From within the project Exponential Academy, Antwerp Management School guides Western-Flemish companies in their evolution to a disruption-proof enterprise, together with POM Western-Flanders and TUA West. One of these companies is Foodpairing®, which is all about innovation. In this blog, you will read the story of co-CEO Bernard Lahousse, who wants to contribute to the solution for two large, social challenges: climate change and obesity.
“We’re truly at a tipping point for the nutrition sector, our entire food system is at a breaking point.” Doom-mongering hasn’t got a chance with Bernard Lahousse, co-CEO of Foodpairing®: “Times are flourishing. There are loads of opportunities for new technologies and processes: from the seed sown on the field to the grocery store aisles to our homes.” With Foodpairing® he has already seized some of these opportunities. This year alone, the company has almost doubled its staffing and keeps challenging the international food industry with radically new concepts. Intuition is thereby replaced with a combination of consumer behavior, machine learning and big data: analyses of food to a molecular level. A recipe that works.
“De food industry is an important sector in Belgium, with a societal responsibility that, just looking at today’s health issues, is not to be underestimated. But what’s lacking is some real, radical innovation. In New York, it’s completely different, you have an entire food community, where everyone propels each other forward from different backgrounds and angles. Here, we could easily experiment a little more with food technology, customer experience, …”
Eight years ago, together with Peter Coucquyt and Johan Langenbick, Bernard Lahousse started Foodpairing® from the idea that food is an ideal way to face up to two major societal challenges: climate change and obesity. “The bad news is that food, at the end of the day, is a habit and habits aren’t all that easy to break. The good news is that technology can help us with this: the easier it becomes for us to eat healthy, the bigger the chance we’ll start breaking our patterns. With Foodpairing® we want to make algorithms based on your personal tastes (what do you like?) and your health (what do you need?)”.
“In this process, intuition is no longer the foundation. We work completely on data, with attention for the chemistry of the food, the personal preferences of the user and the context. Process parameters can, for example, be connected to chemistry and consumer liking to make new recipes. First, however, you need to really understand how it works, otherwise you won’t be able to develop good recipes.
We need a lot of data, and even then it’s still a challenge: people always remain unpredictable in some respects. Mood, surroundings, … they all influence what someone does or doesn’t enjoy. Until now, we were mostly active in Europe and the US, but we’re researching other continents and trying to analyze specific consumer behavior in those regions by monitoring recipes, social media, …”
“We’re truly at a tipping point for the nutrition sector, our entire food system is at a breaking point.”
“By now, we also have an R&D team specialized in machine learning. I’m not one of the doomsayers convinced it’s going to cost a lot of jobs, on the contrary, it will create new opportunities. I have a positive outlook on the future. We’re truly at a tipping point for the nutrition sector, times are flourishing. Our entire food system is at a breaking point: there is far too much non-recyclable waste, transport is a big ecological strain, … But this also offers loads of opportunities for new technologies and processes: from the seed sown on the field to the grocery store aisles to our homes. Look at Amazon, how they’re taking over Whole Foods and causing a disruption in retail. It’s senseless to react with fear. We just have to make sure we keep up, even though it is not evident given the enormous acceleration on the market and in the technology.”
“From Foodpairing® and our ancillary enterprises we’re continuously working on new products and business models. Within Foodpairing®, the focus is definitely on consumer flavor intelligence. The ancillary enterprises work on everything from the development of new plant varieties to robotics for personal beverages. The initial webtool for chefs is still active and currently being updated, but Foodpairing® has by now become much more.”
"We do work B2B, but our technology eventually always reaches the customer and he’s the central factor in our process."
“By now, we also have some different business models. For example, we open up our API for applications and third parties to interact with. We already use this formula with various companies, in the beverage industry or the bakery industry. For instance, we’ve developed an algorithm for a bread recipe which always works. The next step is to link it to the personal preferences of the customer. We do work B2B, but our technology eventually always reaches the customer and he’s the central factor in our process.”
"Growth in itself isn’t our ambition, but we do want to contribute to creating a better world."
“We have already invested for eight years to get our technology fine-tuned; the momentum is now here to accelerate. The next few months we’re doubling when it comes to staffing: we’re going from 18 to 30 to 35 people. To do this, we needed extra office space, causing us to move from Bruges to Ghent. Growth in itself isn’t our ambition, but we do want to contribute to creating a better world – however naïve that may sound.”
“As an employer we also have a social responsibility: taking care of our people is in our DNA. We want to attract good data science people and keep them with us. Finding the right people is a big challenge. They need to have a sense of entrepreneurship and be at home in data science as well as biochemistry. It isn’t an evident profile. Education in Belgium still needs to respond to these kinds of cross-overs. Everyone must be able to program and it’s a field in which we notice a backlog in our education compared to institutions abroad. That’s why we often recruit abroad. The working language at our company is English. Because of practical reasons, but it also showcases our ‘global philosophy’.”
"What turned out to be crucial is focus."
From those eight years of experience, they must have learned a lesson or two? “I wouldn’t exactly make a lot of changes. We’ve made mistakes regularly, but it’s necessary. They give you the most opportunities to learn. What turned out to be crucial is focus. We didn’t have enough of it at the beginning. We had the luxury of being the only company worldwide engaged in this kind of technology. That’s really fun, but you run a higher risk of trying out all kinds of things, causing you to lack focus and meander.”
"I miss ambition in our foodtech start-ups."
“The start-up climate is improving whichever way you look at it; there are plenty of investors out there willing to go along with your story. But I miss ambition in our foodtech start-ups. There is a wealth of opportunities in agritech and foodtech, but at international fairs and events, you see far too little Flemish start-ups, while going international is important: our market is too small for continued growth.”
"It demands time and energy to establish a sustainable collaboration, but it helps to expand your network."
“It’s also important to continuously invest in knowledge and innovation. Back in the day, we received a lot of support from IWT and VLAIO to try out certain ideas. We also cooperated with knowledge institutions in Flanders and abroad. It demands time and energy to establish a sustainable collaboration, but it helps to expand your network. In any case, we want to become a real world player with Foodpairing®, one with substantial influence that collaborates with major corporations, so we can really make a societal difference.”
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