitary standards, generating better margins, and scaling operations. The breadth of innovations available today all over the world is astonishing.
We believe the ‘secret recipe’ to take advantage of these innovations lies in making sense of the technology landscape and identifying the most suitable solutions that can help tackle real business challenges. This is Forward Fooding have excelled at by working elbow-by-elbow with the entrepreneurs who have developed these exact solutions over the last decade.
How can food and beverage companies in the Middle East ensure that they are building sustainable businesses that can withstand economic and environmental challenges?
I believe that economic and climate resilience are closely linked to the creation of sustainable food systems. In our experience, one of the key pillars of building solid foundations for a food system is to foster collaboration among local ecosystems and empower key stakeholders with the right tools and knowledge to nurture these partnerships. These ecosystems serve as a collective ‘immune system’, shielding us from external threats. Climate challenges have made it clear that the health of our planet and profitability are inextricably linked. This means that embracing technology-driven innovations offer incredible opportunities for governments and companies alike to remain competitive and resilient in the face of a constantly evolving and intrinsically more complex global food system.