Avebe’s new centre in the Netherlands aims to spur innovation in potato-derived ingredients, and encourage collaboration between researchers, established businesses and startups.

Starch Technology Officer Piet Buwalda says Avebe’s decision to situate the centre close to the University of Groningen, University Medical Centre Groningen and Hanze University of Applied Sciences allows the company to develop joint projects with researchers there, as well as with scientists at other universities and knowledge institutes around the country. The field of potato starch and potato protein ingredients has developed rapidly in recent years, and this is not the first time Avebe has partnered with researchers as it develops new products and applications for its ingredients.

Health and cleaner labels

The role of potato starch, for example, has evolved from an energy source to a texturiser, and most recently as a potentially health-promoting ingredient. Buwalda says coming innovations will include the use of novel enzyme-treated potato starch as a food fibre to help improve gut health.

“In carbohydrates, we are aiming at health and also cleaner label food products that our customers can use without compromising on quality,” he said. “That’s a big trend in the food industry and it’s also our strategy.”

Growing potato protein market

Meanwhile, the global potato protein market is projected to grow at 4.1% per year to reach a value of $88.2 million by 2022, according to a recent report from ResearchAndMarkets. Demand has been driven by increased interest in vegetarian protein ingredients and the strong nutritional profile of potato protein, as well as rising awareness of potential food allergens. Because they are free of the most common food allergens, potato protein ingredients stand out among current options for vegetarian meat and dairy alternatives, such as proteins derived from soy and wheat. What is more, potato protein is a high quality protein compared to many other vegetarian sources.

Avebe has already doubled capacity for production of potato protein at its nearby facility , where it makes functional proteins with gelling and emulsifying properties.

“We are also aiming in the direction of nutritional functionality,” Buwalda said. “The amino acids are all there in the right ratio.”

More efficient innovation

Avebe’s new innovation centre officially opened at the end of September 2018. It brings together more than 100 employees in marketing, sales and R&D who previously were scattered over three locations in the Netherlands.

Buwalda explained that this had made it difficult to drive innovation in an efficient way. Avebe has now moved all its existing laboratory facilities to the new centre, which also includes a test facility, offices and a customer innovation centre.

“Also from a commercial perspective, we were looking for an innovation centre close to a university campus,” he said.

Creating a sociable environment

The company chose the Groningen knowledge institutes for their expertise in process technology, chemistry, biology and biochemistry. Part of Avebe’s strategy to stimulate innovation is to encourage employees to socialise and share ideas with researchers at the university.

“In our centre, you are not supposed to lunch and have coffee behind your desk,” Buwalda said. “You are supposed to go out.”

He explained there are three levels to the collaboration with the university: a research level, an educational level, and a social level. Several of Avebe’s employees give lectures at the university, for example, as part of the partnership.

Encouraging collaboration

In addition, there are a lot of start-ups already on campus, and the company’s new building also includes space for startups in the Innolab Agrifood, developed by Campus Groningen and partners. As well as laboratory facilities, Innolab Agrifood provides business support to help entrepreneurs with business development strategy, intellectual property and patenting. Buwalda says this kind of teamwork between the corporate world, universities and researchers is a particularly the Dutch way of doing business.

“Suppose that you envisage healthier solutions for elderly people for 2020,” he said. “It would be wise to start a cooperation between different universities and companies that have expertise in that area. In the Netherlands it is possible to have a private-public collaboration.”

Avebe has already benefited from such cooperation in the past, he said, giving the example of a plant-based yoghurt the company developed using Avebe’s potato starch texturising ingredient, ETENIATM 457.

“We knew there was an interest in the marketplace for really good tasting, interesting yoghurt-style products,” he said. “With Groningen and Wageningen, we were able to develop a healthy, low fat yoghurt along with other companies that is now doing well on the market…It could not have been achieved without this public-private cooperation.”

He stressed that the company still has strong connections with other universities, including Wageningen University and Research.

Focus on food industry

Avebe’s biggest focus is on food industry applications for its ingredients, where they provide clean label solutions for a wide variety of products. However, it also works with customers in other industries, such as construction, textiles, adhesives, paper, textiles and animal feed.

In the food industry, the company’s potato starches have high and stable water binding capacity and are non-GM and allergen-free. Among other applications, it has developed starches for crispy coatings on fish and meat, vegetarian gelling ingredients for wine gums and jellies, and a range of texturizing and emulsifying ingredients that can reduce fat and improve texture in dairy products and creamy dressings. The starches can also replace a number of ingredients that some manufacturers may want to avoid, such as soy, carrageenan and phosphates.

Meanwhile, Avebe’s functional potato protein, sold under the Solanic brand, has good emulsification properties, is non-GM, allergen-free, kosher- and halal certified.