Saturday 16 December 2017

Harnessing artificial intelligence to ramp up value in food firms

Nuritas uses AI and machine learning to identify healthy new ingredients

MALTHUSIAN PROMISE: As technological solutions are increasingly sought for nutritional problems, robotic help will be at a premium — in food creation and also in serving
MALTHUSIAN PROMISE: As technological solutions are increasingly sought for nutritional problems, robotic help will be at a premium — in food creation and also in serving
TEAM NURITAS: Clockwise from top left, Vincent Monahan, Meaghan Lee Erlandsen, Emmet Browne, Nora Khaldi and Cyril Lopez
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

Meet Dr Nora Khaldi, the brains behind one of Ireland's most exciting start ups.

Khaldi is the founder of Nuritas, a company that uses artificial intelligence and "machine learning" to identify new food ingredients with health benefits for people suffering from metabolic diseases like diabetes.

"It's very hard to put in a nutshell!" Khaldi told the Sunday Independent.

"We're looking at food in a very, very different way, we're looking at food on the molecular level and the genome level, and we're identifying novel, completely new ingredients within food, molecules within food, that have an effect."

Khaldi was the standout performer at the Irish Technology Leadership Group's (ITLG) Silicon Valley Tech Summit on Tuesday, at which a new $50m (€45m) agtech fund was launched by ITLG co-founder John Hartnett's SVG Partners.

The fund, which is open to Irish companies like Khaldi's, aims to encourage innovation to support the growing demand for food and, the increasing pressure that puts on agricultural production.

"As the world population increases to 9 billion by 2050, food demands will increase by 70pc with no additional arable land available, climate change and potential water shortages. With the emergence of the internet of things, new applications to support the agriculture industry are more possible than ever before, and this fund is designed to support this sector and bring breakthrough technology to fruition," Hartnett said.

Nuritas is based in Dun Laoghaire and is in the closing stages of a multimillion euro funding round. Earlier this year it appointed a heavyweight CEO in the form of Emmet Browne, the former head of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in Ireland. Browne has also been Pfizer Nutritionals' regional president in Europe, the Pacific Rim and emerging markets. His new employer works with major Irish and international companies, but is precluded from revealing their names because of confidentiality agreements.

One of the things the company does involves examining food processing by-products for therapeutic ingredients.

Khaldi cites the whey protein industry, which has expanded into a multibillion dollar industry since food companies realised that a by-product of the cheese manufacturing process, once thrown out as waste, contained beneficial ingredients.

"A lot of food companies are left with a by-product that they throw away or they sell as a feed... we're taking a valueless ingredient and adding value to it, meaning companies can sell it a higher price, but we're also discovering life-changing ingredients.

Khaldi (37) is a mathematician with a PhD in molecular evolution and bioinformatics from Trinity College Dublin. She's half Irish, half French-Algerian.

"My background is in science, I did pure mathematics and computer science and then applied those in different areas, so I've a mixture of knowledge, and I'm in charge of moving the science forward.

"There's a lot of pressure on companies now to adapt to the need in the market, there's a huge need for novel, healthy ingredients. Our ingredients that we're developing, first they're natural, but more importantly they're also sustainable. The major thing is that they don't have any side-effects, it's a food.

"It's like Omega 3. Omega 3 has been shown in many clinicals that it's really good. But it took years to find it, it took years to develop it. What we're doing is identifying new ones and they'll be formulated in products. Our partners are multinational food companies that take those forward, formulate them and sell them to the consumer. We're working in the dairy industry, the meat area, the seed and grain area and the algae area."

Khaldi's company stands out as a candidate for a big food company to buy out and take in-house. It's one of just two European companies to make it through to the final 10 of SVG's 'Thrive Accelerator' programme, which aims to help agtech start-ups "turn their dreams of revolutionising agriculture into reality."

Hartnett says the growth in the world's population is a big opportunity for Irish companies.

"Last year, Ireland's food and drink exports totalled almost €10bn according to Bord Bia, who reported an increase of 40pc in export values in just five years. This growth indicates the market opportunity for Ireland, which could be accelerated by greater investment in agtech solutions.

"The agricultural sector is very strong in Ireland. Ireland has a tradition and has a core strength in the food area, companies like Kerry Group for example. It's a $12bn dollar company, and there aren't many $12bn dollar companies in Ireland.

"We actually are sitting in a very strong position. With Ireland's technology leadership and Ireland becoming the Silicon Valley of Europe, I kind of look at that as almost a perfect storm for Ireland where we can really take the lead in a big way in a sector that is known to us."

Sunday Indo Business

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