Inspiring story | News | Video 10th anniversary of Food Pilot
10 years ago, the Flemish Minister of Economics decided that the pilot infrastructure and technical advice for the food sector could be expanded significantly. The existing "Federal Dairy Research Station (Rijkszuivelstation)" in Melle, which was part of ILVO, invested, together with Flanders' FOOD, in multifunctional, semi-industrial machinery and above all in knowledge and a well-oiled guidance system for innovative and solution-seeking companies. Time to look back! Time also to look to the future: what additional equipment is on the way, and what additional areas of expertise are being developed? This was discussed during the informative anniversary webinar on October 14, 2021. Three companies explained their innovation strategy, with the help of Food Pilot. There were also demos and a real flight through the test halls and labs. Take a look at this online celebration…or read a summary below.
Guidance in the broad sense of the word
After 10 years, we can proudly say that the Food Pilot is a busy place. Every year more than 300 companies come for a first consultation.
This is not only free of charge and without any obligation, but also quite intensive, with several experts around the table who help think aloud about the subject or problem at hand. Karen Verstraete (Food Pilot): "Every working day of the year we have one or two of these technical meetings with a food company. Sometimes it is decided that individual guidance is required, for a product development, a process improvement, a determination of the shelf life, composition or taste."
“Accessible, confidential, and very diverse, that is now ingrained in our working method and the companies that put their ambitions, ideas or concerns on the table really appreciate that.”
That kind of collaboration is still increasing every year. In recent years Food Pilot has been carrying out more than 500 pilot tests a year, for and together with its customer. And some 20,000 laboratory analyses on food products are also carried out for them every year. "Accessible, confidential and very diverse, that is now ingrained in our way of working and the companies that put their ambitions, ideas or concerns on the table really appreciate that."
Stefaan Deraeve from the Bruges company La Vie est Belle, producer of vegetarian and vegan spreads and ready-to-eat products: “The guidance from the experts in the Food Pilot goes wider than you might think or initially ask for. As an SME you are, for example, faced with investments in equipment. The Food Pilot also offers advice on this. They also support your business plan, which purchase is best or not. In addition, the Food Pilot also provided us with scientific knowledge on the nutritional value of pulses in certain processed forms. This objectified our claims about the nutritional properties of our vegetarian range. As a result, as a producer we can focus on our strength, which lies in creating a tasty experience for the consumer.”
From completely confidential to open collective research
The comprehensiveness of the available applications is a great asset. “As Cosucra, producer of ingredients from yellow pea and chicory, we have been using this pilot plant for 20 years," says Heidi Jacobs of Cosucra. "Initially this belonged to the Federal Dairy Research Station and then it became the Food Pilot. Every month we do pilot tests there with UHT, the cream ice cream machine, or other devices, in light of the many applications for our customers.”
“In addition to this confidential research, we like to emphasize the value of the collective research projects initiated by Flanders' FOOD. In these, we work together with our competitors on innovations for the slightly longer term. This form of research is also very valuable to us. This is something unique that you do not find in other regions.”
Evolutions and… new pilot infrastructure for processing protein products
“We have clearly widened our approach,” notes Inge Arents, director of Flanders’ FOOD. “The Food Pilot was first focused on trouble shooting and supporting the day-to-day innovations of the smaller companies that could not do their own R&D. But soon the expertise of the Food Pilot started attracting large companies, including starters, from abroad. In addition, we saw an evolution to explore more strategic lines of research with a focus on the longer term. The investments in pilot equipment have grown along with this vision. Thanks to VLAIO we can successfully and continually invest in our Food Pilot.”
“One large investment project that is currently ongoing and answers to this need, in the installation of an entire protein processing line. It is completely new that we will be able to do detailed research into all of the steps in the extraction from proteins from diverse raw materials. The "white" protein powder that comes out of that can then be processed into every type of product. The protein extruder was the first machine as part of this "Protein Pilot Plant", supported by EFRO and the Province of East Flanders."
… Also for applications of products from microbial fermentation
In line with protein diversification lies a second investment project, supported with Reliance funds from the Flemish Government. Complementary to and in cooperation with the BioBased Europe Pilot Plant (BBEUPP), pilot equipment for the processing of microbial protein is being purchased. Both the microbial biomass itself, and the secreted product can function as a food component. “In addition to animal and plant protein sources, this is very promising to explore.” says Lieve Herman of ILVO.
Smaller scale for even more innovative product development
The company Inbiose testifies to the great potential of microbial fermentation. Eight years ago, this UGent spin-off started producing Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO) via fermentation. “These carbohydrates play an important role in strengthening the immune system and in building the baby's microbiome . A key challenge here is adding such carbohydrates in baby food, but also in functional food products. One of our business goals is to also support the health of the elderly and other target groups with these new sugars. They also suffer from a weakened microbiome, among other things, and so we are testing enrichments of drinks, yogurts and other products in the Food Pilot for certain groups of adults,” says Joeri Beauprez of Inbiose.
Lieve Herman of ILVO adds, “For these and many other highly innovative applications, an investment was started through an ERDF project in pilot devices of smaller scale, between lab and pilot scale and this in the so-called InnoLab. Examples are a lab extruder, spray dryer and fluidized bed dryer. Also for starters and for the processing of by-products, test setups with smaller batch volumes are often helpful.” Joeri Beauprez from Inbiose is very excited about this, since the volumes of experimental material are often minuscule in the early stages.
On to the future
In conclusion, Joris Relaes, Administrator-General of ILVO, points to the societal role of fully investing in a sustainable agri-food chain. This fits in with the Green Deal objectives of the European Commission, which we at ILVO also endorse. Minister Hilde Crevits' appeal to the "Food Changers" to participate in the fight against food losses and the protein shift that the Flemish Government is helping to shape, also testifies to this.