What is your role in Bühler and what does it entail?
For the past years, I have led our Food Application Center in Minneapolis, USA. My role has been to accelerate innovative solutions by bringing suppliers, customers, partners, and researchers together in a collaborative environment.
To emphasize our commitment to and focus on sustainable protein sources, we launched Scale It Up! last year - an innovation challenge that seeks start-ups working with plant-based protein to help them scale their products and get to market faster.
We are acutely aware that a big part of innovation in our industry happens through collaboration. Alone, we cannot bring about the innovation power needed to address the challenges in our global food system. We must look at the ecosystem as a whole and focus on how we can solve the bigger challenge together. Scale It Up! is a great way for us to build closer relationships with start-ups and bring our strengths to table.
Another initiative I have been fortunate to lead in 2019 is our Bühler Networking Days. Here, we brought together 800 industry leaders, partners, researchers, and start-ups from the global food, feed, and mobility industries from across the world. During those days, we align, inspire and act together to enable and accelerate a global food and mobility system that allows our growing population to live healthy and happy within our planetary boundaries.
Can you share some insights on collaborating with start-ups?
Bühler has a clear target to reduce energy, waste, and water by 50% in our customers’ value chains. That is an ambitious goal which requires industry collaboration at scale.
I can really see how we can achieve more through collaboration. You will make mistakes and have a lot of challenges, but it is better than not doing it at all. My biggest learning from working with start-ups is to not exclusively look at the short term. Collaboration needs time to develop. You need to focus on finding the right people to have in your team and externally to collaborate with.
It is fundamentally different to collaborate with start-ups than with corporate and research institutions. In a large organisation, you typically see a clear scope, a defined process and clear division of tasks. And we stay within these boundaries.
With start-ups, the scope is the entire business and there is no clear process for the collaboration to work. This means that you must be prepared to be agile and pivot – and to move fast if needed. This type of collaboration requires trust, patience, and openness. People need to be able to trust one another and be willing to challenge their own way of thinking. Those working with these type of collaborations must be willing to share and discuss fundamental questions, taking ego out of the conversation.
We have built collaborations and trust with certain people and partners, so that we can easily start new initiatives – like the relationship we have built over the years with Nosco.
How have you handled the issue of intellectual property (IP) and confidentiality in these collaborations?
This is an important point to discuss early on and openly. Who owns what IP, what does each of the partners bring to the table and how to handle new IP generated in the process of collaboration? At a later stage, we might enter collaborations with shared IP and profit, but that is to be decided on a case-by-case basis. This makes the collaboration much easier. It is important that companies secure and use IP that is absolutely at the core of their business to ensure they are financially sustainable in the long term. If all partners in the collaboration benefit from the work together and share as much as they can, it will be mutually beneficial. Knowledge sharing is essential to create added value, otherwise there is no reason to collaborate. If you are a company that keeps everything in house, you will be overtaken by others – keeping everything inside, slows you down.
How do you handle these types of collaborations internally?
We have people dedicated to working with the start-ups in the markets we are working in and have regular interactions with the partners we are collaborating with. Finding the right people internally for the start-ups to collaborate with is quite often a challenge. It is much more about mindset than function, and that can be hard to assess. To find the right people, we engage with our teams and rely on direct recommendations, rather than searching for specific competences on paper.
Where possible, we try to keep these collaborations away from regular corporate structures. This means that we do not set up e.g., a regular project organisation, but try to keep it flexible, agile, and open. Also, we have created a separate brand for Scale It Up! to create a shared mindset, this also allowed us to speed up by being outside of corporate identity discussions. We were also lucky to find a group of legal people to help setup the agreements in a way that was enabling to startups and not hindering.
How do you measure success in these projects? / When do you consider yourself a success?
We do not focus on directly taking equity of the companies but on supporting the entire ecosystem.
There is no positive, short term financial ROI in our work – instead, a percentage is dedicated each year to building this ecosystem. That is my goal: to make a positive impact on the plant-based food industry.
When it comes to the start-ups and following up with them, we look more at engagement: are they hiring people, are they generating investments, are they getting products to the market? One example is NowaDays; after having been part of Scale It Up! (2021 winner), they were able to secure a further $7mio in funding. Clearly this is not purely because of this competition, but it was a key enabler in this process. This has been a successful collaboration that we would like to replicate.
We do have examples of start-ups that are creating value that flow back to us, and we make sure to present these cases whenever we can – to the C-level, to customers and at events like the Bühler Networking Days.
Another success criteria, for me, is to keep up with momentum in collaborating with the start-ups after Scale It Up! has ended.
The real success comes when they can grow and accelerate, and that requires a structure of frequent follow-ups and engagement. The target for Scale It Up! is not only to be a cool event, but to truly help the start-ups afterwards and create value for them in the long run. That is why we need to think about how to tackle the collaboration afterwards.
Success to me is when we help move something forward that otherwise would not have happened. And this means that we must walk the talk in everything that we say and do.