Interviewing Enrico Costanzo, Group Innovation Manager at Cereal Docks

What is the activity of your company?

Cereal Docks Group is a family business generating eight hundred million euros of revenues. Our core business is focused on the primary transformation: transforming agricultural raw materials (like soy, sunflower and rapeseed) into ingredients like cakes, oils and lecithins mainly for feed and food industries but also for cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, and technical use.

In Cereal Docks Group there are different business units. The diversification strategy is based on the commitment to high quality, food safety and sustainability in order to better meet the health and well-being needs arising among consumers and to preserve the Planet Earth’s recourses. Inside our Group there is a food unit, Cereal Docks Food, active in the field of high value ingredients like vegetable lecithin. There is also a biotechnology company called DemBiotech and focused on the production of highly safe and eco-sustainable active ingredients derived from plant cells culture for cosmetics and nutraceutical industries. We also innovate and invest in studying and developing a special kind of product: the plant-based protein ingredients.

There is definitely a market for moving away from animal products. I think there is going to be a very apt development in the market, would you agree with that?

As you know, consumers are really looking for healthier products that can also have a positive impact on the Planet. This desire doesn’t mean switching to all vegan food but just adding plant-based products to their diet. That’s why we are working on developing new ingredients and innovating the old ones, especially protein ingredients. As Innovation Unit, we are transversal to all the Business Units inside the Company. On top of that we have the goal of exploring new businesses of plant-based proteins.

What is your current position within the company?

I am the Group Innovation Manager. My job is to develop a platform for innovation for the company. The department where I work is called Research Innovation and here, we work in order to keep together both the R&D and the innovation side. My team and I we have to understand the market demand and the consumer needs.

Another important aspect of my job regards Open Innovation, a way of leveraging external knowledge. For instance, we set up collaborations with other Research Centers, Universities and startups.

Image from Enrico Costanzo.

We look for them by ourselves, or we use an accelerator program called Food Tech Accelerator, which is based in Milan, and it’s coordinated by Deloitte. Through this program we are able to scout startups in food tech all over the world and select the ones which best match the needs of our company. After the selection there is a 6-month acceleration on a specific pilot or project.

Where did you study to build your background both in biotechnology and business?

I would say that my studies are European. I started studying Biotechnology at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa. Then, I moved to France, where I first studied Biosciences in Lyon, at the Ecole Normale Supériore, pursuing my curriculum with a PhD in Molecular Biology and Plant Genetics and, after the PhD, I improved my knowledge of Business and Management through the Collège des Ingénieurs MBA Program in Paris. So, as you can see, I really built my curriculum in an European framework, and among the fields of Science and Business.

What is the greatest challenge you think you have in your current role?

The challenge of the Head of Innovation is to find new ideas that are relevant for the Company and the market in which we operate. Both Research and Innovation look for new things, but the main goal of Research really is getting new knowledge. In the case of Innovation, the ideas and products you are researching and developing are going to be used by someone and/or be on the market. Therefore, it’s important to know the needs of your target users. Otherwise, it’s not Innovation, because you are doing something that nobody is going to use.

I like to hear about companies that like to be innovative and kind of employ new needs and contact new companies. I think it’s a very productive approach. It’s very admirable.

What is your vision of European biotechnology?

European Biotechnology surely is (or used to be) lagging behind the US biotech, even just because of the regulatory aspect. Anyway, I see very big potential, also because in Europe nowadays there are many startups that are growing. However, our investments are smaller compared to the US ones. This is a problem because projects and studies really need a lot of time before going to the market. They require a lot of funding and if privates are not able to provide the right amount of funding, I think the governments and the European Union could invest more money.

Yes, I think funding is such a big part of Biotechnology, and ultimately it’s the drive for the success.  You are only limited by the amount of money you have, and I guess in many senses all walks of life, but it’s interesting to see the comparison between America and Europe. Personally, I’d love to go to America and work in Biotechnology because I think the resources that you mentioned are so much more developed, and they are just pumping so much more money into it. But I think as well Europe could become a big player and I think as companies are developing it would be great to see the rise in Europe for biotechnology.

Exactly. I think that investing in biotechnology is important to create new opportunities both for the people and for the European economy.

It’s interesting what we have seen with these developments of new vaccines for COVID-19 and it kind of shows that these things can come about. Astrazeneca is one of the one’s that kind come through all the money that has been spent, and it’s kind of encouraging to see that just with the mean these new drugs can be achieved.

Do you think that the commitment of young people is essential for the success of European Biotechnology? What kind of role do you think that they have in this growing field?

Of course! I think that if we have a very good quality of Biotechnology in Europe is mostly because of the pushing from the young generation, their passion and their decision to stay and not to move elsewhere. Their role is clearly fundamental.

Do you think companies should be committed to the success of young people?

Yes, this is something that I think should be promoted more and more, even just because there is a need for change in culture inside a lot of companies. If you add young people to companies, and you give them the possibility to really try and test, you are opening both their future and the vision of the company. Cereal Docks is young in terms of average age, and it has an open attitude, that allows us to be agile in understanding trends – like plant-based proteins – especially from new generations, those trends that are, in the end, the ones shaping the future market demand.

Do you find that having a company that has a lot of young people creates a different dynamic?

Improving intergenerational integration is the key: different generations are in the position to learn from each other, so it becomes a win-win situation. It’s a dynamic that can bring a lot of innovation and, consequently, profit.

About your company that trains young people and invests in them. Do you have any more comments about how your company combats this investment?

We are growing our role as trainers. We have an internal project, which is intended for young people from Universities: The Mantegna Campus. We give them the possibility to join our company for six months. During this timeframe, they can do their master thesis in our labs. I think it’s a great opportunity because when you come from academics you don’t really know how a company works, so it’s really a great chance to see what happens from the inside and grow professionally. When you are studying as a biotechnologist, you might think you will work just in the lab using the techniques you studied, like PCR, but in the real world it doesn’t work in this way. You will probably work in a company with other people that have different backgrounds and roles. It’s from the coordination of everyone that a company can innovate and develop new projects.

Right now, we host four to height students per year, in a six-months training program, and we are bringing more and more connections with Universities. It’s an exchange of ideas and knowledge that really fits everyone: our Company, students and Universities.