Record food exports driven by Irish firms' innovation
The value of Irish food, drink and horticulture exports increased by 13pc in 2017, to reach €12.6bn - a new record. This stellar performance marked the eighth successive year of growth for Ireland's largest indigenous sector.
Many factors have played a role in this achievement, but chief among them is the ingenuity and innovative capacity of Irish food companies.
Companies in this market must be capable of extremely rapid responses to changes in consumer demand while at the same time be able to meet the exacting requirements of the grocery multiples when it comes to price, quality and new product development.
At its simplest, innovation in food and beverage products is the market-led development of new or improved products to meet changing customer needs.
But it is actually much more multifaceted than that. It is about embracing an innovation culture right throughout the whole business. It means taking a customer-centric approach in all aspects of the company, from the people hired through to the technology and processes utilised, the packaging of the products and the way they are branded and sold.
Enterprise Ireland supports food and beverage innovation in numerous ways and we have assisted approximately 100 significant in-company research, development and innovation projects for clients across the sector since 2013. These projects range from new, more efficient and lower-cost manufacturing processes to product reformulation and new product development, with the aim of breaking into new customer segments and markets.
Among the innovative companies supported by Enterprise Ireland is Keohanes Seafoods of Cork. It realised that many consumers did not like the hassle of preparing and cooking fish and was the first company in Ireland to produce a microwaveable skin-film range of products, which means the consumer never has to touch the product. Keohanes used a packaging technology designed for other purposes and has brought fish from the fish counter to the chilled convenience aisle.
Cork company Dairy Concepts is manufacturing hand-held nutritious dairy snacks for children, using patented milk casein technology.
The key competitive differentiator of its Fruchee product is that it contains 40pc less sugar along with higher calcium, protein and Vitamin D than competitors.
Dublin-based Nuritas is developing technology that combines artificial intelligence and DNA analysis to discover the health benefits of peptides in natural foods.
It's a great example of a food startup company that Enterprise Ireland has worked with at feasibility stage and is now supporting to scale.
Large companies in the dairy, beverage and meat-processing sectors are also highly innovative, as their export success demonstrates.
There is clear evidence to demonstrate the role of innovation in this success. Enterprise Ireland carried out a survey in 2016 which showed that firms who availed of innovation supports from us reported an average 67pc growth in global sales.
These supports take many forms. The Agile Innovation Fund gives companies support of up to 50pc of eligible project expenditure up to €300,000. This is very useful for projects which need to happen rapidly - the approval process is fast tracked enabling companies to get projects delivered quickly.
In addition to in-company R&D, we also support companies in collaborative innovation projects, helping them to access the insights of researchers working across Ireland's third-level sector, and European expertise and funding under the EU Horizon 2020 programme.
But we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent when it comes to innovation. Food companies throughout Europe and beyond are competing for the same markets, while Brexit will create new challenges. A continued laser-like focus on innovation will be required in order to maintain and add to our success on international markets.
Orla Battersby is divisional manager for Food at Enterprise Ireland
Sunday Indo Business