Simply innovating is not enough for food multinationals if it is not keeping up with fast-moving markets and ever-changing consumers. With start-ups and smaller companies gnawing away at the market shares of established players, the need to be agile is coming into focus as a key to innovating successfully. Increasingly aware of this fact, Spadel, a leading European producer of mineral waters and bottled soft drinks, recently became a partner of ToasterLAB, the acceleration program run by Vitagora, looking for means to reconnect with consumers and to collaborate with young companies and innovators driving change in their markets.
We talked to Franck Lecomte, Director of innovation, digital and CSR for Spadel, on the group’s vision of this partnership and how he is personally creating ties with start-ups through ToasterLAB.
What does agile innovation mean for Spadel?
Franck Lecomte: Our company is used to innovating in a fairly traditional manner, shared between R&D, marketing and management. Until now, we rarely went as far as disruptive innovation.
By partnering with ToasterLAB, we were looking to find inspiration in the agility of start-ups to rethink our way of innovating. Agri-food start-ups are free from constraints and are in a state of continuous innovation. We want to get past our mindset of classic, incremental innovation to move towards “lean” innovation. This is what we have been working on inhouse for more than a year, and we have brought forward several concepts that we are currently developing into business projects.
“What impact will technology have on our activity?” “What are new consumer expectations?” “How can we operate in terms of open innovation?” These are the questions we have been asking ourselves for the last few years. The main areas of interest we have identified are:
- Packaging – Waters and bottled soft drinks are strongly associated with plastic packaging and waste. Finding sustainable solutions is at the forefront of Spadel’s strategy. Joining ToasterLAB is a chance to open ourselves to promising innovations in packaging or to find new ways of bringing beverages into the homes of consumers or into “on the go” lifestyles.
- Flavoured waters and lemonades are another important part of our portfolio. We are convinced that consumers are looking for something new and we are committed to supporting and partnering with start-ups developing new concepts in this area.
Now, with ToasterLAB, we are taking the next step. We are convinced that accelerating agri-food start-ups is a key factor in advancing innovation for our sector.
How are you collaborating with start-ups?
Franck Lecomte: We are beginners in that area (laughs)! More seriously, as yet, no concrete collaboration has taken place. But the world of start-ups is not completely new to us: we got our first contact with it through events like VivaTech or Demo days and start-up weekends. With ToasterLAB, we are looking to engage real win-win partnerships with agri-food start-ups.
Since joining as a partner, you have taken part in selecting and mentoring the start-ups of the program…
Franck Lecomte: Yes, it’s a very enriching experience! What interested me was the emerging ideas and the entrepreneurs that you find behind them.
During the selection for the program, a start-up needs to be able to answer three main questions: how does their product correspond to a societal trend? Is their idea mature enough to be transformed into a business? What are the entrepreneur’s ambitions in terms of revenue?
Once the start-ups begin the program, they are not all at the same level of maturity, and they need to be able to adapt to all situations. My role is essentially to advise them, I can’t make decisions in their place. Trust and dialogue are very important: it is sometimes hard to have discussions about strategy, as each entrepreneur is sure that they have chosen the right path for their business. A mentor is there to provide constructive advice on their business model, and to make them think about what they are doing.
To be a mentor, you need to accept that your opinion is not always going to be listened to, and that our role is to advise. You need to keep a bit of distance. But when I meet young entrepreneurs, I always insist on the importance of listening. They need to be able to question themselves and to take the advice of experienced professionals and experts into consideration. This is one of the keys to succeeding in business!
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Vitagora works closely with companies and start-ups to help each type of player identify and connect with relevant partners to progress towards their innovation goals. If you are interested in connecting with Vitagora's innovation ecosystem, contact me – email@example.com.