Food for thought: The Irish industry hungry for innovation

20 Jun 2024

Yolanda Coghlan, CEO of Coghlan's Bakery and Ken O'Shea, CSO of Reso Health. Image: Orla Murray/Coalesce

Dr Helen Roche of UCD said that while Ireland is known for its R&D in the food sector, there remains work that needs to be done to remain competitive within Europe.

Ireland has made a unique reputation for itself as a nation that exports high-quality and sustainable food and drinks products that puts it “a step above others” in the competitive sector, according to Enterprise Ireland head of food start-ups and innovation Deirdre Glenn.

Speaking to at the Food Innovation Summit in Croke Park, Dublin yesterday (19 June), she said that Ireland has become “the envy of the world” in creating an ecosystem in which businesses work closely together with the research sector.

“We’ve got a very pro-business Government – and you see it here today – that is very much listening to understand what are the challenges that our client base is facing and then trying to see how they can work with us to address them.”

Glenn’s comments come as Enterprise Ireland revealed yesterday that food and drink companies it supports invested €165m in R&D activities last year, with 123 companies spending €100,000 or more. The state agency also said it invested in 15 emerging start-ups in the sector last year.

While foreign direct investment (FDI) into the country is usually driven by sister agency IDA Ireland, Glenn said that Enterprise Ireland has the “unusual” task of overseeing FDI in the food space.

“My team looks after the whole food FDI, so these would be all the foreign-owned companies that are in Ireland, such as Abbott and Danone, which employ around 11,000 people and have more than €3bn in exports,” she said in the interview.

“In fact, today we have a number of inward itineraries from potentially new food FDI clients that are considering Ireland as their innovation hub. They’re part of the showcase here so we’re using this opportunity to encourage them to come and to set up in Ireland.”

Food innovation crucial in Ireland

Figures revealed yesterday show that food and drinks companies based in Ireland support nearly 60,000 jobs, making them a significant contributor to the Irish economy.

While such figures are promising for the future of the sector, Dr Helen Roche of University College Dublin (UCD) thinks that there is room for improvement in the innovation space.

“At present, Ireland is lower [than most European counterparts] in terms of the proportion of money that both the Government and also the industry partners invest in R&D. Countries that have those higher levels of investment have higher levels of innovation – so it sort of circles back,” said Roche, who is a professor of nutrigenomics and director of the UCD Conway Institute.

According to Roche, if she was to compare Ireland’s ability to address the problems compared to her German or Dutch counterparts, the level of research funding they receive is “at an order of magnitude”.

“So that is an issue in the Irish food sector – but the Government is aware of it. Enterprise Ireland is aware of it, it’s just trying to figure out the best mechanism in order to support that industry so that we do get the dividends.”

Making up for lack of scale

Innovation in food and drinks is even more crucial in Ireland than many other European countries because of its small domestic market, according to Bord Bia senior manager of prepared consumer goods Mary Morrissey.

“There’s already a high level of innovation here [in Ireland] because that’s what gives us differentiation in the market. Otherwise, you’re trying to compete with the big, big factories across Europe – we just don’t have that kind of scale to compete with.”

Recognising the scale and importance of innovation in the food and drinks sector, Enterprise Ireland has been trying to make research and development easier for client companies such as Monaghan Mushrooms, which claims to be one of the world’s largest substrate and mushroom companies.

“Enterprise Ireland has directly supported a number of lines of innovative research, so we have a very strong relationship with the agency,” said Peter Corcoran, CEO of Monaghan Biosciences, which is part of the Monaghan Group.

“They have also provided unbelievable support in developing a biotech centre up in Monaghan called BioConnect, which we hope to have opened later this year.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic