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Featured image: How to Shape the Food Retail Experience of Tomorrow

How to Shape the Food Retail Experience of Tomorrow

Jan Lingenbrinck, Food Lover & Tech Scout

In this episode Food Lover & Technology Scout Jan Lingenbrinck introduces us to the Berlin Food Tech Campus. Together with his team, Jan helps designing and implementing innovative solutions for the food retail industry. In it's role as a linking element, the Food Tech Campus matches creative minds and their innovative ideas with the right stakeholders to realize a go-to-market as smoothly as possible. If you want to know why the Food Tech Campus Open Innovation Call is YOUR chance to get your crazy stuff on the shelves, or why the pandemic of all things has brought to light how flexible and agile the campus is set up to be, stay tuned.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

Shaping the food retail experience of tomorrow

Chris: Welcome to another Innovation Rockstar interview. Today, we have another awesome guest — Food Lover and Technology Scout from the famous Berlin Food Tech Campus, Jan Lingenbrinck. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jan: My pleasure.

Chris: Let's get started by getting to know you a bit better. Could you share a few words about yourself?

Jan: What's there to say? My name is Jan. I'm 38 years old, live in Berlin, married, have a daughter, and have been with EDEKA since 2012. My professional career thus far has been centered around retail.

Chris: Short and precise. Very nice. I am curious to know what it is currently doing in your career and what brought you to the food tech campus?

Jan: I started at EDEKA Digital as a traditional project manager. The Food Tech Campus was a project that we were involved in to help leverage the startup scene for any lucrative and innovative opportunities for the EDEKA group. We began in 2017 with a smaller version of the campus here in Berlin, and this has grown into a full-fledged operation ever since. That endeavor has been my colleagues and my pet project.

The idea behind the Food Tech Campus

Chris: Okay. Could you briefly explain the food campus and it's purpose in a few sentences?

Jan: If you look at the innovation disruptors and technological advancements over the last years, you see that most of these come from smaller companies. That trend is very applicable within the food sector; thus, we must tap into the startup scene to leverage the innovative potential. The Food Tech Campus became the bridge between these startups and the EDEKA group. The campus has a very complex structure, and it's based on a co-op business model that provides the ideal product testing and staging environment. The vision is that we'll advise you and help you make sound decisions to help with sales.

Chris: Right. The EDEKA Group is the largest German supermarket corporation and cooperates with many independent merchants. Looking at the whole from a bird's eye's perspective, on the one side, you have the EDEKA Group, and on the other side, you have the food tech campus. How are they connected? Is there even any close connection?

Jan: Officially, we are a subdivision of EDEKA Digital, which is the IT service provider at headquarters in Hamburg, but we keep close bonds to all relevant stakeholders within the core group — independent merchants, our colleagues at headquarters and any digital product or a business owner. Essentially we are part of EDEKA Digital, but we try to position ourselves as a service provider for retailers and wholesale groups.

Chris: I see. How would you say the EDEKA group's approach to innovation management has changed thanks to the existence of the Food Tech Campus? Have you been given new responsibilities, or have these responsibilities changed somewhat? What are the main differences compared to the past?

“I think the campus's impact is that we provide a platform for all those topics that don't have a place to call home; while guiding external service providers and startup companies within the group without having to talk to the procurement teams, for example, directly.”

Jan: In general, EDKA is very decentralized. Most of the innovation is happening at the store level of the independent retailers. Suppose they see a solution they want; there'll be tests and tailoring until it fits their expectations for use. The same is true for the regional divisions; they have their teams and innovation programs. However, it's tough to introduce anything new from a top-down level at EDEKA since it needs to undergo proof of concept, and retailers must have a value in it. If ideas pass their trial period, then it's pretty much a sold thing on the marketplace — especially if the concept is solid and provides sound solutions — as retailers will be picking it up rapidly; however, in practice that isn't how it usually works over here. I think the campus's impact is that we provide a platform for all those topics that don't have a place to call home; while guiding external service providers and startup companies within the group without having to talk to the procurement teams, for example, directly. That's beneficial most of the time. Smaller companies don't know who to approach; hence, we provide that guidance from vetting to preparing their idea or solution to be launched into the market. We'll also involve the right people so that their pilot project is getting the exposure it needs to prove that it's working and has longevity.

Chris: Right. I heard that you guys have reported a lot of success and built up a remarkable reputation out there. Would you agree that your approach might be the secret recipe to your success by offering that independent platform to test new ideas and solutions? Or is there perhaps another source for that success that you could share?

Jan: I believe that we are pretty good at formulating the needs and desires of our independent retailers and translating that into a language that makes sense to them. We are very vocal and customer-centric, and we encourage our independent retailers to do and be the same. Our expertise lies in aligning technologies into food-related products. We are pretty good at connecting with independent retailers and startups within their domain. That is, in my opinion, the principal value that can be obtained by and through the food campus.

From pull to push: A public solution scouting approach

Chris: Understood. Okay, cool. Now let's zoom in to understand how you work at the Food Tech Campus. I know from you and your website's material that you boast a strong network of experts and startups; of course, that includes your connection with EDEKA. You help co-create tomorrow's food retail experiences, which I think is a great slogan. Going a little deeper, how do you manage all the different innovation topics and projects? Can you guide us through your work at the Food Tech Campus?

Jan: We use several channels to tap into innovative solutions. One channel is actively scouting for solutions that might solve a challenge that we may face internally. Picture an extensive challenge list with various fields that we act up on. Suppose we discover something that we're looking for or interested in. In that case, we will approach that affiliated startup company and propose a collaboration project with them. We ask targeted specific questions: Are you interested in doing a project? That is a problem we'd like to find a solution for. Are you up for it? We used to handle such leads differently before. Still, we got more exposure and publicity in the last few years, which allowed us to change our modus operandi with more traction. We are now much more approached by external parties without spending excessive effort. They usually heard of us either by word of mouth or by seeing information about us somewhere. Again, most parties that approach us are startups, and they are often very unstructured and ad hoc in their field. We wanted more focus and approach, specifically those startups that have what we would find desirable; thus, we streamlined and consolidated different specific topics and their corresponding solutions that we were looking for and posted them for a few weeks. By doing that, startups can apply and pitch their solution in a structured manner and pick the most relevant and successful applications. Once selected, we'll connect them with the right stakeholders and significantly try to shorten their time and effort for that way. 

Chris: Okay, so there are two channels as far as I understood, and perhaps we can summarize that as from the pull-to-push method since you are initially scouting for talent and entities that could provide the right solutions (the pull) and then pushing them to EDEKA or to any stakeholder that might be interested. The open innovation course is also an excellent tool and channel to get traction with the public for solutions scouting. How do you go about the first channel? Do you have tech and startup scouts running around and collecting ideas and inspirations; while being on the hunt for talent that can accommodate solutions? Or how do you exactly do that?

Jan: It's primarily based on the challenges at hand that need solving. So if we have a specific challenge, for example, sustainability in terms of food waste or packaging material, we scout along with these guidelines and tap into different networks to help us out. So we are establishing networks with universities or other sources that we can tap into. We also have an expert pool at the food tech campus, which we regularly approach to get their input and suggestions if there's no pressing innovation challenge at that moment. There are many ways to apply for a challenge. The most common one is to go through our regular retail innovation track; put your application in, and we will have to look at it. Sometimes we come across solutions to problems that we weren't even aware of or had thought of before. We then try to find a matching problem to an existing solution -working in reverse - within the company.

Chris: Okay, cool. So that's the input channel. Great. What happens next once you have collected and gathered all these ideas from the various startups or sources? How do you leverage these ideas or solutions, specifically, your contribution to success?

Jan: I think the core value we can provide is an open innovation network. Anyone can come in and start mingling with like-minded founders who might have similar solutions. We give you access to the stakeholders who could be willing to become your immediate and direct customers in the future. Suppose you have a solution that, for example, caters to a specific product area. In that case, we can provide you with the contacts who might be interested to hear more. Another example would be offering something of benefit to the independent retailers. We can accommodate since we maintain a broad portfolio of them. All of that dramatically helps in getting the right match with your product and whoever is interested in it, not to mention the massive amount of paperwork required to be accepted as a supplier, and that's an area we can assist with as well. We have experts who can help along the way and up the chances of the product making it into the markets and success. That process ranges from auditing to certifications; we can help streamline startups and our EDEKA stakeholders. Currently, we are working on a process meant to facilitate entering specific markets. For instance, if you are interested in joining retailing but don't have a product yet for launch, you can contact us. We'll apply our pool of expertise to facilitate that transition from concept to market. The idea is to provide you with a marketable product or service you can easily apply and use. However, until you reach that stage, there's a lot of stakeholder involvement; many times, you might need the data protection and privacy department to greenlight your solution, or you need someone who can give an overview of how billing works, all of which are not always straightforward to integrate. Going through us would be the most accessible alternative, I'd say.

Chris: Okay. I think I got it now. So the Food Tech Campus facilitates professional networking, together with personalized tailoring for marketable food products and solutions via innovation. Once that's accomplished, you offer your platform to startups to expose these products or solutions to the broader public. I also understood that you have other platforms to accommodate if the innovative idea or solution isn't specifically food-related. I think you called it tech starters or something along those lines.

Jan: Yes, exactly.

Chris: Okay. So what happens at the very end of the process, once the products or solutions have been rolled out onto these respective platforms? How do EDEKA merchants get notified that something new has arrived on the market? Do they pick and choose what they like?

Jan: That depends on the product. Over the last years, we have hosted many events in various formats involving EDEKA retailers. For example, the "Buyers Pitch" format was quickly digitalized as one of the first formats. The idea of that format is a group of merchants, five to ten people each, who all own several stores; they pitch startup ideas and products. That format is very similar to "Shark Tank" or "Höhle der Löwen" but more condensed. That was one way to expand our reach and get retail contacts; it's a trendy format by now. We get a lot of interest and traction that way, which inevitably leads to new project propositions; we assess whether they are a possible candidate for our technology, proof of concepts or pilot projects. We have a lot of returning retailers to do that. That requires a bit of stakeholder management on our part. Still, we try to reach out via different channels, like newsletters and an internal platform to talk to the retailers. The main goal is to speak with the right folks and connect them where possible. Unfortunately, it's not just about pressing a button, and everything is incredible nationwide that never works. You have to put in the work and go from store to store to get some success.  

Chris: Going from door to door sure is a lot of hard work to pitch those solutions to potentially interested entities. Looking back to the recent past, what would you say were your most successful innovations, whether in the food or otherwise. Could you provide me with a few examples without disclosing anything confidential, of course? What made those examples successful?

Jan: That's a tough one. Let's look at the start of the pandemic; I think one of the strong suits of our retailers is that they can adapt exceptionally quickly and know their customers well, allowing them to change processes or business models as the need fits confidently. If you recall, the store limitations were prevalent everywhere; they had various ways of dealing with it. Many were very pragmatic and just handed out a limited amount of shopping carts; thus, if all shopping carts are gone and you're at max capacity of people allowed in the store. Many retailers reported that their customers didn't like that approach, even labelling it as not friendly customer friendly. They reached out to us, and we connected these retailers with some clever folks in a startup who were tasked to develop a lean but effective solution to that store capacity problem. They came up with a straightforward infrared sensor. It tracked people entering the store and displayed whether it was at max capacity by using traffic lights. Because of it's simplicity, it quickly became noticed, and numerous retail stores integrated that system. I would say that was by far one of the best projects thus far and beautifully demonstrated when a problem meets a solution.  

“They came up with a straightforward infrared sensor. It tracked people entering the store and displayed whether it was at max capacity by using traffic lights. Because of it's simplicity, it quickly became noticed, and numerous retail stores integrated that system.”

That's how it's pretty much done. Retail is highly versatile and a fairly traditional business domain, so coming up with new tech is not often as simple as the example I just mentioned. The capacity to quickly change, adapt and react to special circumstances is something that we admire. And another example is how we digitalized most of the formats here; the campus in Berlin is and will remain a physical space, though. I think the value of the food tech campus is it's network, but having a physical space is equally important, especially for food. When you want to do some food tasting, you have to physically be present where the food is offered, which was challenging during the pandemic. There's also some online bias that we recognized, and the retailers generally accept them. Many food-related items within the industry have been moved online or digitized. Many like it as it reduces time spent on traveling and saves time to complete everyday tasks. So these were some of the examples where we had a good run and did a good job quickly changing to outside situations.

A glimpse into the future of retail

Chris: Congratulations on that one. Since we looked at the past, how about we also glimpse the short to long-term future? What's coming up next for the food tech campus? What can we expect to see from you?  

Jan: It's like looking into a crystal ball, and I don't have one. Next week, we will prepare for a call for innovations for everyone. We are specifically looking for a sustainable packaging solution, and we're trying to put a more considerable emphasis on what we'd call in Germany "Food Value-Appreciation". We want to make folks aware of the value of food, including write-offs, reducing waste and making the best out of food in any way, shape or form. That desire may even extend as far as looking for improvements in the production processes in a vast food domain. We are expecting to get a lot of applications since it's an open invitation to all, and we are excited to see great ideas with incredible new technologies come our way to tackle some of the prevalent challenges. However, if you are specifically asking about where we'd be a year from now, I wouldn't be able to tell; that's hard to say.  I think we will adapt and change our business to keep it customer-centric. We might focus on making the platform more accessible in general and, with that, try to attract more startups that are willing to collaborate with EDEKA. I am not sure how business will be done once we return to pre-pandemic normal and whether we'll go back to more a physical location bias or remain entirely in the digitized world since we've adapted rather nicely to it ever since. Nevertheless, our aim will always be to nurture and grow our network with new startups and retailers. I think we'll have to be vigilant for an ever-changing but exciting retail and food sector.

Chris: I agree. Where will you announce your next open call for innovation? Will it be via social media channels or any other outlets?  

Jan: I think we will use social media channels, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, for sure. However, I believe our website will be the main area because everything is nicely laid out and structured. You can apply simply with the push of a button, and instructions will guide you through the process.  

Chris: Okay, cool. We are coming up to the end of our interview but allow me to ask a few closing questions since I have you here as an expert; no worries, I am aware that you are not privy to crystal balling. How do you see the retail sector's development within the immediate future, in your opinion? Will there be a bigger move towards digitization and sustainability? What's your take on that?

Jan: I believe there will be a significant trend towards digital solutions, provided they successfully provide customer benefits. The customers ultimately decide what they like and what they don't, and it's the same with B2B between the independent retailers. Retailers have to work things out and see what makes sense to deploy and what is better to hold off on. Other than that, and as I mentioned before, I am unsure how the next few years will play out. There's a lot of stuff happening and will happen soon regarding digital concepts. Still, it's tough to predict the outcomes and results. Let's wait and see, I guess. 

Chris: Let's wait and see indeed. It makes sense when things are changing rapidly, hence why making predictions isn't as obvious or easy; it is probably even more challenging for the next five to ten years. I have one last question before we wrap up. Looking back at your time at the food-tech campus, what would you say was your signature Innovation Rockstar moment thus far?  

Jan: I would say that moment was within the first few weeks of the lockdown year, which completely changed interactions and how we ran things, notwithstanding that it wasn't going to go away any time soon at that time. We made a mad dash for digitization by changing our existing formats and processes. That meant collaborating with all the stakeholders digitally on a digital platform primarily. It's beauty was how rapidly and efficiently we transitioned to such a format and how everyone quickly adapted to it and did their part. Thanks to that broader reach, we managed to grow even during that period, which is nothing to sneeze at. Now we are not spreading our wings in Germany or Europe but globally.

"We made a mad dash for digitization by changing our existing formats and processes. The beauty of it was how quickly and efficiently we moved to such a format and how quickly everyone adapted and played their part."

Chris: That does sound like it must've been a big effort, and I'm thrilled to hear that it worked out so well. You and your team provide a substantial service, which is an excellent example of what it means to be an adaptive organization. These days you hear a lot of buzzwords like adaptive, proactive, reactive, flexibility, etc. That is all good and fine, but how to effectively live by those words and integrate them into existing models is something that I inherently lack. You guys have a winning process, and your actions speak for themselves through your platforms and call for innovation. With that, I'd like to say thank you for this exciting conversation, Jan and thanks for having joined me today. Thanks for being here. Take care, and I hope we will speak soon.

Jan: Pleasure was all mine.

Chris: And to everybody listening or watching, if you are into food, food engineering or food technology, please take a look at the food campus' call for innovation and leave us a comment for this episode, or email us at That's it, folks. Thanks for listening, and see you in the next episode. Bye-bye. 

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Jan Lingenbrinck is Food Lover & Tech Scout at Food Tech Campus.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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