2nd August 2017  

U-Start Team carried out an exclusive interview with Massimo Ambanelli, CEO at Hi-food.

Massimo is CEO and shareholder at HI-FOOD SpA, a new startup company founded by a group of entrepreneurs with a proven track record in the food sector, wishing to add value through innovation and knowledge. Previously, he was Project Manager at Procter & Gamble and Director, Business Management, and Development at Ausimont. After the acquisition of Ausimont (2002), Massimo moved to Solvay Group and became Director, Strategic Planning, and Control of the group. He has also worked at Lieken AG – Barilla Group (2003 – 2010) as COO and Member of the Executive Board and at the fashion group PINKO as General Manager (2010 – 2012). He holds a degree in Engineering (University of Bologna) and an MBA (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania).


Prior to joining Hi-Food, you have spent several years working at Barilla Group. What has motivated you to get involved in the food sector?

With hind sight, I feel I have always been in the food sector: I come from a family of millers (delivering flour to Barilla some two centuries ago…) and after many years in the Specialty Chemicals I was delighted to move to Barilla: a great experience in a great company of an extremely respectful family. Combining the food experience at Barilla with the experience in Specialties comes Hi-Food, aiming at changing the way food ingredients and products are developed.


Now having spent almost 5 years at Hi-Food, what aspects of your work have you been most fascinated by?

At the beginning and contrary to common thinking, I have been impressed by the solidarity of many people and companies around us, who encouraged and supported us, a strong help, also emotional, in the infancy of Hi-Food. Now, I still am fascinated every day by the success of our idea of developing new ingredients almost from scratch in network with our partners-customers.


Could you please introduce us to Hi-Food? What do you do and in what markets do you operate?

Hi-Food was founded in late 2012 by a group of entrepreneurs with proven track record in the food sector. We develop and manufacture natural Ingredients from sustainable sources with a technological functionality: with low dosage, our ingredients can replace additives and offer new functionalities for finished products in the Bakery, Pasta, Gastronomy, Gluten-Free, Free-From, Vegan and other markets.

We are R&D driven, leverage on tradition and experience, and apply our innovation and knowledge potential to focus on the needs of our partner customers, with whom we have a close collaboration. This is our job: studying functionality in natural sources, identifying the best process to get this functionality, studying and testing interactions between ingredients, creating systems, reaching the best technical effect in real applications.

Our people, 10 in total now (and hiring…) are highly skilled technologists and we use a modular, expert-system approach to learn from our own developments and experience.

So far, the business traction we have gained, the growth we have had and above all the reputation with our customers seem to confirm the validity of our model.

We founded Hi-Food in late 2012 with the aim to develop and manufacture natural Ingredients from sustainable sources with a technological functionality – that means ingredients used with low dosage and high effect in markets such as Bakery, Pasta, Gastronomy, Creams but also Gluten-Free, Free-From and Vegan.

We are very much R&D driven: our people, 10 in total now (and hiring…) are highly skilled technologists and we use a modular, expert-system approach to learn from our own developments and experience. This is our role: studying functionality in natural sources, identifying how to extract this functionality, applying it in real applications with our customers.

So far, the business traction we have gained, the growth we have had and above all the reputation with our customers seem to confirm the validity of our model.


What are your current product offerings?

It all started in gluten-free bakery, offering a variety of building blocks for our customers: from a concentrate mimicking the functionality of gluten to natural antimold to fibers replacing emulsifiers to special enzymes. Then, very quickly did we move to the free-from world, where we are actively engaged to replace the (too) many “E-numbers” in product recipes and to create new products with our customers. As you can imagine, a lot of this work is “behind the scenes”, B2B-like, although some products in the market and soon-in-the-market do have our signature inside.


Are you considering to introduce new products in the future? How?

Our pipeline, our innovation vein is very fertile: we have recently introduced a new generation of physically modified legume and corn flours with excellent texturizing properties and we are introducing a new linseed fiber, replacing additives such as locus bean gum, xanthan gum, carrageenan and other unusual additives in products like ice-creams or other filling creams. We are really excited by our internal results.

We are always talking about technical products – albeit natural – therefore the marketing of these products is through scientific articles or direct presentations. Please do not forget that, in our world, our developments can take up to two-three years to get to commercial success.


Traditional food sector has always been relevant in Italy. How is the Italian market responding to Hi-Food’s innovative products?

Since the beginning, Hi-Food had no geographical limitations. Every country has peculiar needs and often we can leverage on one experience in a country to solve another problem in another far-away country. However, the Italian consumers and the Italian producers are particularly knowledgeable: what works here has a very high chance of working everywhere else. There is a caveat, though: the Italian market is sometimes victim of its own “food-orthodoxy”, which often limits its innovation potential and limits the possibilities of becoming the reference market of the whole world. I dream of belonging to a country at the forefront of food innovation in the world – but that’s what we are trying to do, with our limited forces.


What has been the biggest challenge you had to face until now?

For sure, convincing our customers to “open-up” and share problems and opportunities with us. I know it is difficult and that it is not enough to sign a confidentiality contract but if we manage, despite our small size, to establish a cooperative team, results can really be enthusiastically surprising. The onus is on us, to confirm our reputation and to guarantee our professional commitment.


Hi-Food is based in the heart of the Food Valley and specifically inside the Science Park of the University of Parma. What is the relationship between your company and other Food Valley’s institutions, including the University of Parma?

We were delighted to accept the invitation of the University of Parma to move in-campus: an excellent opportunity to enhance the upstream innovation potential as well as to interact with students, researchers and PhDs. Results so far are very positive, with a clear multiplier in innovation throughput. At this stage, our collaboration with the University is a key focus are for us. In addition, EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority), Cibus (the International Food Trade Show) and key leading companies, always in the area of Parma are creating an ideal eco-system for cross-fertilization and growth.


How important are partnerships or other kinds of forms of cooperation for food tech industries?

We need partnership and cooperation as much as we need air to breathe. The time is over for big multinationals developing the entire product inside: it takes too long, with too high costs: instead, we are strongly in favour of a distributed network model, a bit like a comparison between the old mainframe computer versus the agile network of computers (to try an analogy). Hi-Food tends to behave as the R&D Appendix of the customer, developing ingredients and contributing to the definition of the recipe: a close collaboration, with the pragmatic common objective of improving the finished product. In the last years we developed a valuable network of partners, customers, suppliers and machine manufacturers worldwide (especially Europe, as logical) with the possibility to exchange information and business opportunities within the functional food ingredients market. This allowed the introduction of new products in the market and the development of new solutions, as well as the possibility to better understand the dynamics of the reference markets. Big multinational companies as well as retailers and supermarket chains are included on the list, too.


Could you please give us an overview of the food tech sector in Italy?

Italy is the ideal habitat for food tech companies: a strong food tradition with different varieties, successful mechanical and processing companies, many food districts, distributed knowledge in Universities and institutions, a supportive financial sector. However, this is no longer the leading country for food innovation, let alone for food technologies. Nevertheless, many extremely interesting sparks of innovation are present and I am convinced that a networked approach can leverage on these innovative ideas: therefore, my outlook is definitely positive.


What do you expect from the future of food tech industry and what role will Hi-Food play in it?

We are at the edge of a food revolution in this world: many fine observers have already identified that changes in food as the next “big thing”, the same way the industrial revolution or internet changed the course of history. Those are huge changes of course but we hope to intercept some of the forces of change to contribute, with our work, to the improvement of the food system, its quality and its sustainability.

We should not be afraid of new emerging food sources such as synthetic biology nor should we be too anchored to unsustainable traditions: we need to leverage on the experience and prudently introduce (regulatory aspects are key in this regard), in cooperation, the food of the future.