The U.K. is just four missed meals away from revolution. At least, that is said to be the view of analysts at intelligence agency, M15. It’s not a novel opinion. Track backwards to 1906 and journalist Alfred Henry Lewis said – marginally more optimistically – that after just nine missed meals, a nation would descend into anarchy.
Here in Britain, maxims such as these found new currency in the early days the pandemic when frustrated consumers found themselves confronted with empty supermarket shelves. Although largely due to panic buying, the shortages also illustrated that food supply chains can be fragile things. Over the years, food companies have got very good at just-in-time deliveries of fresh produce but there has been a price to pay in terms of resilience. There is, for example, relatively little local storage and only a limited amount of stockpiling. This was a problem that the Covid-19 crisis helped to expose.
Fast forward to the present day and other food-related worries have emerged. For intance, Covid-19, tends to have a disproportionate impact on those who are overweight, and in particular, those who have fatty deposits around major organs. In the U.K., where I’m based, this has triggered a health drive and measures to encourage healthier eating.
So food is once again centre stage. Supply chain resilience, the efficiency and environmental impact of food production, nutrition, long-term sustainability – all these and more have become hot button issues.
Hot Button Issues
And according to Dr Andy Zynga, CEO of EIT Food, startups are playing an important role in addressing the food and nutrition-challenges the world is currently facing.
“Startups are agile and they have an appetite for risk,” he says. “They are exploring new frontiers and they can ignite change.”
EIT Food is a European Union-sponsored Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) that works with a range of partners, including universities, corporate business – Danone and Nestle among them – and startups with a view to driving change in the food production sector. As Zynga explains the organisation encourages partners to address not only long-term strategic challenges but also crisis situations, such as the pandemic.
A €5 Million Fund
And last week, the organisation announced that is was providing up to €5 million in “bridge funding” to startups working in the food sector. The money reflects both the importance of innovation in food production and also the challenges that young business face in simply staying afloat. “We chose startups that had the potential to survive and thrive,” says Dr.Zynga. “Startups were struggling – and it would have been a shame if good companies had gone under.”
The funding is, of course, limited. Initially, EIT Food put out a call and had more than 100 applicants for assistance. That was whittled down to a long list, a shortlist of 15 and ultimately, 13 businesses received funding of between 200,000 and 500,000 euro. In addition to €4.08 million from the EIT Crisis Response Initiative, a further €1.3 million was raised by EIT Food itself.
Despite the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and the imminent end of the transition period, two British business accessed cash, namely Sencrop (weather forecasting solutions) and Mimica Touch (a company creating smart sell-by labels). It’s a reminder – although a small one, that membership of the EU has played a significant role in supporting innovative U.K companies.
Looking forward, Dr Zynga says EIT Food will be tracking the progress of funded businesses. “We required all of them to produce a project plan with milestones,” he says. “We will be following up on those milestones.” Success, he adds, will be seeing the businesses successfully address their markets.
Startups working in the food industry don’t tend to get the same publicity as those in, say, fintech or deep technology. But times are changing. The Covid wake-up call has spurred investment and support for companies in a range of sectors including health, telemedicine and mobility. It has also shone a light on food and farming.