All the right ingredients for food research
A new collaborative drive between academics and companies is a welcome boost for agrifood sector
Food scientists: research in Ireland is being driven towards pursuing economically relevant science. Photograph: Getty Images
Ireland’s food industries are in an enviable position given the structures that have been put together in support of research and innovation. It means companies can tap into expertise within the third-level sector, but also rely on the support of government agencies to help them develop products and reach new markets.
It involves companies and academics engaging in research activity and commercialising innovations emerging from the laboratories, says Dr Frank O’Mara, director of research at Teagasc.
Few industrial sectors are as well placed as the agrifood industries to gain from collaborative research activity, he says. “There are huge opportunities there in terms of both products and processes in the food industry. And there are new areas in relation to food and enhanced value that can be added through nutraceuticals.”
Teagasc maintains links with most of Ireland’s third-level institutions, with particular connections to University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology. It has 400 scientists – 200 senior scientists and postdoctoral researchers and 200 post graduate PhD students – working at its various centres, he says.
Collaboration is a two-way street with exchange between partners in academia and in industry. It is a pull and push whether an idea comes from industry or from the lab, but in the food sector it is usually a near to market innovation, he says.
“More and more researchers recognise the need to work closely with industry,” Dr O’Mara says. “We do a lot of contract work with companies. It is seldom wholly new in food processing but an advance in technology, nutritional value, processing methods, texture, for example the creaminess of low fat yoghurt or reducing the salt content in cheese. It is a very high technology industry and if you can find a way to improve a process it can be as valuable to the company as having a new product.”
The third-level sector also sees the value of collaborative research and innovation with industry, says Prof Alan Kelly, a professor in the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork. “UCC has always had a long tradition of interaction with the food industry, through our graduates over the past 80 years and through an ongoing relationship with collaborative research and providing support for companies,” he says.
“Food science is a very applied discipline, food science, consumer science, nutritional content, safety, there are so many areas. Of all the areas of science the path from basic food research to market is closer than almost any other discipline.”
There is constant interaction with industry, from picking up a phone call with a simple query to arranging funding of a PhD student through to engagement with large multi-centre national programmes.
“The current agenda is turning towards taking on large institutional projects with industry. It is a core part of what we do in the educational and research areas,” Prof Kelly says. “Involvement with industry helps ensure the relevance of our programmes and the employability of our graduates. And the research is being driven towards pursuing economically relevant science.”
Maintaining this pairing of academics and industry is important for the future of Ireland, Dr O’Mara says. “We are at the start of an expansionary move towards milk, the need to add value for new products using milk. We are moving up the value chain and there comes a point where you need knowledge-supported innovation to do that, science supported innovation.”
A good example of that is a €1 million investment in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, by the Irish Dairy Board, he says. “A plant there is going to make cheese through a process that we developed. The idea is milk can be dried and then transported to the plant and then reconstituted and made into cheese. It was launched at the end of last year. The Irish Dairy Board identified a market and we said we have the technology that can fit that.”
Success in the industry certainly has its rewards. Our agrifood industry currently produces about €10 billion in exports and there is plenty of potential to grow this further, says Dr O’Mara.
And agencies such as Enterprise Ireland are seeking to do this through research centres such as Food for Health Ireland, a “tech centre” where industry and academics work together to advance the agrifood sector through the application of science and research.