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Exclusive interview: Narjis Chakir, RisingFoodStars lead at EIT Food
Siân Yates

Siân Yates

28 June 2024

Exclusive interview: Narjis Chakir, RisingFoodStars lead at EIT Food

In this exclusive interview, we delve into the dynamic world of agrifood innovation with Narjis Chakir, lead of RisingFoodStars at EIT Food. With a career shaped by a passion for transformative change and a deep understanding of both corporate and start-up landscapes, she shares her journey from marketing and innovation roles in major multinationals to her pivotal role in nurturing early-stage scale-ups. What is more, discover how RisingFoodStars is driving sustainability, fostering innovation and supporting impactful growth in the agrifood-tech sector under her leadership.

Can you tell us about your career journey and how it led you to become the lead of RisingFoodStars?

Most of my professional experience has been in the food industry, having held roles in marketing and innovation within leading US multinationals. I must admit that my favourite roles were in innovation and product development (working with R&D and commercial teams) – I always found it fascinating to turn an insight into a product concept, then a prototype and, finally, see our final product on the shelves. However, I felt that big corporations were missing out on disruptive innovations.

Many ended up prioritising innovations that focused on operational efficiency and had low risks while maintaining a high potential for short-term returns – new flavours, sizes or packaging, to name a few. This frustration sparked my curiosity to explore how other industries were approaching innovation, especially in the start-up ecosystem. Hence, I took a break during my early 30s to do a full-time MBA and immerse myself in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. After my MBA, I worked in a leading tech company, then as a consultant in innovation for agrifood.

This led me to my current role at EIT Food.

What inspired the creation of EIT's RisingFoodStars programme, and what are its primary goals within the agri-food-tech sector?

Less than 5% of European start-ups in Agrifood successfully scale up beyond 50 employees. This phenomenon is what we call the 'second valley of death'. RisingFoodStars was created to identify the most promising early-stage scale-ups and empower them to navigate their perilous growth journey smoothly and successfully. Our ultimate goal is to maximise the chances that our early-stage scale-ups will grow rapidly and sustainably, and eventually become unicorns.

RisingFoodStars has alumni that have secured over $700 million in investments. What factors do you believe have contributed to this significant achievement?

A successful fundraising is only the tip of the iceberg. In order to secure a successful Series A round, for example, companies need to go deeper and really evaluate their commercial and investment readiness.

In our programme, we dedicate significant time and effort to scouting and selecting the most promising scale-ups across Europe. With only 15 spots available each year and over 200 applications, we ensure we recruit the very best candidates.

The second factor driving success is the design of the programme.

This encompasses three pillars:

  1. Self-awareness or diagnosis: we run a scale-up scan with the best experts in the market to help our companies identify their strengths and shortcomings in their scaling journey. This involves looking at their leadership team, vision, impact, operations and commercial readiness.

  2. Flight plan: we use this first phase to develop a personalised plan for each company, including mentorship and tailored matchmaking with our corporate partners and investors, and designing workshops that can tackle the companies’ major pain points hindering their growth.

  3. Visibility and exposure to our network of 150+ partners (corporates, investors, research centres and universities). We provide 1-1 introductions, a strong presence in leading events and fairs, and media exposure through our various media channels.

Can you share some specific success stories from the programme, such as RedefineMeat or Infinite Roots, and how RisingFoodStars contributed to their growth?

When it comes to scale-ups, success can take many forms. We have companies that have raised some of the biggest rounds in the industry, such as MosaMeat or Infinite Roots, and some that have successfully exited through strategic acquisitions such as Lowi, Faromatics, or recently, Cattle Eye, to name a few.

At RisingFoodStars, we pride ourselves on being facilitators and enablers on their journey, by helping them follow through on their own goals and roadmap. We unlock potential collaborations with our corporate partners to speed up commercial growth, we connect them with our network of investors, and most importantly, we give them the visibility and exposure they deserve. One of the major issues startups face is the lack of credibility, which makes it difficult to connect with large corporations and investors. More and more, the RisingFoodStars brand is now being recognised as a sign of excellence in the agri-food industry. This opens doors for our members to form connections with the right contacts.

Can you highlight a few of the most promising start-ups in this year’s cohort and what unique solutions they bring to the table?

All the start-ups joining the programme this year have been carefully selected and are among the best in their areas. We have some companies in the alternative dairy space, each of them bringing different technological and business solutions to the industry and covering various geographies across Europe (Cultivated Biosciences, Bon Vivant and Those Vegan Cowboys). 

We also believe in – and continue to support – companies in the alternative meat section, especially those with innovative ingredients and technologies improving texture and taste (eg. Matr, Meala Foodtech, RevoFoods, Bettaf!sh, Greenspot Technologies). In terms of ingredient replacement, egg alternatives are also on the rise. This year, we have a new company joining us called Neggst Foods GmbH.  Additionally, Onego Bio has been a member since 2023. We are also excited to see NoPalm Ingredients, which creates solutions that replace palm oil. Sustainable agriculture practices are keeping us busy as well,  through innovative bio-stimulants, advanced carbon farming solutions, and precision farming technologies (eg. Carbon Farmers, Soil Capital, Fyteko, Seedforward, Ficosterra).

Last but not least, upcycling and shelf extension solutions are also scaling up across Europe and becoming a reality in the market thanks to Agrain, Kern Tec, Freshsens and One Third.

What are the biggest challenges facing the agri-food-tech industry today, particularly in the EU?

At EIT Food, we articulate those challenges around our three missions:

  1. Healthier lives through food, where we aim at increasing the uptake of balanced, sustainable and healthy diets. 

  2. Net zero food systems, where we focus on how to enable the transition towards a net zero food system and mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis through regenerative agriculture practices, food waste and loss reduction, and empowerment of circular food solutions. 

  3. A fully transparent, fair, and resilient food system to improve food security and safety for consumers through digitally-enabled food supply chains.

How does RisingFoodStars aim to address issues such as food security, reducing CO2 emissions and providing healthy food options for EU residents?

Our mission at RisingFoodStars is to identify early-stage scaleups that have already developed advanced and impactful solutions to tackle those issues, and support them to scale those solutions at a faster pace and larger magnitude by connecting them with the right ecosystem of industry players and investors in Europe and beyond.

Recently, we launched the 'Fast Track to Market' initiative to support fast-moving, mature companies with existing business cases in expanding their commercial footprint beyond their current market or customer segment. We also support them through funding, mentorship and networking to amplify their impact.

RisingFoodStars offers workshops, coaching and mentorship. Can you elaborate on how these support mechanisms are structured and their impact on the start-ups?

Our programme supports a small cohort of around 30 early-stage scale-ups each year. This allows them to stay with us for up to three years. This approach enables us to offer a tailored and long-term partnership, significantly impacting their growth. Each member starts with a diagnosis phase, where we identify their strengths and areas for improvement in scaling effectively. Together, we create a customised scale-up roadmap based on their specific needs.

Common needs within the cohort are addressed through hands-on, personalised workshops in small groups of 6-8 companies. Recent topics have included navigating the regulatory landscape in Europe and preparing organisations for scaling. Individual needs are met through one-on-one mentorships.

We’ve observed that many startups rush into meetings with corporates or investors without a fully prepared pitch, often failing to follow through. Our goal is to ensure our members are commercially and investment-ready before introducing them to potential partners, securing successful outcomes.

How does the programme facilitate connections between start-ups and investors or industry leaders?

EIT Food boasts a robust network of over 150 partners from corporations and universities/research centres, along with 50+ investors. We facilitate connections through several key avenues. Our specialised teams, including the Partnership and Corporate Venturing teams, work together to map the needs of our partners and startups, enabling targeted matchmaking that can lead to initial introductions, demo day participations, and potential collaborations such as pilot tests and commercial partnerships.

Additionally, we host our own events, bringing the entire community together, in person, and enhancing networking through dedicated apps and teams. We also participate in and sponsor major conferences across Europe, providing our startups with access to a broader ecosystem beyond our own network.

What are your long-term goals for RisingFoodStars and its impact on the agri-food tech industry?

EIT Food's long-term goals are ambitious and forward-thinking. We aim to maximise the chances of our members raising Series A and B funding, surpassing industry averages, and seeing more innovations scaling across Europe. Furthermore, 70% of our members are launching in new markets in the EU, US and Asia. We are committed to measuring and quantifying our impact at the programme level, such as reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in biodiversity. Additionally, we support job creation in Europe, aim to facilitate more successful exits, and aspire to witness the emergence of more unicorns in the agri-food-tech sector within the EU.

How do you envision the role of agri-food tech evolving over the next decade, especially concerning sustainability and food sovereignty?

AgriFood is increasingly central to discussions on climate change, since the food sector is recognised as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. With the global population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the challenge of feeding everyone becomes more pressing, especially with diminishing land, biodiversity, and water resources. Consequently, agriculture and food challenges are gaining heightened attention on the EU agenda. Our public affairs team is working closely with the European Commission to influence the future of food at the EU level by bringing forward key topics such as regenerative agriculture, protein diversification, new genomic solutions and packaging waste regulation.

With over 14 years of experience in the agri-food sector, what personal insights or advice can you offer to entrepreneurs looking to enter this field?

Start-ups need to be aware of reality and surround themselves with the right network to mitigate the risk and uncertainty related to entrepreneurship in general. The reality is that less than 10% of entrepreneurs successfully transform their innovations into businesses, and less than 5% of these will scale up. Start-ups operate in an environment of uncertainty, facing risks from high competition, market volatility, shifting customer preferences and navigating an evolving regulatory landscape.

Managing risk and making informed decisions in this environment is crucial. That’s why I would recommend start-ups to be part of a strong network and join accelerators like those at EIT Food to have access to expertise, mentorship, talent, commercial partners and funding. It is a proven way to increase their survival rate.

How do you balance innovation with practicality when evaluating the potential of new start-ups?

Indeed one of the basic criteria in our recruitment process is to select only scale-ups with a strong, impactful innovation backed by tech and science but also unique and differentiated. However, having a strong innovation component has proven to not be enough.

Therefore, other major criteria for us include the strength and viability of the business model, and proof of market traction with strategic customers. However, most importantly, we focus on the strength of the founding team. In the delicate phase of scaling up, ventures must be led by founders capable of evolving into CEOs who can manage rapidly growing tech and business teams of 50+. These founders must also understand the transformation required to shift from a tech service or product-oriented startup to a commercially focused enterprise.

Can you discuss any notable partnerships RisingFoodStars has formed and how they have benefited the program and its start-ups?

As part of our Series A investment readiness track, we work very closely with some leading VCs, who, as ambassadors of the programme, support us all the way from the selection process through mentoring and guiding our startups in their fundraising journey. It is extremely valuable for the programmes to have those VCs onboard, as they bring the fundraising reality to our startups by providing tangible feedback on their pitches, data room, business models, financial projections and by giving them concrete advice on how to stand out and attract the right investors.

We are currently working on a partnership with a US-based agri food-tech VC as well, in order to build a track within the programme that supports scale-ups willing to expand to the American market. This initiative will allow our scaleups to access a targeted network of investors and corporates, ensuring a smoother expansion.

How important are collaborations with organisations like Danone, PepsiCo and Mondelez in advancing agri-food-tech innovations?

Collaborations with organisations like Danone, PepsiCo and Mondelez are incredibly important in advancing agri-food-tech innovations. These partnerships provide start-ups with access to industry-leading expertise, resources, and infrastructure, which are essential for accelerating their development and scaling their innovations. Working with such established companies allows start-ups to test their solutions in real-world scenarios, receive valuable feedback and refine their products to meet market demands.

Moreover, these collaborations can open up opportunities for commercial partnerships, enabling start-ups to expand their market reach and impact. The credibility and visibility gained from being associated with renowned organisations also help start-ups attract additional investment and strategic partnerships. Overall, these collaborations play a crucial role in driving the growth and success of agri-food-tech innovations, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable and resilient food system.

What role does the EIT Food Impact Fund play in supporting RisingFoodStars, and how do you secure additional funding for the start-ups?

Our impact fund only invests in the most promising and relevant startups from our programmes at EIT Food, those that can complement the current portfolio of 30 investments. We invest up to €1.5 million to support their growth journey.

Additionally, our role at RisingFoodStars is to expand the options of funding opportunities available to our scaleups by connecting them with relevant VCs in the industry, and by giving them access to other funding mechanisms available at the EIT Food level (such as grants or revenue-based financing) or at the EU level such as the EIC accelerator.

#startup #EITFood #innovation #funding

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