IFT 2010: The Technical Academy Awards of the Food Industry

Competing in the food industry is tough business.  Margins are slim, gaining a fraction of a share point costs big bucks, and innovation is… well, it’s the food industry.  But there’s another type of innovation that drives competitive advantage: technical innovation.  The Institute of Food Technologists just held its annual conference, IFT 2010, at McCormick Place in Chicago.  If you’ve never attended, think food, obscure ingredients, PhD’s, and not having to buy lunch.  They just handed out several awards for technical innovation that would require me to get a couple more academic degrees to understand.

When I attend a conference, I look for three things: 1) New business models, 2) Innovative new products, and 3) Innovative business strategies.  It’s not always easy to spot these because conferences are often quite large with lots of exhibitors focused on selling to their target market.  I’m not in anybody’s target so when I spot an exhibit of interest, I hide my name tag and ask questions to get their sales pitch.  I have a food science degree, a masters in business and extensive experience in the food industry.  Usually within 30 seconds to one minute I can tell if something is new and innovative.

I didn’t get very many innovative pitches.  Most were just “my algae-sourced omega-3 is better than their fish-sourced omega-3…”  But I had to reconcile my strategy and business design perspective with the fact that leading researchers were getting awards for innovative work.

So I thought about the Academy Awards and the technical innovators that made movies like Star Wars (a game-changing movie) and Avatar (potentially, we’ll see) possible.  Do you really know anything about the innovative techniques of a gaffer, key grip, or foley artist?  Do you even know what those positions are?  Yet, it takes innovation at all levels in a movie to get a Best Picture award.

I’ve decided the same goes for innovation in the food industry.  It takes tremendous innovation at a very technical level to provide that one little edge in functionality or that one new health benefit.  And these innovators are often unheralded much like the techies in the movie industry that make best pictures possible.

IFT 2010 was actually full of innovation, though I didn’t see or understand it all.  These innovations are providing those often small breakthroughs that give business and strategy guys like me the firepower needed to go out and win the tenth of a share point in a very tough industry.  So, three cheers for the technical innovators at IFT 2010.  And the Oscar goes to…