Across the globe, the food industry is being affected by major changes in business operations and management brought about by rapid advances in technology and globalization, which has caused intense competition for market share. There is growing concern how small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will meet these challenges. Emerging technologies such as high-pressure processing, ohmic heating, biosensors, nanotechnology, biotechnology, among others, are changing the food industry landscape.
For many land-grant universities in the U.S. and international institutions, a divide exists between much of their research and SMEs, which are the backbone of many regional economies. New approaches are necessary to overcome some traditional barriers between researchers and smaller enterprises for implementation of innovative technology. These new approaches should be capable of increasing the competitiveness of industry and ensuring a more speedy conversion of research results into marketable products and industrial processes.
The traditional method of agricultural and food research has been relatively static and follows a lineal pattern of grant writing, approval, research, publication, and (perhaps) transfer of information to industry. This method is often inefficient in the context of the modern business world. New consumer demands for safer and higher quality foods as well as environmental concerns and impacts from changing regulations require that research activities be more flexible and dynamic.
The consumer-driven economy has created new challenges and opportunities for research and technology, especially related to SMEs. This requires dynamic research and technology programs that can respond quickly to changing markets where innovation and adaptation are keys to successful ventures. Some granting agencies and research universities recognize these needs and are encouraging projects that are open-ended, allowing for flexibility. Some projects are concept-driven with an understanding that goals may change as the project progresses and the scientific framework should not be rigid—but flexible— and have the ability to learn in "real-time" through iterative loops arising from internal or external impacts. A dynamic model should allow decisions by the participants to alter the experimental design or even terminate the effort if it is considered non-viable.
There is also strong support toward multi-disciplinary projects and a systems approach to solving problems. Such an approach would have economists, market researchers, and food scientists on the research team. Universities and research institutions are also exploring ways to allow greater entrepreneurship among their research faculty. Intellectual property rights, partnerships in business ventures, and trading of research for equity with companies are some techniques that are beginning to pay dividends.
SMEs are usually more flexible than larger companies and they can adapt new technologies faster. However, they have their own set of issues including the need for capital resources, difficulty in finding the right technologies, and managing their implementation. This is especially true in the food sector. There are funding programs such as the Small Business Innovation Research program through the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, but financial resources are at $18–20 million/yr and only a small part is devoted to food science. What are often lacking in these programs are capital resources for equipment that are essential for utilizing emerging technologies. Traditional banks often do not understand the complexities of the food system and are averse to taking risks in loaning the necessary dollars.
While Research Centers, Centers of Excellence, Centers of Innovation, etc. appear more frequently as collaborative efforts between states, universities, and private industry consortia, their focus has been more in biomedical and biotechnology and there are few interactions with the more traditional food industries and SMEs. Universities and professional organizations, such as IFT, need to advance the cause of SMEs in the food industry and facilitate technology transfer at a higher level. Since access to capital is a major stumbling block for technology transfer, universities and research centers need to actively promote capital investment into emerging industries that wish to incorporate new ideas. Whether this is through lobbying state and federal agencies for more technology transfer programs in the food industry or actively participating in business operations through shared partnerships that offer the revenue benefits as well as potential risks will depend on the ethos of the state and the university and their view of their respective roles in economic development.
Sergio Almonacid ( [email protected] ) a Member of IFT, is Associate Professor and Dept. Head, and Ricardo Simpson, a Professional Member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Chemical, Biotechnological, and Environmental Processes, Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria, Valparaiso, Chile. Sudhir Sastry ( [email protected] ), a Fellow and Professional Member of IFT, is Professor, Dept. of Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Michael Morrissey ( [email protected] ), a Fellow and Professional Member of IFT, is Professor and Director, Food Innovation Center, Oregon State University, Portland, Ore.