The Germinator Recipe for Success in Novel Food & Agritech

Big, clear aim mixed with a flexible approach based on customer learnings.

The truly novel approaches in solving the agrifood sector’s sustainability issues often come from scientists and innovators outside or at the fringes of the established scene. Especially then, success hinges on finding the right balance between a clear vision and a keen understanding of customers' needs. As these fresh teams strive to bring new products and services to market, they navigate a delicate dance of listening, learning, and collaborating. 

A Visionary Core With a Systemic Approach

Science-based findings make particularly good seeds for the needed agrifood innovations driving systemic sustainability in the food system. However, all teams striving towards a successful startup need to develop a clear vision of why exactly it is that they exist. This clear and ambitious aim of solving a big problem affecting many serves as the guiding star, helping founders and teams stay on course. 

Indeed, there is no shortage of pressing problems in the current food system. However, the more we have learnt about innovating for the sustainability of the agrifood sector, the more clearly we see the need to tackle its systemic problems with systemic solutions. 

The Germinator pre-incubation programme’s batch #3 includes five interesting teams with novel systemic takes on the sustainability issues they are solving: 

Team Nuts about Nuts is developing a plant-based alternative to dairy-based creamy delicacies from cashews. A hindrance in using more healthy and nutritious nuts in everyday eating often boils down to lacking ready-to-use cooking ingredients, like sauces. High prices and complex, even dubious sourcing have also stood in the way of utilizing nuts in the transition to plant-based diets. Nuts about Nuts led by CEO-to-be Sara Ahlberg aims to fix both ends of the value chain simultaneously, thus aiming for a systemic impact. Their own network of cashew farmers supplied with proprietary harvesting methods enable both more transparent as well as less costly sourcing.

Team MyShroom focuses on developing umami-rich ingredients that can mimic the texture of meat. Food industry can use these ingredients for making protein-rich and appetizing vegetarian food products. Their distinctive approach leverages rapidly-cultivated mycelium, requiring minimal resources, and utilizes upcycled materials like food industry waste as a sustainable growth medium. The team with principal investigator prof. Kirsi Mikkonen, inventive sensory specialist Jutta Varis, and keen developer, research assistants Jussi Hildén and mushroom whisperer, microbiologist Milla Koponen envision Myshroom as a convenient and low-cost process producing excellent and familiarly savory tasting protein. In the future, such simplicity can make this ingredient one of the first mushroom protein ingredients easy to start cultivating with high yields both for traditional farmers as well for the urban farmers in the built environment – with interesting systemic impacts.

Team Acornia Greentech has the bold aim of turning underutilized yet nutritionally rich acorns into aromatic hot drinks through, for example, roasting. With the world’s favorite social drink, coffee, estimated to go extinct from climate impacts, alternative solutions are desperately needed. Acornia’s vision is to cultivate them from this overlooked tasty tree crop boosting both biodiversity as well as carbon sinks. With a diverse team of the CEO-to-be Karoliina Iso-Kokkila, food scientist, PhD, Mahmood Hashim and marketing professional Laura Juhola, Acornia Greentech is on a mission to create a sustainable novel value chain, from the agroforest to the hedonists' earthy cups of acorn infusion. 

Team Resource Pulling headed by scientist Surendra Pradhan is developing a new technology for extracting nitrogen and phosphorus from various waste waters and sludges. Their PNExt process upcycles problematic waste streams into sustainably manufactured mineral fertilizers for primary production. It is a beautiful example of a systemic solution with the capability of replacing current fertilizers produced with fossil fuels and treating various wastes simultaneously.

Team Kitsain aims to help both households and retailers in cutting down food waste. They do this by developing consumers an app for pantry and refrigerator stock keeping and expiry date alerts, AI recipe suggestions, grocery shopping rationalizing, and best-before-product alerts from stores. Kitsain, thus, also aids grocery stores in communicating offers of products nearing their best-before dates. The team led by inventor Ville Karinen envisions their service a digital tool optimizing the food stocks and flows across shops and households – thus addressing food waste indeed in a systemic fashion.

Listening to the Customer

A big nasty problem to solve with a meaningful vision not only motivates the team but also sets the company apart in a competitive market. However, an unyielding commitment to the vision alone can be risky. Startups must complement their vision with an acute sense of the market and customer needs. This is where the fine balance begins.

In today's consumer-centric world, a successful startup is one that can truly understand its customers. Gathering feedback and actively listening to their pain points, wants and suggestions is key to creating a product or service that resonates. The first product iteration rarely is the hit making it on the markets. 

This was one of the important learnings delivered to the Germinator teams by one of this year’s programme’s sponsor-mentors, Foodiq. Being a couple of steps further on their foodtech startup journey, Foodiq’s insights on wayfinding between the initial vision and customer desires are very valuable for the teams in their early stages.

"We are eager to support new players in entering the food business and thus excited to collaborate with the Germinator. Having a clear vision shaped with customer understanding is key, and we were happy to share our experiences on the topic with the teams", says Jari Karlsson, CMO at Foodiq.

Perspective-Taking and Partnerships for Progress

Startups often face the challenge of shaping their offering in response to various and changing customer preferences and market dynamics. This requires a willingness to adapt and take on different perspectives – without compromising on the core vision. It is especially crucial for startups developing novel food ingredients for other companies’ end products. 

For this, collaboration is the secret sauce. Partnerships with other startups, bigger companies, and the university offer access to complementary expertise, resources, and a wider network. The Germinator especially fosters partnerships between the initiating developer teams and established players for piloting and learning opportunities for both.

Verman became a Germinator sponsor-mentor for the first time this season, and gave an excellent walkthrough to the teams on what does it take to make it as their supplier. For the seasoned professionals at Verman, the Germinator teams then again provide interesting glimpses into new sustainable solutions in their sector.

"We want to participate in supporting the development of innovative, sustainable solutions to food supplement and food industry. For us, startup mentoring through Viikki Food Design Factory's Germinator provides visibility and a platform for interaction and partnership with innovators", says Minja Miettinen, Growth & Innovation Director at Verman Group.

In conclusion, startups must tread the fine line between their visionary spirit and a deep understanding of their customers. Listening to feedback, adapting when necessary, and forging partnerships can be instrumental in turning ambitious ideas into successful products and services.

…in addition, making good connections with potential investors early on is a key ingredient in startup success too! 

Thus, the Germinator programme is pleased to host the Food Systems pitching competition at the Y Science again this year. Y science is an official Slush side event taking place at the Slush venue in Messukeskus in Helsinki on Thursday the 30th of November. This event presents the upcoming teams developing new solutions in Finland in the areas of Health & Pharma, Food Systems and New Materials. It gathers over 700 attendees and match-makes international investors with the most promising, science-based and deep tech startups in the making.

Join us at Y Science to see Acornia Greentech, Myshroom, Nuts about Nuts and Resource Pulling pitch on stage and to meet all five teams in the networking sessions!