Foodies flock to innovate post-lockdown

30 Nov 2020 10:33:00
Little Elephant, with their wellness tonics, are among the many companies bringing new products to market

30 November 2020

Food businesses flock to diversify and de-risk their businesses

New ideas, new products and innovation in the food and beverage sector are thriving post-lockdown. The New Zealand Food Innovation Network (NZFIN) is seeing a massive upturn in businesses wanting to diversify and de-risk and more entrepreneurs, than ever before, looking to launch new products into the market.

FoodSouth in Canterbury is one of the five open-access food and beverage production facilities which enable businesses to scale up and commercialise new products. Business Development Manager, Tracey Sheehy says she expected the pipeline to dry up when covid hit our shores. “What we are seeing is a massive boom in business. The lockdown provided people with the time and headspace to pursue an idea or look at a career change, so they were able to fully dive into the feasibility of what this might be.”

And it's not just small or developing businesses on this gravy train – big and existing business are diversifying or reformulating to remove risk.

“There is a lot of reformulation work happening for one of two reasons, the first is to remove costs from production where possible and the other is to take risk out of the supply chain. As some imported ingredients become difficult to source, they are reformulating recipes to future proof themselves.”

Alasdair Baxter from the FoodBowl in Auckland is seeing the same trend. “Some businesses are realising they need to innovate or die. Many are also pivoting as their traditional sales channels have stopped or changed.” An example is those in hospitality going into retail. In Canterbury, Tracey says they are seeing companies developing ready-to-eat meals that can be stored in the freezer or healthy convenience foods. “People are being pragmatic and getting their businesses into a stronger position should there be another lockdown.”

With their seven, for hire, production facilities at the FoodBowl at full capacity, Alasdair says the number of companies wanting to access the Auckland facility has never been bigger. “It’s unprecedented the number and quality of the enquiries that are coming our way. There is an impressive level of innovation, passion and determination among the sector to grow their businesses and to be able to be a catalyst for this means NZFIN is operating exactly as it was intended – providing the facilities, support, networks and expertise to make it happen.

The FoodPilot based at Massey University doubled in size just in time for the boom. Client Solutions Manager Nikki Middleditch reports three different UHT plants and three spray dryers are often all operating in the same week on different client products. “All the work we have done in plant proteins is paying off, with dozens of different protein products in production.” And it’s not only packaged products - large scale ingredients from co-product streams are on the rise too, she adds. While the FoodPilot operates at a smaller scale than the other network members, it covers all food groups and styles and food formats and is backed by on-site analytical, sensory and nutritional labs and experts.

In the Hawkes Bay region, Nicky Solomon works exclusively with business entrepreneurs and start ups and says business is blooming. “As consumers make a purposeful move to buy local and support small business, those small producers working from a home-based facility are exceptionally busy. As always, the challenge is around how we support them to move to a more sustainable business model as this scale up takes a lot of work, time and investment.”

Alex Allan, FoodBowl Chief Executive says the network is expertly placed to help business grow, for both domestic and exports markets. “We have got facilities which provide specialist manufacturing equipment - 300 different bits of machinery here in Auckland alone which allow business of any size to come in and try new things, to manufacture small runs to test markets or try out equipment before purchasing for their own factories.”

From research and development then go right through to manufacturing – across the country NZFIN is behind many successful products you put in your shopping trolley every week. The government-funded network brings an immense level of expertise, access to a diverse suite of manufacturing equipment, enabling an accessible pathway to market for businesses of all sizes. 

“Covid has seen businesses embrace innovation like never before and it’s almost been a necessity to diversify or modify what you are doing. It’s exciting and New Zealand consumers will be the winners from this, as new and exciting products become available,” Tracey adds.