Cork could play key role in Irish food-tech plans

Joe Gill

Bord Bia has produced another insightful analysis of international markets that Irish food companies will value.

The agency continues to evolve its services and product to assist the food industry as it grapples with Brexit while seizing the opportunities stemming from global growth in food demand. Prioritising Markets is a report worth reading in that context.

While most focus around the strategy for Irish food is rightfully based on the physical food producers in Ireland, there is an enormous opportunity to develop another angle that hooks up food with information technology.

Food technology is a rapidly developing and dynamic sector worldwide which fuses IT with agri-food to address a multiplicity of markets.

While Cork has a long-standing tradition in worldclass food engineering it has yet to grasp the potential that exists on its own doorstep for food technology.

A wide range of advanced IT companies exist in Cork while the food industry has many anchors in the region, particularly in UCC.

Surely it is possible to initiate a clustering strategy to develop a set of food tech companies in the area.

It would be worthwhile considering a physical location around which such a cluster could grow and, for my money, the area around the Butter Exchange in Shandon is an option to explore.

That area is underdeveloped, has multiple small commercial properties that are under-utilised and is ripe to create an eco-system of tech-savvy food businesses.

Being on the same side of the city as Apple might help, too, as any Cork FoodTech cluster could embrace Apple systems to make their mark on global markets.

It would also be a neat connection back to when Cork butter was a major player on the world market.

While that was a physical business in the 1770s food tech companies today often exist in cloud-based internet systems that crisscross the world instantly.

Food technology has a wide compass. It includes sensors and software that help farmers monitor, analyse and optimise their fields. It can relate to big data that helps consumers make better informed decisions.

Other applications include food production, distribution, selling and consumption business models that disrupt traditional methods.

A large amount of risk capital is being invested in a wide number of start-ups to exploit these fast- changing aspects of producing and consuming food.

Analysis by an online company Foodtechconnect shows that in the US alone $1.1bn (€950m) of venture capital was invested in 99 deals in 2017.

The trends it identified included new food brands being introduced at a rapid rate to address trending themes linked to safe, healthy, food products.

Ecommerce food and beverage- related business is expected to expand from $4bn in 2015 to $31bn by 2022; plant, nut and other alternative nutrition sources are meeting fast-growing consumer demand; and big fast-moving consumer goods companies are searching for young start-up companies that deliver products and services in these newly developing food markets.

Each of these trends creates a swath of opportunities for entrepreneurs who are tech-savvy but have a deep understanding of agriculture and food. Ireland needs to get going if it wants to be at the forefront of this fast-moving component of the food sector.

Israel has already established a FoodTech hub and is deploying large financial resources behind it.

It might be of value to have Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland hook up with UCC to produce a seminar that explores this market and the potential to build further on the installed base of successful Irish food companies.

Undoubtedly, there will be the usual severe challenges to progressing a FoodTech hub in Cork but the prize is a dynamic group of entrepreneurial companies that can help Irish food stay ahead of the game in a hyper-competitive global marketplace.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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