Effective dissemination and innovation – the keys to success
Clear dissemination followed by innovation is the cornerstone of food industry development, growth, commerce and sustainability. Here, Ronan Gormley considers what can go wrong and how to successfully bridge the gap between research and application.
Image a river, with researchers on one side and end users (innovators) the other. The bridges represent dissemination routes but the bridges are narrow and difficult to cross. Research is relatively simple to conduct, in that researchers apply for research funds, conduct research and produce results. However, achieving application of the results by end users is far more difficult. Some pros and cons of dissemination and innovation are discussed with respect to small- to medium-sized food enterprises (SMEs).
Dissemination can be likened to a river flowing from source to end-point, ie, a lake or the sea. There are many small rivers and streams feeding the river and so it is with dissemination flows, where information enters the system along the way. However, unlike a river, many dissemination flows never reach their end-point of innovators, or are ignored due to the unattractive nature of the disseminated material.
Dissemination to SMEs is particularly important as they represent more than 90 percent of the European food industry. Big companies have plenty of resources and are largely able to look after their own innovation needs: not so with SMEs. A survey has shown that SMEs obtain most of their information from ingredients and equipment suppliers and least from food research journals.1 Disseminators must be aware of this and thus change their dissemination routes.1-3 The ability of food companies to implement new research findings decreases as company size decreases (see Figure 1). Micro companies have very few technical staff and so need extra help to implement new research findings. Factors for success in transferring technical information to food SMEs include:
- Meeting and building trust; networking is the key to success in many cases
- Don’t sell R&D. Instead sell solutions or other information that is useful to the company; demonstrate a profit motive
- Use equipment and ingredient suppliers to reach small companies
- Work in-factory with very small companies
- Understand that timing is important, ie, it is difficult to communicate research findings when today’s business is the company’s priority
- In small family-run businesses the best contact person is often the son or daughter
- Ready-to-use material in the right language is critical
- Recognise the limits in technology transfer and R&D dissemination
- Concentrate on companies that have the capacity to be successful in R&D uptake.
The EU-funded FLAIR-FLOW EUROPE (F-FE) dissemination project was a flagship project that ran for 12 years (1990-2002) in 23 countries and disseminated research results from EU Framework food science and technology, and related programmes to food SMEs, health professionals and consumer groups.1,2 It operated via national networks, each with a network leader, who facilitated distribution (by fax) of one-page technical documents, written in layman’s language by the F-FE co-ordinator, to a multitude of food SMEs and other end users on potentially useful research results. Many of the national network leaders translated the documents (termed one-pagers) into the language of their country to facilitate uptake. Three one-pagers were circulated each month via the international F-FE networks and each contained the name and contact details of the scientist who conducted the research. Interested end users were able to contact the researcher directly without going back through the F-FE network system. Virtually all the one-pagers were also published in trade, technical and scientific journals in most participating countries, which led to many thousands of publications and the term ‘journal power’. Feedback from end users was another cornerstone of F-FE providing valuable information on the degree of penetration and usefulness of the disseminated material.
The second major F-FE dissemination route was workshops on research results from EU-funded food science and related projects. Circa 300 F-FE workshops were held in various countries over the 12-year project duration. Some of these were termed ‘RETUER’ workshops; ie, ready-to-use European research where the material presented could be implemented by attending companies in days/weeks rather than in the long term; these workshops proved highly successful.
While the F-FE project took place over 20 years ago, its operating principles are entirely applicable today. However, communication channels have changed dramatically in that period. F-FE operated largely via fax and a website, as email technology was only in its infancy. Current email technology, social media and smart phones have transformed connectivity, as have ResearchGate, Linkedin and similar systems. However, this comes at a cost, as information overload is now a problem, alongside questions about the quality and reliability of the disseminated information – ie, there is a trust issue. The operating principles and outcomes from F-FE are available as a six-page Dissemination Blueprint1 from [email protected].
Innovation has broad definition, where end users convert research results into hard cash via new products, processes, packages and other routes. Other definitions of innovation include: (i) review the broad spectrum of a company’s activities… and then do it better; (ii) the ‘diverge and converge’ concept, ie, diverge via brainstorming to create new ideas and then focus/converge to produce a distilled outcome.4 Europe has an ongoing innovation deficit with spending on innovation being considerably lower than in the USA and Japan.5 The EU market is the largest in the world but is fragmented and somewhat ‘innovation unfriendly’. There is also an innovation ‘whirlpool’ with too much money being spent talking about innovation and not enough on actual delivery.5 Three essential elements of effective innovation are:
(i) One-stop shops
The first is where companies can sign up over a short time span for proof of concept, seed capital and other finance available for supporting innovation and where the technology opportunity is ready for uptake. There is a plethora of sources (both national and EU) offering funding mechanisms for food industry innovation, and, in many cases, they are competing with each other, which is hugely wasteful of resources.5 Many innovation opportunities for food SMEs are lost through lack of brevity, ie, paperwork (the currency of administrators) is a turn-off for SMEs. Administrators seem to forget that SMES are time-poor. The third element, simplicity, points to the importance of keeping the whole innovation process simple. Again, many administrators make things unnecessarily complex through jargon and complex forms because they think it justifies their existence.
Many food science and technology conferences have a section on innovation. Foremost among these are the annual EFFoST (European Federation of Food Science & Technology) conferences where food industry participation is fostered and SMEs participate as speakers and in conference brokerage and related innovation-friendly activities.6 The EFFoST conferences also provide a list of distilled research and innovation areas suitable for funding under ongoing and forthcoming EU Framework Programmes. EU concerted actions can also produce highly innovative outcomes. The COST 91-bis programme (1985-1989) on chilled foods is a good example that had extensive participation by industry and academia, resulting in applied research outcomes that are, 30 years later, still the cornerstones of today’s European chilled foods industry.7
Data from many sources show that failure rates for new product/process launches by food SMEs are greater than 90 percent. Most of these occur at the ‘valley of death’ part of the innovation chain and can be attributed to many factors – some obvious, some obscure, and others through sheer bad luck. Whatever the reason, most failures have severe financial implications for the food SMEs in question. However, on the positive side, failure is a great teacher and can be a gateway to new horizons; ie, one is unlikely to make the same mistakes the second time round.
- Gormley R. 2000. Dissemination Blueprint: the FLAIR-FLOW Experience, F-FE 382/00, 6 pages.
- Gormley R, Espinosa MJ. 2000. FLAIR-FLOW EUROPE: a focused dissemination system for small food companies. Food Research International, 33, 289-293.
- Ross-Hellauer T, et al. 2020. Ten simple rules for innovative dissemination of research. Plos Computational Biology, 16(4), doi10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007704
- Henry H. 2015. Presentation at Innovation Conference, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
- Gormley R. 2012. Food innovation: a critical appraisal. Food Science & Technology, 26(4), 40-43.
- Gormley R, Knol J, Martín-Belloso O. 2021. EFFoST: An information powerhouse on European food science & technology. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 113, 430-432.
- Zeuthen P, et al. 1990. Processing and Quality of Foods (Elsevier Science Publishers): Volume 3 – Chilled Foods: The Revolution in Freshness, 11, 376 pages.
About the author
Ronan Gormley is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Agriculture and Food Science in University College Dublin. He is a graduate in chemistry (BSc and PhD) but has worked in food science since 1968 and currently specialises in sea foods, fruits, vegetables, the global cold chain and dissemination. He has 672 publications including 144 peer reviewed papers and a wide experience of EU framework and national food science and related research programmes.