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Until recently, efforts to create a thriving startup culture and a supporting network were focused on HealthTech, FinTech and EdTech, as well as foundational DeepTech like Blockchain, Sensors, Robotics and AI. On the one hand, this seems natural: Switzerland is known as a world leader in banking, pharma, science and engineering – but despite its well-deserved reputation for cheese and chocolate, it does not rank quite as high on the list of culinary innovation nations as, for example, France, Spain or Belgium. So it may not be surprising that France, with its proud culinary tradition, already had a flourishing Food Vertical in Station F in Paris; and that Israel, with its startup nation spirit and dependence on agriculture, had a thriving FoodTech hub in The Kitchen; while Switzerland seemed to focus elsewhere.
On the other hand, when we investigate the success factors required for a country to be an innovation leader in FoodTech, we find that Switzerland ticks all the boxes except one:
- A strong agricultural foundation
- World-leading research, science and technology in FoodTech
- Support from the government and institutions for the sector
- Investors, family offices and foundations willing to venture
- Food entrepreneurialism imprinted in its cultural DNA
- A population hungry to improve their living circumstances
Few will argue with Switzerland’s high scores on success factors 1-4. When it comes to factor 5, food entrepreneurialism may not be the first thing to meet the eye of the observer, but a quick look back in time reveals an impressive history of Swiss food system founders. Gottlieb Duttweiler, Ueli Prager, Theodor Tobler, Else Züblin-Spiller, as well as immigrants like Henri Nestlé, Philippe Suchard and Julius Maggi – and many more – were driven by the desire to solve a problem of society, which would benefit everyone – including themselves. New, better food and new business models emerged and had a lasting impact.
Success factor 6 – also known as “the fire in the belly” – has often been quoted as the critical lacking ingredient in the Swiss innovation ecosystem. But more recently, especially when it comes to Food and AgriTech, the place of that fire has been filled by an even greater urgency: the global crisis of human health and the health of our planet.
Food and Agriculture Innovation will play an immense role in averting both crises.
In the biggest-ever food production analysis, led by Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, published 2018, Poore states that: “…diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification [and] eutrophication [of the oceans], land use, and water use [….]. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car. Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems.” Needless to state that the single biggest and fastest impact to be made on human health is also through food.
“Diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth”
When it comes to food and agriculture, then, the “innovate or die” paradigm loses its twinkle in the eye.
In the face of such a challenge, it is uplifting to see a FoodTech ecosystem in Switzerland emerge at an impressive pace. The Founder Institute has set up a Chapter in Zurich focused on Food, and seen passionate people joining the program to unleash their ideas and set up a business. Entrepreneurs share insights in meet-ups organized by FoodHack and Crowdfoods. ETH Zürich, EPFL and HSG have entrepreneurship on the curriculum and run multiple Food startup programs such as ‘HSG FoodTech Lab’. Industry partners such as Coop, Migros, Givaudan, Ricolab, Nestlé, Bühler, Barry Callebaut – and even some non-Swiss global players like Coca-Cola and Mondelez – engage in the Swiss ecosystem through partnerships with Kickstart Innovation in Zurich and/or MassChallenge in Lausanne. The governments are creating manifestos to support this growth and slowly, (but steadily and increasingly), investors, family offices and foundations are opening up the doors to their board rooms …
In typical tried and tested Swiss fashion, many of these initiatives are growing from the ground up, driven by a single company, university, VC fund or canton, rather than being cascaded from the top down.
If the many actors and shapers in Swiss FoodTech and AgriTech now were to build a stronger collaborative network, connecting the dots between their activities and feeding into one another, the effect could quickly multiply and grow into a buzzing, vibrant ecosystem. Already we see collaborative partnerships emerge like the Future Food initiative forged by Bühler, Nestlé and Givaudan with ETH and EPFL.
The Future of Food is now – and it’s time to put Switzerland firmly on the map of Food Innovation Nations!
About the authors:
Ingeborg Gasser-Kriss is an innovation professional with a background of 26 years in corporate marketing and innovation. She is active in board roles, as an advisor to startups in the Kickstart and Founder Institute programs, and as an external advisor to big and small companies who aim to adopt 21st century innovation models. In her previous role as VP Global Innovation at Mondelez
International, she designed the incubation and venturing unit SnackFutures. She is a member of the Board of Directors at SV Group, owner and founder of Agent21 GmbH, and a keynote speaker on the Future of Food.
Christina Senn-Jakobsen is a Food Innovation Passionista aiming to be a part of making the world a better place. With a core focus on Food Science & Technology, Christina is heading up the Food & Retail Vertical at Kickstart. Further, Christina is a Co-Director at the Zurich chapter of the Founder Institute, supporting early-stage Food and AgriTech startups to get off to a great start.
Christina holds a Master degree in Food Science and Technology from University of Copenhagen and a Master in European Food Studies from Wageningen University.