"Food culture is a massive differentiator": Founder of Forward Fooding Alessio D'Antino on FoodTech ecosystems of Europe and the United States

Editor's Note: This is the first part of our interview with Alessio D'Antino. You can read the second part here.

Alessio D’Antino is founder & CEO at Forward Fooding, the world's first collaborative and data-driven platform for the food and beverage industry.

A former executive at a Fortune 500 beverage company, Alessio resigned in 2013 to join a California-based tech-focused startup accelerator as an intern. In 2014, he founded Crowdfooding aiming to broaden access to capital for Food and FoodTech entrepreneurs. Eventually, D’Antino built a community of innovators that tackled some of the greatest challenges affecting the global food system and developed the concept of Forward Fooding.

Today, Forward Fooding operates as the world’s first collaborative and data-driven platform for the food and beverage industry. Alessio and his team establish fruitful collaborations between small and large companies to create a brighter future of food and provide global data and insights through their new global FoodTech Data Navigator.

What is the mission behind the Forward Fooding Engagement Programme?

Forward Fooding works in two directions – for startups and for corporates. We support startups by helping them tap into alternative sales channels like canteens and cafeterias and connecting them with corporates. Combining startups’ agility to innovate with corporates’ infrastructure and expertise allows to get better products to more consumers.

At the same time, we connect corporate executives with innovators with our scouting and engagement programs. First, we review the innovation areas that are strategic for the corporate agenda and come up with a shortlist of startups for potential commercial partnerships. After that, we invite both parties to our engagement program and use our 12-week methodology to establish good business and human fit between them.

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    Alessio D'Antino, founder and CEO of Forward Fooding

We have also just launched the FoodTech Data Navigator powered by Forward Fooding. This is a collaborative data platform that allows big businesses to subscribe to up-to-the-minute FoodTech insights. From creating watch lists for new startups, investors and investments, to navigating global FoodTech startups via our interactive map tool, and delivering real time social media and buzz monitoring information – the FoodTech Data Navigator will provide a valuable insight into the Foodtech industry and bring you data with the power to transform your food business.

From your perspective, how do FoodTech ecosystems vary from country to country if we compare legislation and state support?

The main difference is the maturity of the ecosystem specifically for FoodTech, however it also could be applied to FMCG in the food and beverage industry.

At Forward Fooding, we define AgriFoodTech as the emergent sector exploring how technology can be leveraged to improve efficiency and sustainability in designing, producing, choosing, delivering & enjoying food.

With this in mind, US ecosystem is ahead of European just because they started earlier. The movement of people who started seeing food with different lenses and spotted an opportunity to use technology to create better food, change the way we consume it and craft more efficient processes started in the Bay Area more than 5 years ago.

Companies like JUST (formerly Hampton Creek) started using big data to understand the genetics of plants. That is a very technological approach to figuring out what were the common paths between plant-based protein and animal protein. If we all agree that FoodTech is a movement and then look at the evolution of that movement, then we get into the ecosystem conversation.

US is ahead because there are more entrepreneurs and consequently – more investors, venture capitalists, family offices that are entering the space because they see a viable opportunity to get a return on their investments. And then there are companies that are trying to catch up with all the innovations that are happening in the industry.

I think, it boils down to two main elements — level of maturity of the ecosystem and the investment landscape.

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    Alessio D'Antino at Food & Beverage Innovation Forum in China

What I experienced first-hand when I started my company, which I actually started in the US, was the fact, that a lot more people in the US invest in startups professionally. They assess investment opportunities with a different eye and invest their capital to help businesses grow in the long run.

In Europe, the barriers to enter the space as an investor are very low. In the UK, there is a number of crowdfunding platforms based on the equity crowdfunding model, which means any individual can invest as little as 10 pounds into a company and acquire shares of this business. It is amazing because it democratizes access to capital for entrepreneurs as you can literally raise from your family and friends.

The flip side of this is that you have a very diverse group of people as investors. The difference is crucial: professional investors support the business along its entire development journey. Passive investors who invest 10 pounds and forget about it are not going to provide resources and support, they just aim to get their money back as soon as possible.

In other words, this system broadens access to capital but doesn’t necessarily help to raise the money from the right people who will support you as an entrepreneur in developing your business.

In my personal opinion, US corporates felt this need of working more closely with startups earlier than most of the European food corporates. The reason behind it is that the US as a market is a lot more competitive. Therefore, American corporates have started cooperating with entrepreneurs a while ago, tried more things, made mistakes, identified what works for them and what doesn’t, set up corporate accelerators, invested into funds. In the meantime, lots of large players in Europe are just trying to figure out where to start.

There is also a legislative challenge in place. American states are actually united from the regulation standpoint: Although there are some federal laws in the US that are specific for particular regions, many regulatory laws apply to the entire country.

The regulatory framework in Europe, on the other hand, varies from country to country. Setting up a business in the UK it is relatively easy: you pay 15 GBP to open it online, in 24 hours you’ve got a company. Operational costs can probably be covered with 2 000 – 3000 GBP per year.

The same entrepreneur in Greece would have to pay 100 000 EUR per year to run a business.

Where does all this money go?

First of all, you won’t find a decent accountant for less than 2 000 EUR a month. Then, consider 40 000 EUR for the notary to set up the business. Pay an accountant to put together your legal entity. What I am trying to say is that you cannot run a business anywhere in Europe that can be comparable to American businesses in terms of regulations and operations.

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Let’s imagine an Italian company that wants to produce insect-based product and needs to breed insects. According to Italian safety standards, you cannot breed them in Italy. So, the businessman goes to the Netherlands or the UK where it is regulated. All of a sudden, these differences in the regulation generate additional cost. Even when European Commission provides guidelines, every country in the EU takes time to interpret the regulation and create their own version of it.

Is there something that makes Europe competitive?

When it comes to startups, European FoodTech ecosystem is a lot more diverse than the one in the US. At Forward Fooding, we have been seeing lots of different solutions that go well beyond more mature sectors of the FoodTech industry: cell agriculture, lab-grown meat, alternative protein. We don’t lack talent: we have universities that educate talented people who want to work with food and have enough knowledge to compete with any country.

Our research and development institutions allow students and PhDs to come up with breakthrough solutions. The first lab-grown meat patty, for instance, was produced by Dutch scientist Mark Post in Maastricht.

The other element that sets Europe aside is its consumers. If you take Germany and Italy, you can clearly see, that some products will resonate well with German consumers but won’t work in Italy.

These traditions, consumer behavior, peculiarities create endless opportunities for entrepreneurs to create FoodTech products and solutions that meet each individual consumer’s need and are specific for every country.

There is no “one size fits all” in Europe. Think of a specific eggplant that comes from a particular village in Italy with specific soil and weather condition. You cannot replicate its taste. Now apply this thinking to FoodTech and you will see endless opportunities.

Culture, habits and tastes you grow up with play such an important role in food business. While most of the US-based cell agriculture companies focus on meat, European are trying to culture cruelty-free foie gras. I remember a London-based drink company that tried to launch they top flavor – lemon and cucumber – in the US, but Americans simply didn’t get why would you put cucumber in flavoured water.

On the other hand, famous American Campbell’s soup was also met without enthusiasm in Europe. Food culture is a massive differentiator.

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