Irish manufacturers discover the power of partnerships

The Irish functional foods sector is characterised by numerous small and medium enterprises working in partnership with research bodies and academic institutions—a setup that leads to high levels of innovation and will make Ireland a key player in the global market, says Margaret O'Connor

With Ireland?s indigenous food industry focused on the global market, and a number of academic facilities dedicated to food and agri-research, predictions of significant global growth in the value of the functional foods sector take on particular importance.

Conservatively valued at $12 million, the country?s functional foods sector is mainly made up of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and is an area that the industry development agency Enterprise Ireland considers to be a key economic growth area. Indeed, the government agency is confident that growing consumer interest and demand will grow the Irish functional foods market to more than $245 million within five years.

Ireland?s traditional strength in dairy products has already been demonstrated by the launch of a range of bio-yoghurts and drinks. The addition of novel food ingredients introduces a level of innovation that complements Ireland?s traditional food manufacturing industries. The companies behind this development, such as AlphaOmega Nutraceuticals, Deoxy, EuroFlavour, Marigot, Star Nutraceuticals and Cybercolloids, will hopefully further develop Ireland?s position as a supplier of functional ingredients to food industries both at home and internationally.

A long-term business
Developing innovative products, especially in the food sector, is a long-term business. Because it is highly dependent on R&D and testing via applied and/or clinical trials, new product development can range anywhere from two to five years. But the challenges do not stop there. Market research, legislation, patenting and copyright, marketing, and strategic alliance information require manpower and financial backing.

One characteristic of the EU food industry is that innovative companies, which tend to take the biggest risks, tend to be SMEs, and this is particularly true in Ireland. Established food manufacturers, however, review developments as part of their business growth strategy and make acquisitions of innovative companies and technologies. This provides a route for growth and injects dynamism into the global food markets.

In Ireland other means of support and integration are being pursued, too. Analysis has been carried out to forge links between complementary enterprises, including research facilities, academia and food manufacturers. Indeed, Irish ingredients manufacturers acknowledge the contributions of University College Cork and its work on antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acids; Tralee Institute of Technology on seaweed extraction; and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and the University of Limerick on proteins and enzymes. Access by food manufacturers to laboratories, machinery, equipment and highly qualified academic personnel will ultimately produce partnerships that reward all concerned.

A particular benefit of working collaboratively is that financial control is retained by the companies behind the innovation. In a long-term, high-risk, resource-heavy sector, where the outcome is not guaranteed success, Irish business expansion schemes and venture capitalists have traditionally viewed relationships with caution. However, the attitude of Enterprise Ireland, which understands the issues and can be flexible in its support, is a positive development. Thanks to this, expansion schemes and venture capitalist organisations are now considering the fledgling Irish functional ingredients industry positively in terms of funding.

The role of Enterprise Ireland has been central in assessing the sector?s needs through discussion and research, and devising a programme of support. As a result, representatives of the related sectors have been invited to forge a national development strategy for functional foods. Plans to build a network of resources across functional, nutraceutical, biotech and pharma sectors are progressing.

In particular, Enterprise Ireland is offering assistance in much needed areas of support, such as skills to commercialise science and functional products, R&D, and IP/patent registration issues. It is setting up trade missions with successful developers of the sector—starting with Japan and Sweden. And, critically, it provides a central information resource, which actively seeks specific data on latest legislation, products, companies and markets, and runs a continuous ?technology watch service? in collaboration with overseas offices.

The challenges faced by the fledgling functional ingredients industry are steep, but the government views the future of innovation in Ireland as a significant contributor to prosperity and to providing assistance to areas of need.

Clusters of expertise
Nutraceutical ingredients represent the most complex development area of all. While complying with all food safety legislation, they also cross over into the pharmaceutical area of therapeutic efficacy—foods that may play a positive role, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes prevention or control, cancer prevention, and improved gut and eye health.

Combining the expertise of an innovative company with academia and research technology companies is a feature of the Irish industry. A particularly impressive lineup exists in Cork, where collaboration between enterprises such as UCC and Moorepark Technology has resulted in a number of ingredients with therapeutic benefits. Other examples include:

  • AlphaOmega Nutraceuticals, which is addressing extraction of natural antioxidants from fruit and vegetables for sale as nutraceuticals to pharmaceutical companies. The company also specialises in the development of natural colours. Almost all of its company?s products are exported worldwide.
  • Deoxy, which is investigating the extraction, refining and marketing of carbohydrate-based ingredients for gut health and cancer prevention, and which works with a number of small Irish food manufacturers keen to develop prebiotic and symbiotic food products.
  • EuroFlavour, which has developed a phytosterol ester that reduces cholesterol and is fat-soluble. Its other products include antioxidants and vitamins for use in dairy products and chocolate. EuroFlavor also undertakes assignments for technical research, pre-mixing, ampouling and product standardisation.
  • Marigot, which uses seawater extraction technology to produce a range of seaweed-derived minerals, including calcium and magnesium, for use in a wide range of food and beverage products.
  • Cybercolloids, which offers a complete ?one-stop? centre of excellence to the worldwide hydrocolloid industry. Particularly strong in the areas of seaweed-derived carrageenans and alginates, the company offers expertise; networks; research services; a vast information library; product development; and technical, strategic and marketing assistance to those involved in the industry.

These examples are just from Cork. In other areas, academic institutes have also shown initiative in working with the industry. Sligo Institute of Technology appointed its first director of research two years ago to implement a proactive and integrated relationship with Irish industry. Functional ingredients are a key area for the institute, which is also consulting with Enterprise Ireland to develop the industry.

The University of Limerick also has interests in the functional ingredients industry and has planned funding for dedicated incubator units. Kerry Institute of Technology has been working with Marigot to contribute extraction technology capabilities, as has the University of Galway, which has also undertaken testing of hydrocolloid formulations for Cybercolloids.

An international perspective
The ability of functional ingredients companies to produce innovations for the food, health, pharmacare, veterinary, cosmetics and personal care industries emphasises the importance of alliances across borders, sectors and capabilities. Ireland?s ethos is to look outwards for its markets: 80 per cent of Irish dairy production is exported as is 90 per cent of Irish beef. Ireland is a leading EU producer of branded pizzas and Europe?s largest supplier of cheese analogues. In consumer-ready meals, output has increased in the last 10 years from $1.5 billion to $3.2 billion, with exports increasing nearly threefold.

Likewise, Ireland?s food ingredients sector has partners and markets on the global stage. For instance, Marigot has recently collaborated with US-based GTC Nutrition to develop a combination prebiotic, calcium and magnesium product called CalciLife. Used in a range of food products, including energy bars, confectionery, snack foods and beverages, CalciLife uses its short chain fructooligosaccharide dietary fibres to aid absorption of the calcium and magnesium components, in addition to aiding digestive and immune system health.

It is hoped that with similar future projects and collaborations, Ireland will gain international recognition for excellence in functional ingredients and will play a key role in the global market for novel foods as the industry grows.

Margaret O?Connor is the functional foods development adviser at the Consumer Foods Department of Enterprise Ireland in Dublin. Enterprise Ireland is a government agency responsible for developing industry in partnership with client companies. It has an overseas network of 33 offices, which work with international clients, offering a gateway into Ireland for companies seeking suppliers.
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