Fermented flour a food waste breakthrough
Enormous food waste in a world where there is not enough food to go around is a crisis which needs to be addressed with both determination and innovation.
Ninna Granucci, a former University of Auckland international student, is part of a new generation of thinkers contributing solutions with out-of-the-box thinking.
Ninna grew up in Brazil and saw for herself the amount of food waste primary producers there generated. Learning about the scale of the problem globally, she resolved to apply her skills to help bring about change.
“I wanted to use science in an area which fascinates me –microbiology and specifically, fermentation – to try and find a solution to this huge problem.”
University of Auckland a great place for new ideas
Ninna chose to study for her PhD in Biological Sciences under Dr Silas Villas-Boas at the University of Auckland in 2014. “The university environment was a great place for new ideas, to promote the spark to find solutions to problems, with the scientific approach to support it.”
It clearly worked. After only 18 months, she had a breakthrough in the lab which she knew could make a real difference. She refined a fermentation process to successfully convert waste pulp and peel from selected fruit and vegetables into a nutritious flour. Widening the range of ingredients in her trial, she proved she was on to something.
Data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)shows that almost 32 percent of plant-based product is wasted annually. Ninna’s technology has the potential to make substantial progress on this.
It turned out that the ingredients also tick all the boxes for health and sustainability-conscious consumers: high protein, high fibre, low calorie, gluten free, rich in vitamins, minerals and natural antioxidants. And the bonus is that they also have lowest CO2 footprint compared with other ingredients in the market today.
Entering her prototype into the University’s Velocity 100K Business Idea Challenge sparked media interest and a flurry of inquiries from supermarkets and other businesses wanting to buy the product. “That was when we realised it was not only an academic project but also something which could be much bigger and could help to address the problem of food waste,” Ninna says.
Green Spot Technologies has global plans
With support from Velocity, she and Silas co-founded sustainable food innovation company Green Spot Technologies, which has ambitious plans to go global. Ninna is now CEO and based in Toulouse, France, where the business is established in a start-up accelerator environment and employs 15 people.
But back in the early days, it was pretty nerve-wracking. “My plan was to complete my PhD first and then set up a company based around the project. But after the success in the Velocity Challenge, we decided the time was right to forge ahead with the start-up. It was quite challenging. My background is all scientific, I didn’t have any experience in business, and I had a lot to learn.”
She is grateful for the support she got at the University of Auckland and believes that her career path would never have progressed as quickly if she hadn’t chosen New Zealand as a study destination.
“I give a lot of credit to New Zealand for how things worked out”
“New Zealand was the catalyst,” she says. “I managed to secure a scholarship through Callaghan Innovation available to students looking to add value to waste streams. It allowed me to focus on the work and find opportunity. I give a lot of credit to New Zealand for how things worked out.”
Ninna worked in Auckland with other international students from around the world and says that, too, helped contribute to her success. “When you are in the same situation you can support each other and that was super important during my PhD.”
New Zealand education the right decision
Ninna remains passionate about sustainability and reducing food waste. It is at the heart of her business and is important to her personally. The mission of Green Spot Technologies is “challenging the food waste paradigm to feed the future”. The company has won multiple awards, both in New Zealand and in Europe, highlighting the unique nature of its technology and products.
With food insecurity spreading to hundreds of millions of people around the world, the UN has set a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to halve food waste by 2030. It is an ambitious target and needs innovative thinkers like Ninna to make it achievable.
“I think it is incredible that we waste so much food, knowing that we need more food in the world. It doesn’t make any sense, but it motivates me to work on solutions,” she says.
The decision to study in New Zealand was a critical part of Ninna’s journey from international student to international businesswoman and innovator. “I could not have imagined that it would lead to such huge changes in my life in such a short time,” she says.
“A New Zealand education provides a truly enriching experience. I really think I made the right decision.”