On March 21-22 the largest ever number of food retailers and brands will touch down for the Future Food-Tech summit in San Francisco.

It’s the single biggest gathering of high-profile influencers and top minds across the value chain, focused on mutually beneficial alliances and new opportunities for development towards the common goal of “healthier people and planet”.

Sharing a flavor of their conversations coming up at the summit, WHOLE FOODS, UNILEVERMONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL, MCDONALD’S, TATE & LYLE, INSTACART, SPROUTS FARMERS MARKET, GENERAL MILLS and COMPASS GROUP give their perspectives on the key to collaboration in a challenging fundraising environment, optimizing R&D strategies, and bringing the consumer along on the journey.

How are players across the food industry working together through innovation and collaboration to creating healthy, tasty, and sustainable food?

Jeff Turnas, WHOLE FOODS

Jeff Turnas, Senior Vice President of CulinaryWHOLE FOODS: “In the food industry today, maybe more than ever before, there’s a culture of sharing knowledge and resources for the greater good, which I am personally thrilled to see and be part of at Whole Foods Market. Farmers and food producers are forming partnerships to pioneer regenerative agriculture practices that bolster soil health, reduce water usage and foster biodiversity. Simultaneously, food scientists and ingredient manufacturers are collaborating to craft healthier and more sustainable ingredients, like plant-based proteins and alternative sweeteners. The collaboration extends to retailers like Whole Foods Market and distributors, working to improve supply chain efficiency and minimize food waste.

Tech companies and start-ups are often at the forefront of, developing new solutions to combat food insecurity, promote healthy eating habits and personalize food choices. Technological advancements and tools such as AI and data analytics can be used to optimize farming practices, predict consumer preferences, and devise personalized nutrition plans. Moreover, companies are employing creative strategies to upcycle food waste, transforming scraps and byproducts into valuable ingredients that not only reduce waste, but also contribute to the overall sustainability of the food system. Products created from the pulp byproducts of plant-based milks like oat and nut milks are a great example of this.

Fostering trust and open communication between different players in the food system is crucial for successful collaboration.”

Johanna Vazquez, Head of R&D Nutrition, North America, stresses UNILEVER’s motto: “‘If you think you can do it alone, you are not thinking big enough’. By 2050, the world will need to produce 70% more food to feed a growing population of 10 billion people. These foods will need to meet a high nutritional standard, while reducing their impact on the environment. This takes creativity, an innovative approach and a lot of research and knowledge to develop products that are good for people and planet, whilst still having a superior taste.

Only by working with partners, we are able to find solutions to these challenges. We continuously work with partners such as suppliers and academia to improve the taste profiles of our products while lowering their environmental footprint. And in the space of nutrition, partnerships with governments and NGO’s help us to provide consumers worldwide with essential nutrients through fortifying our products and offering healthy cooking programmes.”

Susie Weintraub, COMPASS GROUP

Susie Weintraub, Chief Executive Officer, Envision Group, lays out COMPASS GROUP’s three factors essential to success at scale: Firstly, it’s necessary for all players to agree with the premise that taste, followed by accessibility and affordability, are paramount. Chefs and the people behind the food are lynchpins to creating positive impact in the food system. They are masterful at creating menus, recipes and products that deliver on taste, health and sustainability and are vital to industry innovation and collaboration. That said, it will require mindsets of innovation and openness to new farming practices, novel ingredients, alternate business models, advancing technologies and learning the role AI can play to improve all facets of the supply chain ecosystem.”

Inigo GarciaDirector of Menu InnovationMCDONALD’S: “Co-creation and “pretotyping” is key before going to market, all stakeholders should create an ecosystem to monitor trend and identify the right timing.”

Richie Gray, Vice President and Global Head of Snack Futures, MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL sees an increasing amount of collaboration “amongst CPGS, NGOs, start-ups, VCs and other players to tackle the challenges of the global food chain – to deliver better for you, tasty solutions that are more sustainable. There is a growing realisation that we can’t all go it alone and that ‘together is often better’. Mondelez International sees partnerships with suppliers, start-ups, innovators and VC’s as essential to augment our development work and support our quest to lead the future of snacking.”

Cathy Doucette, Vice President – Research & Development, TATE & LYLE: “How do we feed a rapidly growing population with healthier, affordable and more nutritious food in a way that doesn’t harm the planet and also suits modern lifestyles? This is a major challenge that no one company can solve alone. That’s why events like these are crucial – they give us the opportunity to forge partnerships that allow each player in the chain to focus on what they do best.

It is the intersection of not only technical disciplines, but also manufacturing capabilities, and geographical reach that encourages those companies serious about innovation to reach beyond their own walls to establish trusted partnership ecosystems. Partnerships generate novel ideas and deeper insights, empowering us to lead the next food revolution. We believe Tate & Lyle is right at the center of the future of food – come and speak to us about joining the food revolution.”

Matthew Pratta, SPROUTS MARKET

Matthew Pratta, Culinary Director, SPROUTS FARMERS MARKET reveals his process when it comes to creating new and exciting menu items: “Menu collaboration is top of mind and planning with key vendor partners that are aligned with our brand is critical. At Sprouts Farmers Market because we place a greater weight on brand alignment and provide a unique perspective into our customer habits with our collaborators and innovators we can leverage sustainable or functional ingredients and/or trends across multiple items within our stores.”

Sarah Mastrorocco, Vice President & General Manager of Health, INSTACART: “Instacart started as a retail enablement company, dedicated to bringing the grocery industry online. We’ve made incredible progress over the last 11 years, and today we partner with more than 1,500 retail banners and 85,000 stores, giving more than 95% of households in the U.S. and Canada access to online grocery via Instacart. Through our partnerships with retailers, we also reach 93% of U.S. households in food deserts and offer online SNAP acceptance to more than 96% of households enrolled in SNAP in all 50 states and Washington D.C.”

With the challenging fundraising environment, how crucial is collaboration in order to support the innovation ecosystem and scale technologies to commercialization?


Richie Gray, MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL: “Collaboration is extremely crucial because it provides more than capital – it provides capability, expertise, access, ability to prove our concepts. That’s why we go all in as a Venture partner – to accelerate innovation and do it globally.”

Cathy Doucette, TATE & LYLE states that one company can rarely do it all to the highest level of performance: “when it comes to start-ups and smaller companies, it is especially important for them to use their limited manpower, money, and other resources to focus on what they really do best, what differentiates them. They can then look to partner with different experts to form strategic relationships that will enable the innovations they are best at to be successfully brought to market.”

Jeff Turnas, WHOLE FOODS: When we collaborate, we not only cut down on costs and share perspectives and expertise, but we also help start-ups and smaller industry players who may be working with fewer resources. Sharing ideas, knowledge, and working methods makes progress and innovation happen faster, getting closer to technologies that are ready to go into the market.  Additionally, working together can open up new funding sources, which reduces risk across the board.

Examples of collaborative efforts, including joint research and development initiatives, consortiums and alliances, and open innovation platforms, showcase the diverse strategies through which collaboration can be fostered in the innovation ecosystem.

Whole Foods Market’s Local and Emerging Accelerator Program (LEAP) was created in 2022 to share the decades of experience of our team members and community with emerging brands, setting them up for future success and growth. Participants benefit from the mentorship of our experts, receive tailored educational programs, and the potential for direct financial support. At the conclusion of the six-month program, the participant’s products are considered for placement within their local Whole Foods Market stores.”

Johanna Vazquez, UNILEVER

Johanna Vazquez, unveils that collaboration is vital at UNILEVER: “it allows us to create superior products for consumers and the planet, by incorporating sustainability, circularity, and social impact into our innovation agenda. Collaboration & co-creation is core to innovation and that’s why we extend an open innovation invitation to co-create. Take for instance, our Wageningen campus in the Netherlands, which is known as the ‘Silicon Valley of food’. This is where we built Hive, our global foods innovation centre as the place where ideas and co-creation can flourish.”

Inigo GarciaMCDONALD’S: “Socialize information and research is key, all projects should have their own data before go to market. Investors needs to see that you are building the right it, before to build it.”

Sarah Mastrorocco gives an insight into how INSTACART partners with players across the health & wellness space: “Our entire marketplace is about enablement, and we’re here now to partner with players across the health ecosystem – in the same way we did in retail and CPG – to connect them to people at home. Our platform allows families to shop from nearly all of the retailers they know and love, giving healthcare the ability to scale food as medicine programs quickly and effectively – in a way that was previously not possible. 

Today, we work with providers like Dispatch Health and Boston Children’s Hospital, health plans like Alignment Health and Mount Sinai Solutions, nonprofits including Partnership for a Healthier America, the American Cancer Society and Feeding America, and nutrition focused providers like Good Measures and Quest Diagnostics’ Pack Health. We believe that to make an impact, we need everyone at the table. From providers to payers, nonprofits to local governments, we’re excited to continue to partner with organizations across the industry to scale essential food and nutrition programs.”

How are companies optimizing their internal and external R&D strategies, from implementing breakthrough innovations to collaborating across the value chain?

Inigo Garcia, MCDONALD’S

Inigo GarciaMCDONALD’S: “Prioritization and phasing is key. Big companies are leaning in foresights to help them to build different scenarios and choose the right innovation in the right timing, embracing agile ways of working.”

Cathy Doucette, TATE & LYLE: “Focus on what you are strong at and exploit that by leverage it as much as you can with internal capabilities. Then look for innovation leaders externally to fill gaps in the areas where you want to go strategically, particularly in the breakthrough space. Leverage new breakthrough offerings to create a pipeline of follow up incremental offerings to maximise the return on the innovation investment.”

Richie Gray, MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL: “A core component to our 2030 growth strategy is investing in and scaling emerging technologies that can address needs across our entire supply chain – from sustainable packaging to lowering sugars. We are able to marry our deep bench of experience and experts with disruptive, new ideas to deliver on consumers’ changing needs and priorities.”

Johanna Vazquez, UNILEVER: “We’re using various R&D strategies, it all depends on the challenge and the desired outcome. It spans the whole spectrum from core internal, core collaborate, in-licensing to outsourcing. Some challenges are within our own organization, but others, like Net Zero, involve the whole value chain and that implies that we take on the challenge together with all other parties involved. We’re playing the whole piano, selecting the strategy that best fits with the challenge.”

Matthew Pratta, SPROUTS FARMERS MARKET looks at R&D from a culinary standpoint: “we are able to build excitement about a particular ingredient or concept that pushes innovation by developing products that align with our brand.  We can take a single ingredient or trend an insert it into several different items around the store and within our private label brands.  A level of risk taking occurs in this type of development and as long as we are developing with the customer experience in mind first, we often find breakthroughs.”

Jeff Turnas, WHOLE FOODS: Companies are optimizing their internal and external R&D strategies through a multifaceted approach. Internally, agile methodologies have become key to enabling faster development cycles and adaptability to market needs. The shift towards data-driven decision-making, powered by AI and analytics, informs R&D investments, project prioritization, and progress measurement. 

Investment in talent and culture, along with a focus on core competencies, ensures an internal atmosphere for innovation – it’s something that is core to product development at Whole Foods Market. We have our Test Kitchen where the team can test new culinary ideas and dishes for our prepared foods and bakery departments.

Externally, companies are also optimizing R&D by collaborating across their value chains. Early supplier integration, customer co-creation, and cross-industry partnerships allow for shared expertise and tailored solutions. Open innovation platforms and consortiums provide spaces to collaborate on specific challenges. While balancing internal and external efforts can be difficult, and intellectual property must be carefully managed, the breadth of collaboration ultimately allows companies to undertake more ambitious innovation. With transformation across organizations and connection across industries, companies can optimize R&D to deliver breakthroughs and drive progress.”

How does partnership and collaboration help to connect the dots in terms of consumer needs and products developed? What is necessary to ensure that the consumer is brought along the journey?

Lanette Shaffer Werner, GENERAL MILLS

Lanette Shaffer Werner, Chief Innovation, Technology and Quality Officer, GENERAL MILLS: “At General Mills, we want to make our consumers’ lives easier, offering them products they not only love and trust, but that bring a bit of joy to their lives. We best do this through partnership, focusing first on problems — by connecting directly with consumers to understand — and then collaborating internally and externally to creatively solve them.” 

Richie Gray, MONDELĒZ INTERNATIONAL: “Consumer is king – always and at every point in the product development process – from concept to shelf. This is testing and learning, watching trend signals, leveraging new technologies and data sources to get as granular as we can about where consumers are headed. It’s also critical we collaborate closely with functions within our company and external partners to get diverse perspectives.”

Susie Weintraub, COMPASS GROUP echoes the sentiment: “Central to all it is creating consumer demand for healthy and sustainable. If consumers don’t buy it, none of it matters. That’s why collectively, we must accept taste, affordability and accessibility are cornerstones and foundational to the success of any food innovation.”

Johanna Vazquez, UNILEVER: “We need to engage and communicate with the consumers throughout the innovation process, to ensure that they are aware of and satisfied with the products. This can be done by involving and empowering the consumers as co-creators and co-innovators, by inviting them to participate in ideation, prototyping, testing, and feedback sessions. We have a role to play to educate and inform the consumers about the products, especially the ones that involve new technologies or ingredients, by providing clear and transparent information about the features, benefits, safety, and impact of the products, and by addressing any questions or concerns that the consumers may have.

Unilever has a diverse portfolio of brands. These brands cater to different segments and markets of consumers, who have varying needs, preferences, and expectations. By partnering and collaborating with other companies, such as academics, scientists, start-ups, and innovation leaders, we can access diverse and complementary sources of expertise, insights, and capabilities that help us to understand and address the consumer needs better.”

Jeff Turnas, WHOLE FOODS outlines the pivotal role that partnership and collaboration play in “aligning consumer needs with the developed products, creating a more dynamic and consumer-centric innovation process. Diverse perspectives from across industries ensure a holistic understanding of consumer behavior and desires.  Ongoing feedback loops and co-creation initiatives keep consumers involved throughout development, allowing for continuous refinement to meet their evolving needs. Brainstorming sessions, product testing, and feedback surveys allow them to directly influence product development and feel invested in the process.

Transparent communication with our consumers about ingredients, sourcing practices, and sustainability efforts are also important to build trust and allow consumers to make informed choices. At Whole Foods Market we have a Nutrition and Labeling Compliance team made up of Registered Dietitians who collaborate with product developers and the design team to ensure our private label products are formulated in line with our elevated Quality Standards and accurately labeled in compliance with all government regulations.

Ultimately, collaboration allows companies to combine strengths and accelerate the creation of offerings that consumers genuinely want and value.”

Cathy Doucette, TATE & LYLE

Cathy Doucette, TATE & LYLE: “Combining different partner insights and points of view is useful to refine strategy, build out robust offering pipelines, and to help in prioritizing this work. Iterating on new features and capabilities is important as is quickly getting products in customer hands to get feedback will help inform future developments. Don’t wait for the final offering to be complete, work closely with innovative customers to hear their voice and use it to adjust your focus for current and future innovations.”

Inigo GarciaMCDONALD’S: “The innovator ecosystem requires that all stakeholders are involved in solution co-creation. The key point is to understand the problem that we want to solve and “pretotype” solutions before going to market. Small consumer research or market test to iterate faster.”

Matthew Pratta, SPROUTS FARMERS MARKET: “As we react to our internal sales data, direct customer feedback and the feedback from our team members at store level we can provide a unique perspective that paired with our vendors unique capabilities and external trend analysis can often create products that gain quick acceptance and success.”

Sarah Mastrorocco, INSTACART

Sarah Mastrorocco, INSTACART: “At Instacart, we’re consumer technologists, so we know that our technology has to work for people. Over the years, we’ve built a platform that is accessible, affordable and approachable, and when we think about food as medicine specifically, approachability is a key factor when encouraging the adoption of healthy habits. With our tools, we can help bring nutrition advice from health experts online, so patients can get nutrition guidance provided by their provider or plan at their fingertips through our platform. Our platform enables approachable, actionable guidance that can be easily sustained long after the program is over.

Expert nutrition guidance paired with grocery delivery has shown to help improve health outcomes. Last month, we published results from our first year of partnership with Good Measures, supporting their Good Food Prescription program which ran in multiple states with health plans including Medicare and Medicaid. In our first year of partnership, Good Measures saw significantly improved outcomes across the board, with 68% of participants who received medically tailored groceries from Instacart showing improved or maintained blood pressure; members with Stage 2 hypertension – who are at the highest risk for complications related to high blood pressure – saw the greatest improvements, including 10.6% average systolic reduction and 13.4% average diastolic reduction; and 72% of members also lost or maintained weight, with an average 4.5% loss of body weight.

Register now to join the largest number of CPGs, food retailers and brands that Future Food-Tech has ever seen. From main stage panels, to small group breakout sessions and plenty of networking opportunities, take a look at the delegate list to see who you could be rubbing shoulders with in San Francisco: About Us: Future Food-Tech San Francisco, March 21-22, 2024 (futurefoodtechsf.com)