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Sustainable innovations to nourish Finnish food exports

Nordic Umami has landed 2.6 million euros in funding to help spur its quest to use savouriness as a means to infuse flavour in plant-based foods.

Nordic Umami

Funding headlines from Finland’s Solar Foods and Nordic Umami are but two of the recent notable developments in the local food industry.

Solar Foods in December reported that it has received a grant worth 34 million euros from Business Finland.

The Finnish food startup said the grant – to date, the largest public grant for cellular agriculture in the world – will be used to ramp up its first hydrogen fermentation facility and proceed to the engineering phase of its second facility in accordance with its 600-million-euro investment programme.

The programme was recognised as a hydrogen project of important common interest by the European Commission in September 2022.

Located in Vantaa, Southern Finland, the first fermentation facility will undergo process installations as of the first quarter of this year, with the startup scheduled for early next year.

Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, viewed that issuing the grant to a startup engaged in research and innovation efforts that defy easy categorisation illustrates how the Finnish innovation system is ready to “think outside the box” and support the commercialisation of discoveries at the intersections of scientific disciplines.

“We do not really fit into any single traditional research and innovation category: we do clean tech, food tech, hydrogen technology and on a systemic level support the restoration of natural ecosystems,” he elaborated.

Solar Foods has developed a bioprocess that utilises air, electricity and fermentation to fuel the growth of a natural single-cell organism into an endless supply of an edible protein it calls Solein. The process, it states, is presently 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis and 200 times more efficient than meat.

Pasi Vainikka, CEO of Solar Foods, says Business Finland’s decision to grant funding for the food technology startup demonstrates a willingness to “think outside the box”.

Solar Foods

Nordic Umami in January revealed it has secured 2.6 million euros for advancing its technology for extracting umami, one of the five basic tastes along with bitterness, saltiness, sourness and sweetness, from plant-based food by-products.

About 1.8 million euros of the capital was received through a seed round led by Nordic Foodtech VC. The remaining 800 000 euros, meanwhile, came in the form of a grant from the EU and Business Finland.

The Espoo-based startup has two patents pending for its fermentation technology and a proof-of-concept portfolio of three commercial products, including Meatless Umami Bouillon. One of the first natural and sustainable umami sources, the fully plant-based and additive-free broth has been used in several industrial projects.

The startup will next start scaling the technology into a pilot plant and refine its product portfolio for the food industry, with the long-term goal of becoming the world-leading supplier of vegan umami.

Nordic Umami believes umami, or savouriness, is the key to making people love plant-based foods.

Ella Olsson / Pexels

Eetu Viuhkonen, then CEO of Nordic Umami, reminded that demand for vegan umami is rising as a consequence of a shift in dietary habits that has encouraged food companies to explore alternatives to traditional animal-based umami, e-codes and soya.

“We realised that the options for bringing umami to plant foods were limited,” Reetta Kivelä, chief innovation officer at the startup, said in a press release, recounting the events that put the startup on its current path. “Vegan food must also have the fifth basic flavour, umami.”

Foundation for export growth

These innovations, alongside national promotion efforts, should help to sustain the upward trajectory of Finnish food exports.

Finnish food exports were on course to reach 2.1 billion euros last year following a year-on-year increase of roughly 20 per cent between last January and October, reveal export statistics compiled by Finnish Customs. The exports increased by an average of 26 per cent to the EU, including by about 60 per cent to France, but also to China, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea and the US.

Esa Wrang, head of Food from Finland at Business Finland, in January pointed out that growing demand for exports enables the food industry to expand its capacity and, as a result, strengthen the domestic market and its resilience to crises.

“In Finland, the opportunities for growth in the food industry are limited,” he remarked.

“Export success is very important for our primary production, which creates a strong foundation for the success of the entire food chain,” echoed Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Antti Kurvinen. “The economic situation of farms is alarming, and the threat is that a large number of them will close down due to poor profitability. Without strong domestic primary production, we will lose our unique national food profile and its competitive advantages in domestic and export markets.”

According to Esa Wrang, focusing on exports encourages Finnish companies to engage in increasingly strategic export activities, allocate additional resources to international markets, and adopt new marketing methods and distribution channels.

Business Finland

The food industry is the fourth-largest industry in the country, with a direct employment impact of roughly 40 000 and an indirect one of 340 000. Its key export product categories are dairy products, fresh fish, alcohol products, pork, sugar chemistry products, mill and cereal products, chocolates and sweets, as well as increasingly products with supposed health benefits.

Finnish cooking app acquired by Norway’s Chew

The shift to healthier and more sustainable plant-based diets may require more than innovation, however, as dietary habits can be difficult to break especially at older age – a fact that has been recognised by Carrot Kitchen, a Finnish app developer dedicated to imparting healthy cooking skills to primary school-aged children.

Its eponymous app, which has racked up more than 40 000 downloads since its launch in 2020, was recently acquired by Norway’s Chew.

Both startups are on a mission to leverage gamification to inspire children to develop their cooking skills and knowledge of nutrition and, consequently, bring about a lasting change in diets away from ultra-processed food to plant-based ones.

Carrot Kitchen, a Finnish app designed to encourage children to learn about cooking and nutrition, was recently acquired by Norway’s Chew.

Rodnae Productions / Pexels

Carrot Kitchen’s app is amazing, stated Mano Rashidi, CEO of Chew.

“We look forward to integrating it to our offering with our mission of inspiring and educating kids around the world towards healthier and more sustainable eating habits. Getting children to eat healthier and to have a more varied diet is a common problem worldwide to which we hope we have an educational and inspirational solution in Chew,” he commented.

Olli Freese of Carrot Kitchen indicated that the partnership makes perfect sense given the similarities in the visions and passions of the startups. “We couldn’t think of a better option than Chew to get behind Carrot Kitchen.”

The missing link

Finnish entrepreneur Slobodan Stanić recently launched a trade portal designed to link suppliers and buyers around the world. The portal will initially focus on the food industry but will be developed over time into a marketplace that enables companies also in other industries to analyse their rivals, verify suppliers and estimate the shipping costs and emissions for each route, he outlined to Hortidaily.

“The Claridock system can give you shipping costs for routes of fruit, find suppliers and manage like full stacks. When we reach a certain number of suppliers, we will have a premium offering that stands out. We will be like a back office for them,” he stated.

Currently available to fruit buyers in the US and suppliers in South America, the platform makes it possible for sellers to, for example, find a new buyer in the event of a buyer backing out mid-shipment.

A native of Serbia, Stanić talked to Good News from Finland about adapting to working life and life in general in Finland.

By: Aleksi Teivainen