Chips with everything: Start-ups pitch their innovations to food and drink multinational 'dragons'

The Open Innovation Forum’s annual pitching competition, organised by IfM for start-ups in the food, drink and FMCG sectors, has been won this year by an ingenious, portable DNA test which can rapidly identify contamination risks in food.


The winning product is DNAFoil, from start-up company SwissDeCode, and was presented among a shortlist of 16 innovative finalists. Short ‘Dragon’s Den’-style pitches were made by the entrepreneurs to an audience of influential decision makers from large companies across the food and drink value chain.


Appropriately for the food sector, there was a profusion of chips on offer. Integrated circuits featured in a number of the top-rated pitches. In the highly commended category, HexagonFab explained how it is developing novel nanomaterials for improved sensors for food safety, and PragmatIC presented its new generation of ultra-thin, low-cost integrated circuits for smart packaging.


The diverse spectrum of innovations ranged from small, lightweight agricultural robots for increasing crop yield from Small Robot Company, to an ‘innovation research assistant’ with AI market intelligence from Klydo, to 3D printed confectionary from Magic Candy Factory. In another highly commended pitch, start-up Mimica Touch presented labels for perishable products with integrated freshness indicators to show when food or medicine has spoiled, reducing waste and improving safety.


Pitching event 2018 group

Targeting innovation needs

Organised by the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing, this year’s pitching event was hosted at the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast. The competition takes place during a meeting of the Open Innovation (OI) Forum, a group which convenes major multinationals from across the food, drink and FMCG industry, spanning the supply chain from ingredients and materials through processes and technology, to brand owners and retail. Members include PepsiCo, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Crown Packaging, Siemens, Moy Park and Heineken, among other global players.


The OI Forum companies come together to consider strategic and collaborative approaches to innovation, actively looking outside their own organisations to harness external innovations. Forum members have identified a list of 50 ‘innovation needs’ - business challenges and opportunities where external innovations could make a valuable impact. Often this presents an ideal symbiotic relationship with creative start-ups needing to grow by building relationships with bigger clients.


The winning product: DNAFoil

The 2018 pitching competition was won by start-up company SwissDeCode, with an engaging presentation by CEO and co-founder Brij Sahi. The product, DNAFoil, provides quick and reliable testing of food products during production. For food producers, guaranteeing the quality and integrity of their products is critical, but doing so usually involves a lengthy process of laboratory DNA testing. DNAFoil replaces this slow, complex and expensive process with a nifty lab in a box, providing a hand-held, self-administered DNA test for food products during production, taking only 30 minutes for the test to be completed on-site.


Pitching event 2018 winner DNAFoil

DNAFoil is a portable DNA testing device replacing time-consuming laboratory-based tests for perishable goods.


Heightened consumer awareness of allergens and integrity of food labelling, alongside recent high-profile media stories, have emphasised contamination as an increasingly high priority concern for producers. Food production managers need a robust testing process that they can rely on with confidence, but they also need to minimise disruption to production, and want the ability to make rapid operational decisions. DNAFoil is a game-changer in enabling identification of contaminants quickly to enable fast response in production.


It also addresses other problems faced by the food industry, such as food fraud – for example identifying if there is pork meat in ‘100% beef burgers’. Similarly, counterfeiting can be tackled by testing the origin of products, such as whether a cheese with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, an EU legal framework for product protection) is original or counterfeit.


Pitching event 2018 winner Brij Sahi

Dominic Oughton from the Institute for Manufacturing presents the winner’s trophy to Brij Sahi, CEO of SwissDeCode.


Based in Lausanne, SwissDeCode ( is a spin-off based on technology developed by co-founder Gianpaolo Rando at the University of Geneva. He joined forces with Brij Sahi in 2016 to commercialise the technology.


Brij commented:
"The pitching event allowed start-ups to overcome one of our biggest challenges: to have access to key decision makers in large corporations.”


Entrepreneurs voted 'highly commended'

Pitching winners were voted by around 50 Forum members who were present.


Five pitchers were awarded ‘highly commended’:

  • Klydo provides an ‘innovation research assistant’, an AI market intelligence platform that helps consumer brands accelerate their product innovation with a quantitative approach to what is conventionally qualitative research.
  • Mimica Touch provides accessible, affordable freshness indicators for all types of perishable products, from food to pharmaceuticals. Mimica Touch is a label that tells you exactly when food spoils in order to reduce food waste and improve food safety. The label is made sustainably from by-products from the food industry.
  • HexagonFab develops novel nanomaterials for food safety and medical biosensors. A spin-off from the University of Cambridge, Hexagonfab has developed sensors for applications where high sensitivity and real-time results are vital.
  • Small Robot Company is building a service of lightweight farming robots (called Tom, Dick and Harry), backed by an AI driven operating system (called Wilma) for arable crops (initially wheat) that will increase yields while reducing chemicals and energy by around 90%.
  • PragmatIC has developed a new generation of integrated circuits (ICs) that are ultra-thin, low cost and flexible known as FlexICs. This opens up opportunities for introducing intelligence and interactivity into everyday items, enabling smart packaging, smart labels and smart objects that can engage with consumers and their environments. 

2018 finalists

Background on all of the shortlisted finalists who presented to the Open Innovation Forum in Belfast can be found in our pitching booklet. These included: 


Two pitchers, Stephen Beck from Zero Waste Biotech and Neil Bradley from Food Safe System, also featured in an interview on BBC Radio Ulster’s morning news programme, Good Morning Ulster. Catch up here: (2:19:45 mins in)


Pitching event 2018 BBC radio



The Open Innovation Forum was established in 2010 by IfM Education and Consultancy Services, (IfM ECS), the dissemination arm of the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing, to provide support and opportunities for companies involved in the Food, Drink and FMCG value chain. Find out more about the Forum here.


Previous entrants and winners of the Open Innovation Forum Food and FMCG Pitching Competition can be viewed here.


Register your interest in entering the 2019 pitching event by filling in the below form:

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Date published

27 November 2018

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