Food for Thought – The Open Innovation Forum finds a hotbed for start-ups

Dominic Oughton MC’s the 2017 Open Innovation Forum Pitching Contest, reflecting on the ways in which the competition has evolved since its inception, and how host city Amsterdam serves up a melting pot of exchange and ideas.


Case Study: Open Innovation at Heineken

As Master of Ceremonies, I was privileged to witness Open Innovation in the raw, as startups and SMEs prepared to do battle in pitching their ideas to senior leaders of major companies across the Food, Drink and FMCG sector.

Now in its sixth year, the Open Innovation Forum Pitching Contest provides an opportunity for early stage companies to really show their stuff, presenting their ideas in just five minutes to a panel of senior leaders and decision-makers from major companies across the whole value chain in the Food, Drink and FMCG sectors.

This annual contest is run by the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) knowledge transfer arm, IfM Education and Consultancy Services, and this year was hosted by Heineken at Amsterdam’s Heineken Experience.

We were strongly assisted on this occasion by promoting the event through Heineken’s newly launched Innovation Portal – The Innovators Brewhouse, which helped to extend the reach of the event.

With its outstanding language skills and a famously entrepreneurial outlook. Amsterdam, (and the Netherlands generally) is a real hot-bed for startups, especially in the food sector. There are a number of local universities with associated startup communities and incubator –  notably Wageningen University & Research, a collaboration between Wageningen University and the DLO foundation that focuses on the theme ‘healthy food and living environment’ – while a case study of the Heineken Blade and other OI activities coming out of the brewery demonstrates just how fertile the OI conditions currently are in the Netherlands.

Pitching fatigue?

Something that I reflected on during this year’s event was the way in which startups are becoming increasingly selective in the networking they commit to. Increasing maturity, better coaching and greater accountability and expectations no doubt drive this behaviour, but it is interesting to witness the ‘battle to be the partner of choice’ amongst the corporate entities in this ‘elephant and mouse’ courtship, with a plethora of pitching-type events and some anecdotal evidence of ‘pitching fatigue’ amongst entrepreneurs.

Excitingly, I think what sets apart the OI Forum event is the way in which the needs of around twenty major corporates have been consolidated to provide a ranked list of ‘hot spots’ for innovation – any pitcher successfully passing the main selection hurdle of ‘Does this meet one or more of the groups identified needs?’ is clearly on to a winner. Add to that the presence of twenty or more hands-on innovation practitioners, whose day-job is bringing external sources of innovation into the business, and the potential for forging real OI partnerships is clear. It certainly helped in recruiting the broad spread and international mix of pitchers from across the startup and tech space.

Shifting to digital

The challenges and opportunities in Food, Drink and FMCG have been broadly stable over the six years of the pitching contest, though the solutions have evolved significantly. What has been fascinating to observe is the shift in the solution-space, from a predominance of materials and process innovations towards a real focus on digital in the last couple of years. Over the first four events (2013 to 2015) the proportion of ‘digital’ innovations making up the ‘Top 5’ places was around 10%, whereas over the last two competitions this has soared to 60%!

Key topics of interest in the needs identified by the Forum members (representing the full value chain from ingredients through packaging, processes and brand owners to) have consistently included sustainability; provenance; safety; health and wellbeing; consumer insight and operational efficiency, with priorities remaining fairly stable and even across this set. In this year’s event we had two AI-based solutions to mining consumer insights and trends from the web, and two app-enabled solutions aimed at delivering improved health and wellbeing through a personalised healthy meal service and a database of allergens and nutrition in products.

Expanding the talent pool

This brings me to my final observation. One of the core benefits cited for OI is to enable large companies to access the talent pool outside of their own resources. This becomes increasingly important as the underlying technologies change; whilst a long-established food brand owner might well have a significant critical mass of relevant food-scientists, they are unlikely to have similar resources in data-mining or artificial intelligence.

The speed of innovation associated with these digital technologies is also far greater (just look how quickly JustEat and Deliveroo have disrupted the food services sector!) and at the same time more amenable to a ‘test-fast; fail-fast’ approach (not something that fits comfortably in more traditional product innovation in the food and drink sector). All of these trends favour a lean, disruptive and resourceful entrepreneurial approach, and make partnering through an OI model an attractive option for the established players.

And the winner was….?

Back in Amsterdam, using a points system, pitchers were judged on their degree of innovation, relevance to the company’s’ innovation needs, and the scope of their idea for commercialisation. Twenty finalists pitched directly to the panel, with companies spanning the whole value chain, including Ingredients and Materials (Cargill and Treatt), Packaging (Crown and RPC) and Process (Domino, Cambridge Consultants and Siemens) Brand Owners (Mars, PepsiCo, Heineken, P&G, Pladis Global, General Mills, Moy Park, Suntory, Fresca and Samworth) and Retail (Boots-Wallgreens).

Startup company Dashmote took the crown, with technology that analyses billions of publicly available images and data to identify and predict future consumer trends. Co-founder Stefan Tan explained how “with the help of innovative methods such as AI and visual recognition” Dashmote’s idea enabled market research to be performed in “a fraction of the time.”

Additionally, four entrants were highly commended:

  • Klydo– A data analytics and machine intelligence company that has developed a market intelligence platform that analyses content for underlying trends in consumer behaviour using natural language processing and machine learning.
  • Spoon Guru– A consumer search optimisation provider that has combined machine learning algorithms and big data processing capabilities with nutritional domain expertise to develop innovative dietary management solutions.
  • mealhero– A smart food service that provides a complete meal solution combining an Internet-connected steamer, home delivered ingredients and smart phone assistance to choose meals.
  • Ederna– A company that has patented an innovative solution for the cold concentration of sensitive food liquids and ingredients that protects product quality and reduces energy costs by 50% compared to thermal evaporation systems.

Old Challenges, New Solutions

In summary, whilst the sector faces many of the same old challenges, there is evidently a wealth of very new solutions emerging, and a clear demonstration of the ever-growing relevance of an Open Innovation approach when it comes to delivering innovation from outside of the natural comfort zone of the large corporate.

Open Innovation Forum

Finalists of the 2017 Open Innovation Forum Food and FMCG Pitching Contest.


If you think your innovation has what it takes, register your interest in the 2018 event by completing the form here.


For more information about the University of Cambridge IfM Open Innovation Forum see



Dominic Oughton is Principle Industrial Fellow, IfM Education and Consultancy Services, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.