Podcast: Packing more punch into our food

Every week, Harm Edens of BNR radio interviews internal and external experts on why a bank is aiming to build a better world. In this week’s podcast, he speaks to Ruud Albers of Nutrileads about how the company develops healthful food ingredients.

Listen to the podcast now (in Dutch) or read on for our synopsis in English.

Malnutrition is not just a third-world problem. Even in developed countries, vulnerable population groups like the young, the sick and the elderly are sometimes undernourished and more susceptible to disease. It helps to eat healthily, but sometimes there’s a need to boost our intake of important nutrients, says Ruud Albers, CEO of Nutrileads.

“As a medical biologist, I’ve always been fascinated by the immune system, how disease processes work, and how the right food can contribute to better health. Working in Unilever’s R&D department, I had the opportunity to study food ingredients which could contribute to overall health by supporting the immune system and intestinal microbiota.

“These ingredients can be used to fortify products like margarine or turned into supplements and specialty food products. In hospitals, adding them to the patients’ diet can speed recovery and reduce the risk of infection. By enabling them to leave the hospital sooner, these can help bring healthcare costs down.

“Some ingredients can even help bring healthcare costs down”

- Ruud Albers, Nutrileads

Special ingredients

“We were making headway at Unilever with a particular ingredient, based on ginseng, a root used in traditional Asian medicine. Clinical trials showed beneficial effects, especially on respiratory tract infections. The challenge was producing it cost-effectively: ginseng plants take six years to grow before you can harvest the roots.

“So we did further research, and discovered the active substance in ginseng. When we had extracted and studied it, we started looking for other sources. It turned out that the substance was also present in other crops and could be extracted at reasonable cost. Now we had a business case!

“But then Unilever announced a new strategy. It intended to focus on personal care products: our research was no longer relevant to the company. We still really believed in the product we were developing. So I took over the patents and decided to start a research and development company with two co-founders who had worked for Danone and Nestlé. Together, we bring an extensive network of contacts in the food industry and at universities to Nutrileads.

“Through those contacts, we now look for early-stage research into promising ingredients, and bring them on board. We run the full range of clinical trials, up to testing on humans. We upscale the production process. We make sure the ingredient meets legal requirements, not only so a company can sell it, but also so they’re allowed to communicate the health benefits in their marketing. We patent it. And then big food companies can buy a license to use it in their products.

“Multinationals want products with a short time to market”

- Ruud Albers, Nutrileads

R&D and venture capital

“The global market for a company like ours is growing. Multinationals are doing less and less research in house. They’re interested in developing products with a short time to market and are increasingly reluctant to take a risk on a longer-term R&D project. Our company is dynamic and flexible. We can take on these projects thanks to a combination of government subsidies and venture capital.

“Many venture capital funds want to invest in initiatives where food and pharma meet, but they usually have expertise in just one of these fields. In 2015, we made a deal with four funds with different backgrounds. Several of them have Rabobank backing. All parties benefit from the combined network and expertise in food, pharmaceuticals, healthcare insurance and finance.

“Funds want to invest in initiatives where food and pharma meet”

- Ruud Albers, Nutrileads

“Nutrileads was established in 2012, which wasn’t the easiest time to start a company. But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’ve made great strides since then. We now have our own premises in Wageningen, the Netherlands, and employ six people. Our first ingredient, the one I worked on for Unilever, should be ready to launch in 2019 and we are testing several more. By 2022, we should have a tidy portfolio of ingredients and production processes that we can license out.

A little help

“In the longer term, I think government and public awareness of the food-health connection will continue to grow, and so will acceptance of products like ours. A healthier diet is the ultimate solution, and our ingredients are not meant to replace that. But let’s be realistic: a lot of people don’t manage to eat as healthily as they’d like to. And some people – like under 12s and over 60s, hospital patients and athletes – can really benefit from targeted extra nutrition. What we do is help them. You could say we pack a little more punch into their food.”

Rabobank’s ‘Banking for Food’ podcasts are available in Dutch via various podcast apps for iPhone and Android, SoundCloud and Stitcher (27 min).