Developing a new food product is about more than just meeting the minimum nutritional and food safety requirements. Being successful in the market means developing a product that appeals to a wide enough consumer base that both enjoys your product and is willing to pay your price point—and hitting every one of the marks those consumers want you to hit can be tough.
Artificial intelligence technology has the potential to make it a little easier. The technology has recently been cited as a potential gamechanger in the food formulation and quality assurance realms, with companies across Canada testing it in their own processes. However, Thimus, originally out of Italy and now with locations in Canada and the United States, is taking that one step further, finding AI to be particularly useful in such areas when paired with neuroscience.
“In looking at the research that we do and looking at the entire cumulative amount of data that is being collected by every customer utilizing our platform, we're currently advancing the understanding of human interaction with food, and that allows us to certainly have a competitive edge,” Thimus Founder and CEO Mario Ubiali said. “AI is impacting food recipes and ingredients and formulations … and then also at the same time it is constituting a tangible advantage to us as a company, to be able to advise our customers and support them in the process of creating food that is ready for humans and accepted by humans.”
Ingredient and food formulation can be long processes. Thimus aims to make each shorter and more efficient by pairing AI with neuroscience, allowing their food-space partners to analyze a consumer’s reaction to a product as they try it. This real-time feedback provides food-space partners the opportunity to adjust their formulations quicker and before launching their products, giving them a better chance at success once they hit the market. At the same time, it reduces the food waste involved in creating a product, improving companies’ sustainability footprints.
“[AI] needs to be put into the service of a human-centric condition of food design,” Ubiali said. “Ultimately the fusion of AI is humans actually learning the way around it and determining in the food value chain, ‘Where is AI really making an impact?’ … I'm striving to let everybody see that we can actually slowly bring back the power of this model first into product development and creation, and then even further off, understanding what is the best alternative protein of plant origin to be deployed in a certain product within a certain population.”
Part of ensuring such AI technology is in the service of people and companies is working collaboratively to develop it. This has resulted in Thimus working with a number of partners throughout the company’s lifespan, including technology developers, neuroscientists and food scientists. Ubiali said he doesn’t see this collaboration slowing down, particularly as the technology gains traction in the food sector.
That said, he recognizes such AI technology may not be for every company along the food value chain. Before food companies invest in it, he recommends they take a close look at the problems they’re facing to determine if it’s truly their best solution.
“Figure out why you want to do it,” he said. “I would always argue that you want to start from your pain points. You always want to start from, ‘What is it that I'm not understanding? If I had a different way of looking at my data, could I glean something that I'm not seeing?’ ”
Ultimately, Ubiali said, the utilization of AI technology is about improving the human experience with food. By focusing on what humans want on their plates, companies across Canada’s plant-based food, feed and ingredients sector can take this innovative new technology and use it to not only improve their work processes, but also their products and, ultimately, their commercial success.