Bühler Group makes technologies that power much of the global food sector. It’s constantly changing to keep up with new trends and challenges—particularly as #ClimateChange heightens anxieties around our collective ability to feed a growing population around the world.
In this video, Philipp Hasler interviews Thierry Duvanel, Bühler’s Director of Collaborative Innovation. They dig into how the Swiss conglomerate is working with startups to foster new advances in their field:
- They help companies working on innovative ingredients to scale up from a kilogram to a ton, and beyond.
- They take the time to establish trust with startup founders and teams. This can often result in a personal relationship, as much as a professional one.
- They look to make the collaboration a win-win for both themselves and the startup.
So welcome to the Emerald Innovation Insights here at the European Energy Venture Fair at the Swiss Re Global Center for Dialogue.
One of the key topics of the event here today is about partnering with startups. This is, of course, very essential for startups, for investors, and of course, also for corporates.
I’m very pleased to welcome here, Thierry Duvane. He’s the director of collaborative innovation at Swiss company, Buhler, which is one of the major process equipment company here in Switzerland. Thierry, very welcome here. I’m Philip Hasler with Emerald Technology Ventures.
Thank you very much for welcoming me.
So, Thierry, you are developing a very unique model how to collaborate with startup companies. So can you tell me a little bit more what was the history of that and how you actually came to develop that model?
Sure. So I think it’s important for us to set the context for where we come from.
Buhler is a Swiss company active in the provision of processing equipment, mostly for food. We have been around for about 160 years. It’s a family owned business with very strong roots in this industry. And we have today, a situation which is quite unique in the sense that a large footprint of the industry, in terms of processing of anything plant-based, is relying on Buhler. For instance, two third of the wheat mills that are on earth have been built by Buhler. Probably 30% for those. Or rice mills, etc.
So we have a pretty comfortable position and knowing that anyway, the earth will have 10 billion people by 2050, we could just wait and do nothing, knowing that with these comfortable market shares, we would grow anyway.
But this is not what we do because we know that the food system as it is today is not sustainable. It’s not going to be a model that will feed 10 billion people, so we need to change. And this has been the main driver for our innovation.
The endeavor is just too big to take by ourselves, so we have to look outside of our tiny walls, and this is the main reason that drove us to look outside and to engage with startups.
Great. Thank you.
So I noticed in your title and also in the way how you present yourself, you put a lot of emphasis on collaborative rather than collaboration, which I read is something really proactive.
So can you give us an example of a collaboration, or a model that you have gone through with startups, or with one startup that you think is highlighting, showcasing how you actually do work with startup companies?
Sure. The underlying model is that we provide equipment. That’s the DNA of the company. So most of the companies developing novel ingredients, novel type of food, in general, if we stick to food, they are facing, at some point, a scaling up challenge.
I can give an example of a company that is developing a novel ingredient from sugar beet roots, for instance. They are at the level of a few kilograms. They need to be able to ramp up. The collaboration and the collaborative approach we have taken is to offer them, together with their future customers, an approach where we provides the access to our pilot plants. They can scale up, they can go from the kilogram to the ton and further, and hopefully then, afterwards, be in a position where they generate of value for their customers.
It’s a proactive way of thinking in a way that at day zero or day one, when we have a collaboration with them, we don’t have much to gain from it because we invest. But we know that if they have a good experience with our technologies, with our people, with our skills, they will rely on our technologies in a way. So that’s the kind of a proactive way to help the newcomers and the change makers in that field for tomorrow.
Interesting. So when we talk to startup companies, they always are afraid to engage and partner with corporates. And, of course, we can try to convince them, “Look, this is your way how you can scale, how you can grow, how you can learn from others.”
So what are you doing to take away that fear that startups may have when it comes to stealing IP, or reverse engineering products, and whatnot? So how do you actually do that to take away that fear and that they are eager to come and work and collaborate with you?
Well, that’s not an easy one. If I had the silver bullet, I would not even tell you.
I think the key is really to trigger a relationship, to set a way of discussing, of engaging which is based on trust. And this requires time. So one of the lessons that we have probably learned, and that many probably doing the same are experiencing, is that this does not come overnight. This is something that requires time. It requires an attitude where you meet with the startup founders, you establish a relationship, which is sometimes almost a personal one. You should be prepared not to only work according to your agenda, but also try sometimes to remove your hat as a corporate and genuinely help the startup.
Once this environment and this trust is there, then it’s surprising how fast it could go. But it takes some time to prepare.
Stealing IP, yes. This is the usual discussions we have with a lot of, especially early-stage companies. We always joke by telling that even if they were telling us all their secrets, we wouldn’t do it because this is not our model. We don’t want to steal anything. We don’t want to be the big elephant trying to occupy the space. We need really to have this exchange, which is fruitful.
So my last question to you, Thierry is, what role do you see for venture capital firms like ours in your collaborative platforms? Where do we add value, or how can we add more value to what you do today?
Well, we have been doing this for a few years, so we’ve learned our lessons too. The key problem that probably every large corporate does this, is experiencing is, these collaborations that get stuck at the level of a proof-of-concept.
Engaging with a startup and having a collaboration around one or even multiple projects is one thing. But then giving visibility, internally, at the corporate level, where you would actually extract the value and start really going to the next step where you need to open with external partners as well, especially in terms of financing, is a challenge. I wouldn’t say we do it all right.
That would be far, going to too big. But this is certainly a very big learning that we have also.
So when I understood you correct, so it’s not a challenge of your corporate, it’s the corporate partners of the startups once they actually go commercial, right?
I think so. I think at some point you need to is that you don’t collaborate with a startup only to capture it and to have a multiplication effort that can be only on your side. It needs to be open. And typically, collaborating with external investment partners is a key in that sense.
So maybe our last question to you, what role do you see for a venture capital firm like ours pivot, how can we help or support you, and what would you expect from a company like us? How can we leverage on what you do today?
Well, at the base, there is the natural sharing of a pipeline, of opportunities in order to exchange and know better which companies could be investible.
We see a relationship in this sense that we would help the company, the startup to reach the next level of valuation, for instance, through a scaling up as the example I was giving before. But very much, the need for collaboration with external investment firms is also related to the fact that very rarely we would invest entirely in a company.
It is very healthy, we believe, to have that kind of diversity in the shareholding in order to bring different ideas, in order to bring more openness in the attitude, and this is why we would like to collaborate as well.
Thank you. I think that was a very good end of our interview. Thank you very much, Thierry. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to speak with you later today, again.
Thank you, Philipp.