How ICL Converges Food, Ag and Tech Together With Startups

May 10, 2021 Bram van Beek
Reading Time: 3 minutes

ICL is a global specialty minerals and chemical company that is committed to advancing humanity for a sustainable future. F&A Next reached out to Hadar Sutovsky, VP External Innovation and General Manager of ICL Planet at ICL and panelist in the “Convergence of Food, Ag and Tech” discussion, for some insights on how they include startups in their quest to use new technologies in building a sustainable food system.

Most of us know ICL as a global leader in specialty minerals adding value for customers in key agriculture and industrial markets. Probably less well known are ICL’s functional ingredients for the processed food industry. Changing consumer needs including demand for alternative proteins ignited a recent review of ICL’s growth strategy with the foodtech sector as a growth engine.

Hadar, ICL is on the verge of launching the ICL Planet hub for startups. How does this relate to other (open) innovation initiatives of the company?

At ICL we feel that innovative technology plays a leading role in creating a sustainable food system. Innovation is therefore also key in ICL’s organization culture. Employees are continuously challenged to pitch ideas and to develop innovative projects. The company now has various internal innovation related initiatives to maximize operational excellence, for example AI for predictive maintenance or process optimization, VR, data mining, drones inspection, autonomous vehicles, 3D scanning and printing and smart sensors.

Next to internal projects, ICL has adopted an open innovation program years ago, which is aimed at scouting for solutions and cutting-edge technologies. The innovation program has led to the validation of numerous research projects and proof-of-concepts with academia and very early-stage startups. Later-stage innovations were chased by ICL’s M&A team. However, the company noted one link was missing: early stage startups that are at pilot stage or a bit more mature and ready to go to market. ICL Planet is to fill that gap access to exceptional ideas, technologies and innovators

Hadar, there are in increasing number of corporate accelerators. What separates ICL Planet from other corporate accelerators and what makes it particularly interesting to startups?

ICL Planet is not a traditional accelerator model by means of duration, selection cohorts and business model. It is a hybrid program with a 8-18 months duration. The selection is continuous, and the business model offers not only the opportunity for investment but also a dual track program of pilots or Go To Market collaboration processes. All startups will get full access to ICL’s recourses, including laboratories and mentorship by experts and executives. Such approach should significantly increase the chances of success.

Hadar, in addition to a dual track program of pilots or Go To Market collaboration processes, there is opportunity for ICL to invest. Can you be a bit more specific?

We decided to create three investment levels related to the level of progress or lifecycle stage. So, if you are a pilot ready startup, you’ll be part of the Pilot Runway Track. Meaning you are ready to implement your technologies within ICL BU’s to match business and impact challenges and optimization of market fit. Product requirements include that you have to be post proof-of-concept and prototype ready. There is no need for proven commercial traction. The investment can be up to $350K.

The criteria for Market Highway Track are, as expected, more advanced including market ready technologies with practical business, commercial and impact challenges – accelerating their commercialization in the global market and contributing to ICL’s impact worldwide. The product is ready and ideally have few paying customers. Investment can be up to $1M. If you are beyond this stage you are at Planet Invest meaning ICL Planet could invest $1M or more to fuel your growth.

Hadar, you want to join forces with entrepreneurs ranging from very early stage to more advanced ones. Many will embrace the support offered by ICL, others may fear their independence, potential infringements of intellectual properties or loss of trade secrets. How can ICL comfort them?

First and foremost, a partnership between a startup and ICL Planet is a question of mutual understanding. After all, it starts out by affecting people – from both the company and the startup. If you put the right people on the job, anything is possible, our best people will support the process and assure it goes smooth and agile.

At ICL Planet, intentions must be clear from the start in order to maximize benefits of partnerships for both parties. ICL will mentor the startups in between Pilot ready and commercialization in all possible ways; operationally and strategically. As shared earlier, investments by ICL Planet can span from 350K up to over $1mln depending on progress and commercial traction.

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