Dec 2, 2023

Innovating for a Sustainable Future: Navigating Technology and Research in Food Security

During the 2023 Research and Innovation event at the University of Mauritius, two pivotal themes emerged in several presentations focusing on the pursuit of a sustainable research agenda. These themes were the Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) and Research Excellence. These elements are crucial as they not only guide the direction of innovative efforts but also play a key role in converting scientific progress into tangible, market-ready applications that positively impact the life of communities.

Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs)

Here's a more detailed explanation of TRLs in the context of food innovation research programme.

Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs): The concept of TRLs is a systematic metric/measurement system that supports the assessment of the maturity of a particular technology. In the context of food and nutrition security, the speakers explain the progression of a food innovation from its conceptual stage to a market-ready product using these levels. The TRLs typically range from 1 to 9, with each level representing a different stage of technological development:

  • Basic Research (TRL 1-2): This stage involves fundamental research to explore new ideas or concepts. At this level, scientists work on basic technology research, laying the groundwork for future applications.

  • Proof of Concept (TRL 3): Researchers demonstrate the feasibility of the concept, often in a controlled environment. This is a critical stage where the basic principles observed in the research are tested for practical application.

  • Technology Development (TRL 4-5): At this stage, the technology is further developed and refined. This involves more detailed and rigorous testing and development to ensure the technology is viable.

  • Technology Demonstration (TRL 6): The technology is tested in a relevant environment, simulating real-world conditions, to demonstrate its functionality and potential for implementation.

  • System/Subsystem Development (TRL 7-8): Here, the technology is incorporated into a complete system or subsystem. This stage involves further testing and refinement to ensure that the technology can operate reliably within a broader system.

  • Technology Completion and Launch (TRL 9): The final stage where the technology is fully matured and ready for deployment in the market. It has been thoroughly tested, and all issues have been addressed.

Research Excellence and Value Chain:

  • Research Excellence: The speaker underscores the critical importance of conducting high-quality, rigorous research in the field of food science and nutrition. This involves forming solid hypotheses, carrying out meticulous studies, and producing verifiable evidence to support claims. For instance, if a food product is claimed to have a low glycemic index, it's vital to validate this through both in vitro (laboratory-based) and in vivo (real-world testing in organisms) studies. This commitment to research excellence ensures the reliability and validity of the findings, which is essential for gaining trust and acceptance among consumers and stakeholders in the food industry.

  • Value Chain Considerations: The speech also delves into the concept of the research value chain in the context of food innovation. This encompasses a series of steps, each of which adds value to the process of turning research into viable, market-ready products. Key aspects include:

  • Idea Generation and Funding: The process begins with generating innovative research ideas and securing necessary funding to support the research activities.

  • Commercial Potential and Research Work: It's crucial to assess the commercial potential of these ideas early in the process. This involves understanding market needs, potential consumer acceptance, and economic feasibility. The actual research work typically aims to reach a certain Technology Readiness Level (TRL), usually around TRL 5-6, where a basic prototype or concept has been proven feasible.

  • Commercialization Process: This stage involves transitioning from scientific discovery and prototype development to actual product commercialization. This may require collaboration with Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), technology innovation agencies, and other stakeholders who can help bring the product to the market.

  • Royalties and Further Funding: Successful commercialization can lead to royalties and additional funding, which can be reinvested into further research and development, fostering a cycle of innovation and improvement.

  • Stakeholder Collaboration: The speaker also emphasizes the importance of collaboration with various stakeholders across the value chain. This includes working with engineers, social scientists, economists, business experts, and others who can contribute different perspectives and expertise. Such collaborations are vital to address the entire value chain effectively, from the initial idea to the final market.

Case Study: The Case of Quick-Cooking Sorghum Rice is a prime example of this integrated approach is the development of quick-cooking sorghum rice. In the initial stages (TRL 1-2), researchers explored the potential of sorghum, a highly nutritious but underutilized grain due to its long cooking time. Through rigorous research (TRL 3-5), they developed a method to reduce the cooking time significantly without compromising the grain's nutritional value. This innovation was then tested in real-world conditions (TRL 6), ensuring its practicality and acceptability among potential consumers.

As the technology reached the commercialization stages (TRL 7-9), collaborations with agricultural SMEs and food companies were crucial in scaling the production and distributing the product to a broader market. This innovation not only made sorghum a more attractive food option but also contributed to food security by providing a nutritious, quick-to-prepare staple.

Conclusion: The synergy between navigating TRLs and focusing on research excellence and value chain is crucial for driving innovations in food and nutrition security. As the talks have highlighted, it's a journey that requires not only scientific and technological expertise but also a deep understanding of market dynamics and consumer needs. As we continue to innovate in the food sector, it’s this holistic and integrated approach that will pave the way for sustainable solutions, ultimately contributing to a future where food security and nutrition are accessible to all.

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