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Learning from Innovations Tackling the Global Food Sustainability Challenge

With the highly topical theme of food sustainability, the MD Club event on Wednesday 12th February looked at some of the key issues facing the food and drink sector focusing on what we can learn from innovation solutions in this sector.

The industry represents the largest manufacturing sector in the UK with GVA at £28.2 billion. As the evening highlighted, there are both significant opportunities and major challenges around productivity and sustainability in food manufacturing which both universities are able to support with their complementary expertise.

Sheffield Hallam University’s newly opened National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering (NCEFE) provided an impressive setting for the event. It’s remit typifies the aims of the MD Club – to be at the centre of an expanding network of industry groups, academics and engineers, working together to solve specific business challenges.

The event brought together a series of speakers who gave fascinating insights into food innovation:

Alan Marson, Managing Director New Food Innovation Ltd

With a long career dedicated to food innovation, Alan and his team help SMEs, start-ups and businesses specialising in food innovation to grow by providing support in technology-based research and business strategy.

Alan discussed how strategic innovation in food manufacturing, such as carbon labelling on packaging can boost the industry. Alan also spoke on a ground-breaking project with Sheffield Hallam University to find more efficient ways of carrying out rice milling which has the potential to have a significant impact on global rice production. Alan spoke further on the benefits of employing students for business. Currently, New Food Innovation mentors junior consultants who gain industry experience whilst the business benefits from developmental science.

Professor Martin Howarth, Director NCEFE and Amanda Johnston, Specialist Innovation Manager

Martin and Amanda explained how the NCEFE is already tackling food industry challenges such as sustainability, productivity, health and food waste. One example of this is the NCEFE’s work on one of the UK’s most popular cheeses – cheddar cheese. Research carried out on adjusting the protein matrix and structure of the cheese has resulted in a reduction of fat content by 20% and salt levels by 10% without altering the taste, texture or ingredients.

With major food businesses already established in the region such as Greencore, Premier Foods, Mondelez, Finsbury, Two Sisters and Cerealto, the centre is ideally placed to offer expertise in areas including modeling processes, food automation and materials analysis.

The centre has been awarded £7.9million in funding to provide specialist support to ten food-related projects including Maxons and the Russian Pie Co.

Jacob Nickles, Knowledge Exchange Associate, The University of Sheffield

Knowledge Exchange Associate Jacob Nickles, highlighted research from the University of Sheffield around the development of technology-driven greenhouses to grow food. In the harshest of conditions, a project headed up by Prof. Tony Ryan developed innovative hydroponic techniques that have provided Zaatari, a Jordanian refugee camp, with essential, life-giving nutrition. Working with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the team plans to use this as a template for growing food at other refugee camps.

Will Chew, Founder, Mak Tok (Chilli Pastes) 

Budding entrepreneur, Will Chew told the highly entertaining and frank tale of how he founded Mak Tok, a delicious and irresistible Malaysian Chilli paste – with essential business support from both universities. Will has spent time working with the universities to expand the shelf life of his products from one day to 18 months and received support from Sheffield Hallam through Design Futures to redesign his packaging. Will is on a path of success having earned a Young Entrepreneur of the Year award, Sheffield Business Award and investment from the BBC’s Dragon’s Den.

Those attending drew inspiration from exhibitors including Loro Crisps (plantain crisp producers), Pura Panela (dried sugar producers) and Mak Tok who showcased how both universities can provide essential innovation support to businesses in many specialist fields – whether that’s in production, product development, marketing or business processes.

To round-off the evening, thought-provoking discussions on the region’s food and drink sector continued as guests tucked into delicious, local food provided by caterers, PJ Taste. Guests were able to network with exciting connections made between many at the event, including senior academics from both universities working within food sustainability and manufacturing. A tour of the NCEFE was also given to see how the facilities, such as rice milling machines, brewing tanks and chocolate fountains, are being used for world-leading research in food production.

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