How do you build an ecosystem? 3 creators talk you through it

It’s not about one company or one country or even one ecosystem: to build an ecosystem and drive change in the plant-based sector it’s all about connections at the broadest level, agreed three panelists at the Plant-Based Foods & Proteins 2021 Summit.

The Shaping New Ecosystems panel, hosted by Bridge2Food’s CEO Gerard Klein Essink, brought together three builders who have all started something new in the past three years and learned to make it work.

“It’s not about geography, it’s really about having the right people as part of the ecosystem,” said Tiffany Stephenson, chief marketing officer for Protein Industries Canada.

“MISTA is based in San Francisco but we’re connected globally,” said Scott May, head of the MISTA ecosystem. “We learn from other ecosystems. That’s the future.”

Julie Simonson is an executive board member with the University of Minnesota’s Plant Protein Innovation Centre and said ecosystems must reach out to each other to be successful.

“That is how we achieve our goals. It is about reaching out and not staying in your silo.”

When the centre was first established 2½ years ago to fund pre-competitive research to support the needs of the plant-protein industry, Simonson said they hoped to get 15 member companies within two years. They now have 35 members and are reaching out to academics beyond the University of Minnesota for funding proposals.

“It’s exciting to see where we’re going,” said Simonson, who is a vice-president at Schwan’s. “We’re developing the talent of the future. These students are going to be recruited by industry because of their talent and knowledge.”

At MISTA, an innovation platform aiming to transform the global food system with the collaboration of large companies and startups, they rely on their members to be committed to the ecosystem and learn from each other.

The food industry is behind other industries that have figured this out, said May, vice-president of innovation at Givaudan.

“Of course, we can learn from them and hopefully even take a step beyond.”

Trust and reciprocity are key at MISTA or any ecosystem, he said.

“Instead of ‘how do I win at the expense of everyone else, it’s how do we win?’”

People at MISTA are there to learn, and take those learnings back to their companies, and they also there to share. It’s a critical balance, May said.

Protein Industries Canada is based in the heart of the Canadian prairies but it has a national mandate to increase the production and processing of plant-based ingredients and food, said Stephenson.

When the organization started three years ago it knew its work “couldn’t be done in a vacuum,” she said.

“You can’t grow an ecosystem with one organization.”

They currently have more than 300 members and have just launched an ambitious plan to grow Canada’s share of the global plant-based market. That success and its future goals are due to the strength of their ecosystem, Stephenson said.

“When we started we focused on R&D,” she said. That built a strong foundation but they quickly learned they needed to create an ecosystem.

“It’s really about the willingness of our companies to step up and be innovative and, more importantly, to work together to accelerate that innovation. It’s them that make it possible. We’re here to support them.”

The plant-based industry is a relatively young one, Stephenson said.

“A young ecosystem just doesn’t operate the way a mature ecosystem does. Those companies need a lot more support, not just financially.

“There are a lot of complexities that have to be examined when building an ecosystem.”

Simonson said they learned in building their ecosystem that they had to listen — a lot.

“What are they looking for? What are the objectives? The goals?

“We had to make sure we’re advancing the research but that we’re also meeting the needs of the companies as this industry is quickly evolving.”

These ecosystems are also exciting in that they offer a way to tackle larger scale problems, such as climate change, said May.

“This is what is going to get us across the line in solving some of these big challenges.”

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