Putting Australia & New Zealand Food Innovation on the Global Menu
Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) have long been recognised as sources of high-quality food ingredients whose origins continue to command significant premiums in global markets. Australia’s pre-farm gate agricultural sector is projected to be worth $72B by 2030, and Australia’s AgriFood Tech sector alone contributes $14B to its economy.
The unique biodiversity of these countries is reflected in their wide range of nutraceutical products and high-value ingredients, such as value-added milk products and local fruit extracts. Unsurprisingly, the ANZ region has also attracted significant investment into its food and beverage (F&B) industries, with investors ranging from local cooperatives, sovereign wealth funds and multinational corporates (MNCs). Notable acquisitions include the $239M acquisition of Australasian supplement firm Vitaco by Shanghai Pharma and Primavera Capital, and Asahi Group’s acquisition of NZ juice producer Better Drinks Company for $90M. Australia has also been a rich hunting ground for MNCs seeking to diversify their product portfolios, as shown by Chinese nutrition giant BY-Health Co’s $483M acquisition of probiotics firm Life-Space Group.
Beyond raw ingredients and nutraceuticals, the region’s innovative food tech sector is increasingly pushing scientific boundaries to produce high-value finished food products. The region’s relatively small domestic markets and geographic remoteness has meant its F&B producers tend to be export-oriented (e.g. NZ Investor’s Guide) from an early stage, and its leading food tech start-ups have their finger on the pulse of global innovation trends. In fact, given the diminishing value of the provenance of traditional dairy and meat products in the face of alternative proteins and other innovative foods, ANZ food tech entrepreneurs increasingly understand the need to become global players who sell their know-how and innovations rather than simply exporting goods. Just this week Australia’s national science agency CSIRO has released a roadmap report on how it can serve a wider range of high-quality protein products to feed the world’s growing population. A similar report on emerging proteins in New Zealand was published last year by EPNZ.
Indeed, like elsewhere, sustainability and holistic well-being innovations are front and centre, including the leading plant-based meat producer v2food, leafy plant protein start-up Leaft foods, plant-based dairy protein start-up Miruku, and nootropic beverage brand Ārepa. Rather than being merely followers, the very best of ANZ start-ups are leading the way and addressing pain points even within on-trend sectors. The taste of alternative proteins for example remains a major concern with the evidence suggesting specific nutritional claims do not resonate with consumers nearly as much as taste. Indeed, Australian food tech start-up Nourish Ingredients is currently developing fats produced from fermentation that mimic the taste of animal fats in plant-based meats. In New Zealand, Ārepa is one of the hottest stories in the nascent nootropics sector (foods that promote neurological function). Its flagship beverage made from a unique strain of blackcurrants has rapidly expanded beyond New Zealand and is now on shelves across Australia, driven by the brand’s desire to offer an alternative to caffeine-based drinks.
These innovations are made possible by a thriving food innovation ecosystem integrating research institutes, industry associations, and the public sector (e.g. integrated AgriFood Tech growth in Australia). Leading academic institutions with strong industry connections such as the University of Queensland and Monash University are supported by quasi-governmental organisations such as Austrade, FIAL, and CSIRO to develop and commercialise food tech. Nourish Ingredients for example is a spinoff of CSIRO and has recently received VC funding ($11M) from CSIRO itself as well as Horizon Ventures, a US-based firm that also bankrolled Impossible Foods. Meanwhile, FIAL has committed $6.7M of funding towards collaborative projects in the food industry, resulting in products with a combined annual sales potential of $37M.
Indeed, nowadays it is hard to find exciting food tech ideas that haven’t attracted the interest of local investors, such as Daisy Labs (out of the University of Auckland) which is developing a lab-grown version of casein, a protein critical to the mouthfeel and taste of dairy products which plant-based options have difficulty imitating.
In addition to facilitating funding, the ecosystem also provides access to innovation hubs such as the Food Innovation Network in New Zealand where start-ups can experiment without the prohibitive cost of establishing their own R&D facilities.
In Australia, such initiatives continue to attract significant public funding, as exemplified by Charles Sturt University’s intention to create an F&B commercialisation hub with recently announced funding from the federal government’s ‘Trailblazer’ program. In New Zealand, the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFFF) program has not only co-invested in the development of alternative proteins such as Leaft Foods and aquaculture, but also cross-category projects that leave the door open for all types of food tech.
Despite the potential of the region’s food tech start-ups, much of the investment by MNCs is still aimed at ‘traditional’ sectors such as acquisitions of processed grocery and nutraceutical brands. This contrasts with the increasing attention paid by VCs to food tech innovations in the region as demonstrated by v2 Food’s $54M round in 2021 led by global investors including Temasek Holdings and Sequoia Capital. This interest is beginning to grow beyond the famed alternative protein sector, as shown by an $11.4M investment by Hitachi and Vectr Ventures in Provectus Algae, which is developing a biomanufacturing platform whereby the growing environments of microalgae can be manipulated to produce specialty food and beverage ingredients.
Open Innovation Opportunities
Admittedly, many MNCs have R&D facilities in ANZ but there is a glaring absence of the open innovation initiatives seen in Asian peers such as Singapore, where the likes of Nestle and Givaudan have invested in innovation platforms (e.g. Nestlé’s accelerator facility) where start-ups and scientists can access world-class equipment, and commercialisation and R&D expertise. Some do not have an R&D presence in the region at all. Despite the efforts of players such as the aforementioned NZ Food Innovation Network, the ecosystem in ANZ is hampered by inadequate infrastructure especially for the development of alternative proteins.
There is therefore room for a global F&B company that has the reach and resources to fully scale food tech innovations from ANZ. While Corporate VCs can and do directly invest in ANZ startups alongside leading US-based VCs, ANZ’s food entrepreneurs need more than just capital. They need partners with the resources to support product development, and the global networks to scale and fully realise the commercial potential of their innovations. The importance of a robust innovation ecosystem to capital-intensive ventures such as food tech and the role of key players such as MNCs cannot be overstated.
This of course does not have to consist of a full-fledged R&D and incubator centre. By simply playing an active role in the food tech innovation ecosystem, global players gain access to the best and brightest entrepreneurs in ANZ. SPACE-F in Thailand for example brings together start-ups, VCs, academia, and global corporates in a central acceleration and incubator platform.
Australia and New Zealand’s food industries are rich and storied, but the region understands that the increasing demands of the world’s population in the 21st century requires a pivot towards innovative food technologies. While the newest generation of entrepreneurs are gaining traction internationally, they need more than just the money provided by financial investors. This is an opportunity for organisations with not only financial firepower but market networks, manufacturing infrastructure, and expertise to benefit from turning the region’s innovations into global successes.
Great article Andrew. I am now Chair and NED of ASX listed EZZ LifeScience Holdings. We play in this field and need to have a discussion.