The ecosystem approach in Agri-food innovation.

Published on 2021-10-27


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Ryan Edwards, co-founder of Naked Innovations, operates in the sector of Agri-food sustainability, supporting startups and their collaboration across the food industry.


Could you please introduce yourself first, like your journey here and what do you do now?

I'm British, but I've been living in Barcelona for 10 years. I grew up living all over the world in Germany, in Holland and Cyprus and went and studied in Australia for a while. After I graduated, I moved to Bangkok, Thailand to teach English, and at first, my idea was to get a paid holiday, but then I realized the massive culture shock and learned a lot about our different ways of thinking, different ways of working together with colleagues, and also I saw a lot of poverty and difficult challenges in that country.

And that's influenced me since when I went back to the UK, after my Thailand adventure, I joined a company called Cargill, which is a huge agricultural company. And I went and ended up in the marketing department and worked my way up. I became head of marketing innovation for Europe for one of the business units there.

I think during that time, I learned a lot about the importance of fresh perspective and the culture of diversity for innovation. I saw the challenges of corporate innovation and I'm working just with internal research and development teams, very smart people, but often don't have a lot of diversity and usually take a long time to get things to market and never truly understand the market demands.

There's a lot of pushing of the innovation and a lot of that innovation was very iterative and incremental rather than breakthrough. So after 10 years, I decided that it was time to come into the entrepreneurial world and six years ago I joined as the managing director of all food experts, an open innovation platform.

We attend it on a platform, 10,000 food scientists, technologists around the world, solving big innovation challenges. So I ran that business for two years, and then again, felt a bit hands-off and saw that again, we were doing the small things like building new products, but very much just trying to make chocolate tastes a bit better or improve the taste profile of drinks and then saving a bit of cost for the corporate.

So I decided four years ago to create Naked Innovations, where I manage the company with my business partner Lorry Tam, based out in Barcelona. And we really have grown into an organization that focuses on both planet and people innovations. 

How do we shift the conversation and make the industry consider the health of all the plus planet earth which is so vital right now? And we do that in many different ways. 

What is the vision behind the name and what does creating Agri-food ecosystems mean in practice?

It's about finding interesting and big challenges and understanding that no one individual person or organization can really solve these alone, whether that's food traceability in supply chains, whether it was about healthier ingredients, circularity, sustainability, etc.

And even when I was at Cargill, we're working with Unilever or Nestlé and the known organizations that still work at Naked Innovations, we saw that these organizations, even at their size, couldn't do these changes by themselves. It's a very complex supply chain in the AgriFood industry. 

We believe in the power of the crowd, the power of diversity. I talk about diversity with a lot of fresh perspectives and to challenge one another and to bring the expertise together around the table and their resources to try and solve some of those challenges.

That's what we talk about when we talk with Agri-food ecosystem, and it's always about trying to do something impactful for this planet and people. 

What we've seen often in corporations is that they have a strong marketing department that's focused on the consumer and often the consumer wants something that tastes great, that's convenient, that's a good price point. Even if they say they want something healthy and sustainable, often it's price, convenience and taste. And at the same time that businesses might have a corporate social responsibility or sustainability department that are pushing to try and create products that are better for the planet.

Often these two things go against each other unfortunately, and they don't work closely together. We've seen that over the years, and we're there to try and help those departments, those people. It's about people that work better together and really understand these challenges and bring in fresh perspectives. They don't often have access to this different expertise. So that's what we do: we help that conversation. We bring together the right stakeholders around specific challenges and guide them on that journey to try and find solutions. 

If you want to hear why we choose the name, it's because it reflects our personality. So I think that our company is about people. We are provocative, we like to challenge.  Also, the name is about transparency: it's about being naked. We have nothing to hide about this, there's no bullshit in what we do. This is how we do it. We believe in the planet and people. And if the people we are working with don't, then we need to find other projects to work on. So it's very much about being provocative showing that this is a fresh approach. It's almost filtering: if people find this an interesting name and then they're more likely to be the ones that we want to work with; if they're turned off by it, that's okay too because probably not the organization to work with. We're not conservative. We're not going to give you the same old spiel. It's a very tailored approach to the challenge that we're facing.

We've seen that with some of the corporations we've tried to work with there is greenwashing. I think hopefully as we say of our name and our values, where we work, that's not for us. So we walk away and we are going to challenge and provoke if we work together.

What is the method that you adopt during the process? Could you describe it?

We come from different corporate backgrounds: the people I work with have been at some of the top business schools in the world, so we've seen all different types of methodologies. 

What I've seen in a lot of research development departments is that they focus on the feasibility and viability of the technological solutions to take, instead of becoming more of a human-centred approach, design thinking, whatever you want to call it.

We've been on that journey five years ago and we learnt that design thinking can be super powerful if you understand the needs of the consumer or the market and design for that.

So not tech first, but people first. 

During that journey, we've seen more of a need and an acceptance of the circular design which is something that we've been testing and embracing. This is where, instead of putting the human at the centre of your design process, we put the planet or the ecosystem sustainability in the centre. This is a really powerful centre, but often it leads to designs that, unfortunately, consumers or markets aren't wanting, or aren't willing to pay. So we've said, "well, how do we bring those two things together?"

There's a framework that we use, which evaluates different criteria that you want to put in place, and ensures that you're watching these impact criteria as you're designing.

We also bring in ensuring that in the conversations, as we go through this design journey, we have representatives who are stewarding the user and representatives that are stewarding the sustainable impact that you're trying to make. Then, at each stage of the design journey both of those representatives need to be satisfied.

This is how we tried to ensure that we're designing for both people and the planet as we go. 

And to do that we're an ecosystem: we tried to bring in behavioural science. So, we have sociologists and psychologists that we work with and we have sustainability and circular scientists and experts as well.

The word co-create explains exactly what and how we do: this is not Naked Innovations doing things alone. This is with the organization that might be sponsoring and we have all the different stakeholders.

We have to map out those stakeholders and find representatives during the journey. So there's very much a co-creation process.

It should be also pretty complex to manage and probably they are not short-term projects. Would you like to give us an example of one of these projects, just to make it more grounded?

I think interestingly what we've seen is, as you say, it's not short-term. What's happened with ecosystems is we find that there are many big challenges and many possible solutions. So where we've gone more in recent years is building incubator, accelerator or venture builder startup builder programs, where we can focus on one challenge area and fuse methodology to bring different stakeholders on the journey.

An example would be the new venture builder that we created right now called "Team up", which is where we're matching co-founders from a technological background with co-founders from entrepreneurial backgrounds or business backgrounds. Why are we doing that? Same reason we've worked with over 300 startups in the last two and a half years: often the ones that fail, unfortunately, it's because they have a technology-first focus. So the inventor of that technology often becomes a CEO and he, or she, is then focusing on perfecting that technology rather than understanding the market. So the old school way of doing R&D, as are doing corporates but just at a startup level, often coming out of university or research centres.  

Some interesting business people who have been successful in business, or have been successful in startups, are looking for an interesting technology partner to co-found a startup. So we've created "Team up" to search the market in Europe for those people. We had 280 applicants and we selected 66 of them: 40% of the tech co-founders, 60% business, and we're now matching them together. The idea is that by the end of this year, we're working on this as an EIT food sponsored program, we're taking the journey where we match them.  
We go from an exploratory phase where they start building their team, and it's all about understanding each other. So we can build a startup, a business together with very strong foundations, beginning with purpose and built on their values and their experience.

I talk about this because it's very much centred on what it means to start with a challenging area. So here we've got challenge areas, one around sustainable agriculture, on digital traceability, circular economy and healthy nutrition.

With those six challenge areas, we can attract these business people and these tech people together, and come together to find each other's co-founders and try to solve or build a startup together. 

On that journey, we aim from the 280 applicants and the 66 participants to then form 15 staff's offices, which will be subdivided into those six focus areas I mentioned. The aim is to have technological solutions that are strongly founded in different areas. 

We have many examples from different challenges that have created technologies that are now in the market all across Europe. But really I think that's the point: it's not about one project for us that makes a difference. We've done projects for Danone and Unilever that are using our planet people methodology to create new projects, for example in Unilever for their Lipton teas. It's much more interesting now where we're going as a company to have a bigger reach across the ecosystem, rather than one organization that's reaching out across many through these startup incubators, accelerators and ventures.

The example of T-Mobile is designed and run by Naked Innovations, it's sponsored by EIT food, they're also supported by their partners in BühlerDanone, Döhler, Givaudan and PepsiCo.

So this way, rather than one project with one of those companies, we're able to get exposure for all of the startups and the founders to all of them. And those companies get access to different technologies, different ideas, eight different startups: it's a much broader reach.

The beauty of working in this ecosystem is we go on one journey over a six to eight month period and we have multiple people working in multiple different technologies. That diversity itself means that peer learning is going on and they can see how each other work, they can form their own partnerships, they can learn from each other's failures and successes too. They have access to these organizations I mentioned before as well, who are also able to give their expertise, that guidance and at the end, even potential opportunities for partnering and piloting with some big corporations.

What is the role of agriculture technology in the overall advancement of the sustainable AgriFood sector?

It's key.

I talk a lot about people but I think that technology is the enabler: it's the tool. It shouldn't be in my belief, the lead, but it can be so impactful. As long as we're creating agriculture technology that is designed around people and planet solutions, then it can be very powerful. 

For example, last year we ran part of the food accelerator network. We ran a vertical program called smart farming, which is really around sustainable agriculture. And in that program, we had some amazing startups that are now scale-ups and doing really well. 

One example would be a company called Odd.Bot, which talks about robotics for a sustainable future: an autonomous robot called the Weed Whacker, which is the first fully autonomous robotic kind of mechanical weed remover. That goes on to farm by itself solar powered and can find weeds and remove them, meaning that you can reduce your reliance on automation chemicals and pesticides, and so on you get saving both in terms of financial, but also in terms of being more organic. This took them on that journey that ended up winning the food accelerator network.

It is quite difficult to make the Agri sector embrace and adopt technologies, especially since in Europe we have a lot of small players in the Agri sector, not big companies. So how do you see challenges for technology to get into the market?

I think it's the ecosystem: we need test farms, we need spaces where these amazing innovators can go and play, they can test, they can try, they can have errors and improve their agriculture technologies on farms. We need regulators to be on our team to support the new common agricultural policy. And I think we need them to understand how quickly agriculture could be disrupted. 

We know it's a crisis, but it's a crisis coming from many different angles and we need our politicians to stand up and recognize this and the huge opportunity that is. 

We always see challenges as opportunities here at Naked innovations, and it is, so we can turn this crisis into something that makes a better world for all of us. We need to support these amazing innovators. 

In agriculture, another challenge that can become an opportunity is we're seeing a generational shift of farmers. So here in Europe, we have a lot of farmers who are looking to retire,they're in their seventies. I know some farmers who are in the eighties who are still on fire. In fact, one of my friend's granddad is 92 and he's still farming the field. It's incredible. And he will forever because it's what he loves to do. We're seeing that often their sons and daughters and grandchildren are coming to farm with new fresh ideas.

I think we have to support these young farmers on their journey and have them as the ones who become part of this ecosystem and are able to support these farming technologies. I spoke about this because we're making it bigger and we're bringing in some of these young agrifood farmers to be part of that network to connect them with technologists.

And to also understand the food element because, in a day, most of the agriculture turns into food. It's a very complex supply chain, but they are connected. We need to understand what consumers still want, because it goes back to what we put in our farms, in the fields.

For me, it's an absolute ecosystem. It's about connecting those stakeholders, giving them, empowering them all to have a voice. And to challenge each other, to come up with better solutions. 

Where do you see the AgriFood sector heading towards?

It can go two ways, right? 

Challenges are only opportunities if we face them if we accept them as a challenge if we recognize them. We wake up otherwise they just get worse and worse and this is the crossroads we're at.

Our purpose is for a more collaborative ecosystem: one that all of the players, big and small, take accountability for the AgriFood system we have today. It's not perfect, it wasn't designed to be bad, but it is what it is. And, we hopefully are all smart enough and brave enough to make these change.

I would like to say that the future is both planet and people focused. So it is healthier for people and healthier for this wonderful planet we live on, that's where I see it going. And I hope all of us here can be part of that solution, but it means working together.

And in the end, it's good for business.

That's what it will come from: profit will be a result of that. And without it there'll be no business, cause there's no people on the planet anyway. 

About the author

Ryan Edwards

Ryan is co-founder of Naked Innovation, operating in the sector of Agrifood sustainability and innovation.