Scientists from TFTAK (Toidu- ja Fermentatsioonitehnoloogia Arenduskeskus or Centre of Food and Fermentation Technologies) are working every day to bring more innovative and healthier foods to our dinner tables and ever more alternatives to meat to our food shops. They received important recognition in early May when the TFTAK scientists developing salmon steaks from pea protein reached the top six in the renowned XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition, and they will compete next year for the 15 million dollar prize fund.
We spoke to Ene Viiard, head of innovation at TFTAK, and found out more about what the company does. TFTAK has been operating at the Tehnopol campus since it was founded, and it is also a member of Connected Health cluster.
The main work of TFTAK is providing technology development services, generally to private companies, and so we cannot say very much about the details of the projects. But an important direction within our area of operation is introducing alternative proteins for food production, working with both isolated proteins from plants, insects and algae, and cultivated proteins from filamentous fungi, yeasts and bacteria.
One product that has reached the market through an Estonian company and already received various awards for the best Estonian food product is the Hi!Fiber yoghurts produced together with the dairy company Tere, which contain probiotic fibres and bacteria. We worked with Tere to research the health impact of the yoghurts by testing how they affected consumers, and we found that they help to regulate their cholesterol levels.
We recently carried out similar health impact research into a product developed jointly with Siidrikoda. We experimented with making purée from the apple pomace left after cider production, adding fibre to it to give it the maximum benefit. The health impact analysis showed that the fibre-rich purée also helps regulate cholesterol.
We have worked with the mineral water producer Värska Vesi and we created the Vurtsvasser series of juices with them, and the new Värska Naturaal Plus flavoured water, which is enhanced with functional ingredients. A new range of pancakes that we helped develop recently reached the shops under the brand Mamma. These are a healthy variant on traditional pancakes.
We have also worked with various shops and chains to help develop ready-made food. We have made a new range of products for Coop Eesti for example that consist of ready-made food with reduced calories, and added fibre, protein and minerals. We have also made functional soups with added vitamins and minerals for Selver Köök.
There have also been interesting projects together with Tactical Foodpack, who produce meals for expeditions and for the military.
Companies generally contact us themselves, as TFTAK is such a well-known brand in Estonia that others come to us with interesting new ideas. We also have regular clients who we often work with to improve products. We have contacted companies that we want to work with at trade fairs and conferences too.
It is often not possible for small companies to do all their development in-house, and it is easier for them to buy that service in. Larger companies have their own priorities that their development teams focus on, but if they also want to do something different that they do not have the piloting equipment for, then it is good to use outside experts like us.
We put a lot of emphasis on providing a full service, as we visit companies on-site and we work with their team to identify the problem that needs to be solved, or help them refine their development ideas; we carry out a market review straight away to establish whether it is a new product that is being developed; we involve consumers from the earliest development phase; we bring companies together through agile development processes; and we work in small cycles as quickly as possible, getting constant feedback from both end users and producers. After that we use the piloting equipment in our laboratory to make the product, help choose the packaging, do research if necessary to assess the impact of the product, and help in marketing it.
About half of our partners are Estonian, and half are foreign. The difference is that our Estonian partners are food production companies of various sizes, but our foreign partners are mainly medium-sized companies and a few large companies. Foreign companies we have worked well with are producers of fermented products and microbial cultures more broadly such as IFF and Lallemand.
The greatest challenge in innovation has definitely been moving up in scale from the laboratory to production, in both food technology and biotechnology. A recipe that works under laboratory conditions does not necessarily work in the same way on the production line of a large factory. Or a microorganism that grows in a test tube may not grow in a fifty-litre pilot reactor. It is this transition from the small scale of the laboratory to pilot production to the industrial level that is the greatest challenge for us and for our partners. So that we can get solutions that work in the laboratory to bring us benefits in the real world. We are one of the few organisations in Estonia to have a pilot production stage, which is here on the Tehnopol campus, and this lets us give companies a great deal of support in their development work.
The greatest challenges in technology surround everything that is connected to alternative proteins. How to separate the proteins out from plants or the waste from food production; how to run that process in an environmentally-friendly and cost-effective way; how to make alternative proteins taste and smell good; and of course the technical and functional characteristics, and how to make those proteins act in the final outcome so that they result in an attractive product. A plant-based alternative to yoghurt cannot be made in the same way as yoghurt from cows milk. Plant-based ingredients act in very unpredictable ways and completely different processes are needed to produce final products that have similar characteristics. This is a great challenge for us and for our partners.
Estonians are sceptical, they don’t take anything on trust but want to try it for themselves. Fortunately however, people have become braver in recent years about trying new things out. There are several aspects to this. One is undoubtedly that local producers have started to bring plant-based products to the market more, and this has caught the interest of people. If there is a plant-based alternative to milk available at the coffee machine in the office, people will try it.
Another aspect that encourages people to be brave or even persuades them to try new things is the price. There has been a very strong feeling that meat is getting more and more expensive. While this may not be affecting our wallets so drastically just yet, we will certainly feel the impact in the future. People are gradually starting to come round to the idea that they must look more at plant-based options.
A third important point is health, which is making people change their consumption habits. Statistics show that Estonians eat two or three times as much meat as is recommended, so there is still room for improvement. This does not mean that we should stop eating meat, but we should reduce the amount and replace some meat products with healthy and tasty alternatives.
The situation is quite stable at the moment. The amount of meat we eat has not increased, but there is no real indication either that we are eating less meat than before. Consumers might be making changes within the meat that they buy and eat, so that if beef or lamb is expensive, pork may be cheaper, and if pork also seems expensive, then they buy chicken.
We have been based at the Tehnopol Park campus since TFTAK was founded in 2004, and we just moved for the fourth time, as the rooms we were in before had become too small for us. If we do not have enough seats for all of our scientists, then it is time for us to move. Our new space is almost twice the size of where we were before. We are very happy here, as the laboratory is a good place to work, with plenty of room for all the people and equipment. This has helped make our development processes more efficient.
Our foreign guests often say how convenient it is to come here, as we are easy to get to and only 20 minutes away from Tallinn airport. We get positive comments and compliments about this, given that airports in other countries are often well outside the big cities.
We have so far invested a great deal in improving our skills and in applied research for various technologies, and we have bought a lot of equipment, which is horrendously expensive in our business, which has all held innovation back a little; but we now have that base in place and the coming years will be a time of breakthroughs for us, as we start to bring to the market new technologies and services that we have not been actively promoting to our customers. Exciting times are ahead, and they will certainly be exciting for exports as we expand our profile in the biotechnology sector. It will also be exciting in Estonia of course, as there are several new interesting players in the startup world that are working with biotechnology and food. We are planning to work together with them to promote this in Estonia.
We are also related to FUNKI, as several of our people are behind that team. FUNKI is currently taking part in the Tehnopol Startup Incubator programme, and we really hope that they will do well and we will be able to provide development services for them, as a lot of companies, especially those just starting out, are not able to get access to the stock of equipment that we have. I would also encourage others to contact us about that, as we have the people and the equipment that could be what they need to achieve their goals.