Unleashing the power of FoodTech innovation for a more sustainable world

Interview with Christina Senn-Jakobsen, Managing Director of Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley.

Christina Senn-Jakobsen is the new Managing Director of Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley – a nationwide initiative to promote sustainability-oriented innovation and transform the way we grow, process, and distribute the food we eat. Its members include Swiss food-industry multinationals and startups, along with universities, R&D centers, local governments, and research clusters – not the least of which is Agropôle, the latest addition to Vaud’s cohort of technology parks, as part of an initiative spearheaded by Innovaud. We spoke with Senn-Jakobsen about her vision for Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley and the potential she sees for Switzerland to become a “FoodTech nation.”

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to your new position at the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley?

I actually think my whole career has been leading up to my coming here! I’m originally from Denmark; I studied food engineering and then obtained a Master’s in European Food Studies from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. My career began in the corporate world, at Mondelez International, where I worked for 12 years in roles spanning R&D, innovation management, strategy, and marketing. After that I began to engage with FoodTech startups through Kickstart Innovation – a Zurich-based program that aims to build bridges between corporates and startups from all over the world. There I lead the Food & Retail Vertical. That experience showed me the startup side of the industry, after I’d seen so many other sides – I’d also worked at a research center in Australia, taken part in a diplomatic corps in Tokyo, and stood in for a professor of chemistry. It was during my time at Kickstart Innovation that I thought: “Wouldn’t it be amazing to unite all these food-innovation forces and achieve something bigger?” Two years later, I got the call asking me to head up Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley.

 “We need to build a united ecosystem to unlock startups’ full potential.”

Now that you’ve been at the job for a few months, what vision do you have for the initiative?

I spent my first couple of months here talking to stakeholders and mapping the FoodTech landscape. This confirmed that Switzerland already has a lot going on. However, there’s an important message I’d like to send out. We tend to put startups on a pedestal and forget that they don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole ecosystem around them that enables their success. Startups would face a very long, slow journey if we didn’t have universities to foster engineers’ entrepreneurial spirit and give them scientific knowledge, investors to take the risk and fund their ideas, corporates to team up with them and provide scale and resources, a whole community of mentors and experts to advise them, local government initiatives – like Innovaud – to support their innovation efforts, and accelerators to back them. Hence, I see Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley as playing a unifying role. The idea isn’t to create another startup fund or incubator, but rather to make it easier for young companies here and for talent from abroad to navigate Switzerland’s food and nutrition ecosystem. It’s true that startups, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship are the keys to a more sustainable world. But we need to build a united ecosystem to unlock their full potential so that we can unleash impactful food innovation faster and better.

How will you work towards achieving that goal?

We’ve already identified five Impact Platforms: Sustainable Packaging, Sustainable Proteins, Precision Farming, Precision Nutrition, and Food Systems 4.0. We’ve decided to kick off with Precision Nutrition this autumn. Here we plan to form working groups with all stakeholder segments in order to unleash innovation through collaboration. For example, a company might have come up with an idea for solving an animal-nutrition challenge, but lack the tools or scientific expertise to take it further. We can team the company up with a startup working in that field, as well as a buyer so that the R&D is market-driven. 

The time is ripe for collaborative open innovation. Just ten years ago, startups – which are often purpose-driven – were in a different camp than corporates, which are generally profit-driven. Today purpose and profit go together, and both startups and corporates are important players in the FoodTech industry, making innovation happen. They are meeting at eye level and realizing that by working together, they both win – and so does our planet. This shift is being driven in large part by consumer demand, although investors are playing a role too as they increasingly look for impact investments. People in general want to be a force for good and be part of the change.

“Agropôle is an important player in Switzerland’s FoodTech ecosystem.”

What role will Agropôle play in your efforts?

For me, every player in Switzerland’s FoodTech ecosystem is a piece of a puzzle that, when put all together, creates an amazing picture. And Agropôle is one important piece of that puzzle. What I’ve come to learn lately is that some of Switzerland’s talented FoodTech entrepreneurs are leaving the country to scale up their business ideas elsewhere. The reason is that they can’t find the scale-up resources they need here. Once they reach a certain scale in their business development, they struggle to find the pilot facilities, expertise, and government support they need. That’s where Agropôle comes in. It will help us fill that gap by providing space and equipment for pilot-testing new technology and seeing how it can be scaled up for the broader industry. I’m really looking forward to working closer with Agropôle and exploring how we can better leverage their facilities and know-how and establish the Agropôle name among startups and SMEs across Switzerland and the world.

"Vaud is extremely strong in innovation. It is home to EPFL and EHL, startups and heavyweights in the FoodTech sector"

Looking at the Canton of Vaud more broadly, how would you describe it as a place for FoodTech innovation?

Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley is a nationwide initiative, so the hat I wear is a Swiss one. However, I do see that two cantons, Fribourg and Vaud, stand out in the FoodTech landscape. Vaud is extremely strong in innovation: it’s home to EPFL and EHL – which have spun off many great FoodTech startups – as well as numerous initiatives like Mass Challenge. It’s also the home of food-industry heavyweights like Nestlé. My hope is that the effort made and results achieved by the canton of Vaud will inspire other cantons to become more engaged and active in the FoodTech space. That might involve having one canton focused more on farming, and another on robotics, and yet another on biotechnology, for example. But our overriding goal is to put Switzerland as a whole on the map. You can’t make an impact in international circles by representing a single canton. You have to be able to say “Our country has all this to offer – you should come and talk to us!”.

“I believe we will have established Switzerland as a FoodTech nation for the whole world.”

Where do you see Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley in one, five, and ten years?

This first year is about bringing together changemakers in the Swiss food industry, mapping different segments of the landscape, and setting the compass. By year five, I believe we will have established Switzerland as a FoodTech nation for the whole world. This country has so many resources: top-notch universities, investors, business accelerators, a strong corporate and SME backbone, active cantons, and a thriving startup community. We have a tremendous opportunity here – but that opportunity also comes with an obligation. We can’t be content with making only Switzerland more sustainable. We must leverage these resources to tackle sustainability issues at a global level. 

By year ten, I hope we will have solved at least some of the most pressing food and nutrition challenges. The higher purpose that we and all our members sign up to is to drive FoodTech innovation in order to address climate change and the public-health crisis that’s resulting from poor nutrition. And we do this in the belief that by teaming up through collaboration, we can go better, faster, and further towards a cleaner planet and better human health.