Experimental baking, IP challenges, and taking an idea to market – overcoming trials as a plant-based Product Developer
The food industry is a hard nut to crack at the best of times. Add to that the highly competitive and still immature plant-based sector and you have yourself an even greater challenge.
But what if the traditional ‘start-up’ route isn’t the one that’s best suited to you? What if you’re a solo innovator with a stand-out idea, and new to the food industry?
Enter: Anthony England, PhD Chemist and Product Developer. Based in Utrecht, The Netherlands, Dr England is currently developing a plant-based food product that could change how some consumers perceive eating and nutrition.
Like most solo innovators, Dr England is hoping to take his product to the next level of development and eventually, to the mass market.
We caught up with Dr England to find out more and to gain some insights into the trials and tribulations of product development. Let’s dive in.
Hi, Anthony! Please give us some background on your unique product concept. What is it and how did the idea arise?
In 2006 I resolved to become fitter and healthier after 38 years of being very unfit and unhealthy. Later, during the COVID lockdowns, my ongoing physical transformation and a new move to better, mostly plant-based eating, ignited my interest in playing around with food ingredients and led to me creating something novel and nutritious.
I often hear the comment: ‘Baking is a science’, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be a synthetic chemist when it comes to cooking up tasty molecules in an oven. My product evolved gradually until I started wondering why such an obvious (to me) nutritious product wasn’t already available. It’s a product that benefits both people and the planet. And that product is… The big reveal: an innovative plant-based baked product.
I’m not Agatha Christie, but here’s where I hope readers will forgive me for a little mystery. Not to set up a cliffhanger or because there’s a clever plot twist coming, but because of the need for secrecy and pending IP at this early stage. I wish things were different. I like to be an open book, but I can’t afford to talk freely about the details yet.
Of course, that’s the same for product developers in many fields and a hurdle they must overcome. They’d like to tell the world to capture widespread interest and funding opportunities, but they can’t; not until the IP and/or NDAs are in place.
As I often say, if I knew a friendly billionaire, my product would be in the shops and selling well by now! It’s not rocket science or clever food tech that will require years of expensive, time-consuming technological development. That’s the great thing about natural foods; all the clever (molecular) engineering for healthy nutrition is there all along – it just needs to be brought to the fore.
I hope this gets readers excited about my innovation, and inspires those involved in the industry to want to help, and yet I can give nothing away right now. Sorry about that. What I can share is that my approach is rooted in a solid understanding of the science underlying the ingredients employed, and a commitment to creating a product that is clean label, nutritionally balanced, and has universal appeal. All for an accessible price.
One key aspect of my concept is its emphasis on plant-based ingredients. I’m a firm believer in harnessing the potential of commonly used, cost-effective, highly nutritious ingredients in innovative ways. By reimagining the nutritional possibilities of these ingredients, I’m crafting a product that stands on its own, potentially filling a whitespace in the market by offering a novel experience for consumers.
What are you hoping to achieve with your product?
I aim to achieve two key objectives. Foremost, I want to bring the product to the market, ensuring its availability to a range of individuals. Beyond that, I aim to spark a shift in how people think about their eating habits and the perception of common ingredients.
Maybe I see things differently than many innovators in the plant-based space; which is no surprise to me, since I eat differently compared to a traditional breakfast-lunch-dinner structure. I typically eat four meals, without routinely snacking.
With my products and development philosophy, I’m trying to mimic nothing (like plant-based cheese and meat, etc). My products stand alone, and perhaps in a new product category.
It’s all about taking what the ingredients offer, and good taste and nutrition. The net result is a concept which fits into my daily diet in multiple ways and is proposing a flexible way of eating. I’m sure that’ll give it broad appeal.
Who do you want to connect with to develop your product?
My primary target audience has to be potential investors, strategic partners, and industry professionals who are interested in bringing innovative food products to the market. Naturally, I aim to reach individuals and organisations with a powerful presence in the food industry – particularly, innovative bakers (who are passionate about pushing the boundaries of traditional baking), food manufacturers, and retailers.
What is reality like for a product developer trying to get your product picked up in today’s economy?
For a product like mine, which offers a unique approach – where the product category might not be obvious to all – commercialisation may be trickier than for many novel products. Being an ‘alien’ in the market presents an exciting opportunity to disrupt the status quo and change eating habits.
The reality for a new business/product developer in today’s competitive economy is both challenging and exhilarating. In a market saturated with countless products, standing out and getting your product picked up can be daunting. However, it is precisely this challenge that makes the journey rewarding.
To navigate this reality, I understand the importance of reaching the right people, particularly category managers in supermarkets and other retail outlets. These gatekeepers are key decision-makers who have the power to introduce original products to their customers. Building relationships with them, effectively communicating the value and potential of my product, and showcasing its distinctiveness will be crucial steps in gaining their interest and support.
What advice do you have for other product developers, trying to take ideas to market?
Navigating the landscape of commercialising an idea as a sole innovator can be challenging. One frustrating obstacle is the loss of potentially useful partner relationships after a first contact or meeting, where companies can’t see the immediate fit given their current strategies. Many people will talk once, but you’re doing well if they continue talking. Additionally, the lack of responsiveness from some potentially useful contacts can be disheartening.
There are obvious strategies that can help individuals and small businesses in a similar position. Build a strong network, attend industry events, join relevant communities, and connect with professionals who can offer guidance and support. It takes luck and persistence to find that ally who will care as much as you do about what you’re trying to achieve.
Could you tell us why you don’t want to go down the traditional ‘start-up’ route? Why isn’t it always the answer for product development?
I want to find the right approach for this product, whatever the specifics might be. I’m influenced by multiple factors, including my current stage in life and my mindset. At 55 years old, my priorities and approach differ from when I started my social enterprise initiative in my 30s. My primary goal is to see a useful product in the hands of people as swiftly and effectively as possible, even if it means sacrificing potential revenues and/or equity.
I want to bring a potentially transformative product to market, guided by simple logic and the belief in its nutritional value, rather than personal control. The path to that is by connecting with those who know more than me about commercialising baked products.
Also, I recognise that pursuing the ‘traditional start-up route’ often entails a significant investment of time, resources, and capital. As a solo entrepreneur, I’d have to find funding and resources to expedite the development and market entry of my product. Collaborating with established players in the baking industry or partnering with a larger entity can provide the leverage and resources needed to make it happen ASAP.
Why is protecting IP such an issue for businesses today? Do you have any advice for businesses in similar situations?
I’m no food patent expert, but have experience with other kinds of patents. Protecting IP, especially in the early stages of food product development, could be an expensive and unsatisfactory thing to do. With my product, which is not an impossible-to-copy high-tech invention but a unique food concept, patents may not be the most effective option since it could be difficult to establish a strong patent defence. Moreover, patents can be costly for solo inventors, especially when early revenues are not guaranteed.
Instead of relying on patents, I believe that securing a first-mover advantage through strategic partnerships could be a more valuable approach. By teaming up with the right partner, we can accelerate the commercialisation process and establish a strong foothold in the market.
What have you learned from the last year of product development?
I’ve approached the development of my product at a deliberate and steady pace. This gradual evolution has been instrumental in shaping a product that will have strong, broad market appeal.
The connection between the product itself and its commercialisation process has been crucial. I am cautious not to rush the development and risk creating something that I personally like but may struggle to sell.
Throughout the past year, my focus has been on bringing all the elements together and weighing the best course of action. I am keenly aware of the importance of positioning the product effectively.
If you’re intrigued to learn more and/or would like to work with Anthony, you can get in touch with him at nl.linkedin.com/in/afengland, [email protected] or +31 6 522 453 07 (mobile, WhatsApp and Telegram).
Top takeaways to apply to your business and product strategy:
- Various sectors of the plant-based market are becoming saturated with products, so don’t be afraid to stand out: create something novel and disrupt the ‘status quo’ by filling whitespaces in the industry.
- Build a strong network: attend industry events, join relevant communities, utilise LinkedIn, and connect with industry professionals who can offer guidance and support. Find yourself some allies!
- When developing contacts, don’t let lack of responsiveness discourage you: persist in building your network and finding the partnerships that will support your product’s development.
- Make sure that you’re reaching the right people: you want to connect with key stakeholders and decision-makers with the power to support you and/or introduce products to consumers.
- Effectively communicate the value and potential of your product: showcase its distinctiveness – this is crucial to gain interest and support.
- If you don’t want to go down the ‘start-up’ route, don’t! Other options are available, like becoming a solo innovator and finding support elsewhere to propel your ideas. Collaborating with established players in the food industry or partnering with a larger entity can provide the leverage and resources needed to develop your product and take it to market.
- Consider NDAs and IP carefully: in the early stages, protecting IP can be expensive and not always the best/most effective option, so meet with advisors with experience in food patenting and discuss your options.
- Secure effective partners: teaming up with the right partner can accelerate both product development and commercialisation and help you establish a strong foothold in the market.
- A slow and steady approach can sometimes be better than fast and furious: gradual idea evolution can be vital in shaping a product that will have strong, broad market appeal.