13 universities land role in up to €1.6bn food project

Thirteen universities are part of a 50-institution consortium that has been chosen to set up EIT Food, a substantial new pan-European partnership bringing together leading businesses, universities and research organisations to “boost innovation, growth and job creation and put Europe at the centre of a global revolution in food”.

The decision was made by the board of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology or EIT – an integral part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 framework programme for research and innovation – in Budapest, Hungary, on 17 November.

EIT Food is the topic name for the Food4Future Knowledge and Innovation Community or KIC focusing on creating a sustainable supply chain from resources to consumers.

The consortium, FoodConnects, is coordinated by Professor Thomas Hofmann, vice-president of the Technical University of Munich in Germany. He said: “Our partnership will put Europe at the centre of a global revolution in food innovation and production by delivering products, services and ideas that will contribute to the safety and sustainability of food across Europe. EIT Food will support the creation of 350 start-ups in the next seven years to help us achieve our goals.”

The total contribution from EIT to EIT Food could rise to €400 million (US$425 million) but since this is estimated to cover only a quarter of the total consortium costs – the project is expected to attract significant funding from other sources of private and public sector investment, multiplying the investments made by the EIT – the impact of the project could be huge.

To facilitate the launch of EIT Food, the EIT will provide the winning partnerships with a start-up grant of up to €4 million to ensure that it is fully operational as soon as possible. Provided that they achieve the expected results, the funding from EIT alone could rise one hundred fold.

The 50 partner institutions in FoodConnects come from 13 countries in Europe and Israel, with nine members in Germany, seven in Switzerland, six in Spain and three in Israel. The majority of participating institutions are from business and industry, including Robert Bosch, Siemens, Anglo Beef in Ireland, PepsiCo in the UK, Nestlé in Switzerland and Sodexo in France.

Thirteen universities are members of the consortium: the Technical University of Munich, KU Leuven, the universities of Helsinki, Hohenheim, Torino, Warsaw, Cambridge and Reading, Queen’s University Belfast, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, ETH Zurich and EPFL in Switzerland and Technion, Israel.

Six research organisations in Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain will also participate.

The ambition of FoodConnects is to be “a people-centric and resource-smart transformer of the European food system, driving consumer confidence and improved global health”.

Ten thousand masters candidates

In the next seven years FoodConnects is going to train more than 10,000 masters candidates with an EIT-labelled certificate. Long-term goals are to develop 290 new or improved product services and processes by 2024 and to decrease greenhouse-gas emissions in the European food system by 40% by 2030.

FoodConnects has five co-location centres across Europe in Leuven, London, Madrid, Munich and Warsaw.

The co-ordinator Hofmann is a highly-cited professor of food chemistry and molecular sensory science and the Munich branch of the project will serve Germany and the Netherlands and be located at the Technical University of Munich School of Life Sciences Weihenstephan in Freising outside Munich.

The six strategic objectives of the project are to overcome low consumer trust, to create consumer valued food for healthier nutrition, to build a consumer-centric connected food system, enhance sustainability and to educate, engage, innovate and advance and to catalyse food entrepreneurship and innovation.

Tibor Navracsics, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the EIT, said: “Innovation and education have a crucial role in helping us tackle the big societal challenges of today and tomorrow and keeping Europe competitive in the global race. Ensuring that Europe's citizens have access to safe, high-quality, sustainably produced food is one of these big challenges.

“I am therefore very pleased to see the EIT getting this strategic partnership underway. With the support and funding of the EIT, EIT Food has a great opportunity to attract the best researchers, students and entrepreneurs.”

Jukka Kola, rector of the University of Helsinki in Finland, told University World News: “We will have a lot to contribute to the consortium, in the field of research, innovation and education, and we expect to benefit from the trusted network of collaborators, who are tackling the food issue in an unprecedented way.

“This is also a recognition of the high-quality food research done at the University of Helsinki, which is the only Nordic university in the FoodConnects consortium.”

LERU response

Katrien Maes, chief policy officer of the League of European Research Universities or LERU, said three LERU universities are partners in the Food KIC – the universities of Cambridge, Helsinki and KU Leuven.

“Of course, LERU is happy for them and pleased with this result. This result is proof of our belief in the EIT and the KICs, but we also urgently need reforms, as we have pointed out in our response to the consultation on the mid-term evaluation of the EIT.

“In particular, the strategic objectives of the KICs have to be aligned with those of the EIT, acting as a whole to set strategy and chart directions in a continuous and interactive process. A better interactional EIT-KIC governance should focus on ensuring that a high-risk/high-gain mentality and disruptive innovation ambitions are valued throughout,” Maes said.

Competing consortium

Professor Yvonne Granfeldt from Lund University faculty of engineering in Sweden – a ‘core partner’ in the competing consortium Food Nexus KIC proposal – told the faculty newsletter that not being successful was a great disappointment and that since neither Denmark nor Sweden are partners in the winning KIC consortium, it is now necessary “to find new ways forward”.

Science Business commented on the EIT decision that no KIC network in raw materials was selected for funding, and that this could be an indication that the EIT board had not found a single bidding proposal to be of good quality.

The EIT is an independent EU body set up to power innovation and entrepreneurship across Europe to overcome some of its greatest challenges in the areas of climate (EIT Climate-KIC), digitisation (EIT Digital), food (EIT Food), energy (EIT InnoEnergy), health (EIT Health) and raw materials (EIT Raw Materials).