Last week, I had the pleasure to attend the 16th Food Innovate Summit in Amsterdam. The event explored the available pathways that can drive innovation in the food industry and more generally in all sectors.

Lots of topics were debated in a week of lively discussions among some of the world’s leading industry stakeholders. Here’s a flavour of some of the questions discussed and the ideas generated.

How can we establish an organisational culture that stimulates innovation?

Richard Taylor, EVP for CO-RO A/S suggested there is a need to “create an environment where ideas generate new ideas; ones that facilitate creative, dynamic and new behaviours; and that encourage disruption”.

“Embrace a truly diverse mix of people, because it is more about personalities than anything less,” Richard said.

We know that people are the essence of any organisation, but Richard shed light on the difference between jobs and competences: the latter empower people, and empowered people tend to be more creative because they care about what they do.

There was wide agreement that innovation should be kept at the core of the organisation. During his inspiring talk, Damien Lee, Mr Lee’s Noodles CEO, suggested keeping the startup spirit within the team at all times. “Never forget the early days: keep a blue sky thinking and a set of fresh eyes,” he said.

Once an innovative culture has been established, how is it possible to become a successful as an innovative company?

Paolo Arancio, the Global Head for Strategic Innovation Partnership at Nestlé, said it is key to “stay relevant by doing something that matters.” But being relevant is not enough: companies must be kept resilient and flexible by doing things like adopting different business models and creating new innovation processes for every product. Mr Arancio added: “You can’t act with a standard, premade innovation process, especially in today’s ever-changing world.”

How do we achieve innovative solutions?

Reiteration: “You have to try and fail and try again: do not register an innovation attempt failure as a loss, but as an investment”. The takeaway is to start a project and improve it along the way, instead of waiting for the product to be perfect from day one. And to ensure that a trial innovation is not going to break the bank, Harriot Pleydell-Bouverie, CEO of Mallow & Marsh, advised to “wait before pumping money into something. First, try the concept in a small way, and if it works, then you can take it to the next level”.  Once the new product is working, “it is already time to innovate again: never settle, keep creating and improving.”

What are the current alternative business models in Food and Nutrition?

Pinar Hosafci, Head of Packaged Food Research at Euromonitor International, explored how digitalisation offers an opportunity to food companies.

The first relevant trend is the subscription model: one of the best examples of this business model is Graze, where a set of healthy snacks are ordered online for delivery to the doorsteps of offices and homes. Hello Fresh is also an example of how successful this model is becoming.

The second trend examined was the Just-in-time delivery: examples of this business model are Amazon Dash, Fan Milk and MOMA.

Thirdly, the blended formats were investigated: examples are Timbre+, a food hall in Singapore that acts as an incubator for food startups; London Dairy, which uses their ice-cream parlours to test flavours and select the best ones for retail in supermarkets; and Alibaba he ma, which combines blended formats and instant delivery.

Furthermore, we delved into the trend of personalisation. It is possible to personalise products, services and nutrition. An example of a personalised product is Mars. The company is allowing consumers to customise the colour, flavour and writing on m&m’s. Similarly, KitKat launched pop-up stores in the UK where it is possible to personalise the packaging, toppings, textures and chocolate type of the KitKats.

More hybrid is the initiative of Katjes alles veggies, a candy factory that drives consumer engagement by allowing them to use the website to design personalised candies, which are then printed in 3D and delivered to their homes. Likewise, Barilla presented at the 2015 World Expo the 3D printed pasta, taking to life some of the designs sent in from hundreds of contestants from all around the world. Barilla went even further, proposing an absolutely futuristic household: Cucina Barilla; a cross between a microwave and an oven that can prepare gourmet recipes from kits available to buy on their website on a subscription basis.

And during the summit, the company Alberts presented a new way to think of vending machines. With their smoothies kiosks, consumers can personalise the content of their smoothies and connect their smartphone to the machine via an app that can learn and give suggestions on ingredients based on the person’s lifestyle and preferences. Finally, Ms Hosafci, explained how personalised nutrition is a growing new trend. This was confirmed by Irene Fernandez, Sr. Global Team Leader at Danone Nutricia Research, who said “big food is investing in health and wellness brands. Our ambition is to make medical nutrition integral part of the healthcare system.” An excellent example of personalised nutrition is Habit, which allows consumers to have a meal plan specifically designed on their unique biological features.

If consumers want personalised solutions, businesses need to adapt and develop strategies that truly put the consumer at the centre.

“In the era of digitalisation the focus must be on the consumer and developing solutions with this in mind. Customer data collection should become a priority for all businesses, and due to its importance, it should be collected by the company itself,” said Chantal Cayuela, Group Vice President at Groupe Bel.

How to stand out from the competition?

Damian Lee said “start with why. Whether it is a brand, a product, a team or a business, purpose is becoming more and more important”. Once the purpose is established, the focus should shift to finding the points of differentiation, those which make what the company is trying to achieve unique for the consumers, partners and stakeholders.

Exploring alternative routes to market is also a way that can be pursued to become unique. A product born for the mass market does not have to start from a supermarket necessarily. It can start from a vending machine (Alberts), a kiosk (Mr Lee’s Noodles), or a stall (MOMA). Mr Lee’s Noodles example is my personal favourite: the company does not only work to realise its purpose, but it does so in a way that it has never been done before. Mr Lee’s kiosks don’t only sell healthy, ready-to-eat noodles, but also data, thanks to a smart-screen that uses facial recognition for data gathering.

And last but not least, how can my business develop sustainably?

“We need innovations for change; innovations that will reform the food and beverage industry,” said Marc Buckley, UN SDG Advocate.

In the complexity of our world, the SDGs provide a guideline for all businesses that want to do something that matters to the world and humanity. Someone might say that they are utopian, but they are well achievable by 2030 if every business started to collaborate and contribute.

Thimo V. Schmitt-Lord, CEO of Bayer Cares Foundations, provided a few examples of initiatives supported by the Bayer Foundation that have the potential to change the world.

In Kenya, Thriving Green team is cultivating spirulina, a superfood that requires only 1% of the water used for livestock crop production to fight malnutrition and save lives. A significant problem afflicting the food industry is food waste, in fact, 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year, and labelling and random selection are the two major causes.

Is it Fresh is a German and Korean project developing nanoelectronics devices for food packaging, displaying the real freshness of food. Often, in developing countries, food waste happens due to incorrect storage or lack of refrigeration. Fruit Cycle, in Uganda, is developing e-bikes with solar-powered cooling storage that also can be used as selling stand at the market. Food loss is also reported at sea: only 10% of fish caught is in fact eaten. This is the opportunity that SafetyNet decided to exploit by developing smart lightening nets for selective fishing and avoid bycatch.

I want to finish by quoting Mr Schmitt-Lord:

“Think like an activist, act like a scientist: start a business to save the world and contribute to a higher mission.”