Kennedy’s meet with Ian Roberts, Chief Technology Officer of Bühler at their head office in Uzwil, Switzerland to tour their brand new £50 facility (opened this spring) and to see the reasoning behind Ian’s philosophy – any problem worth solving unlocks a business. Especially in chocolate.

AK Ian here we are in this amazing new development at Bühler –The CUBIC, it’s called, right?  I must say when we toured round your new £50m facility, I felt it was all very impressive. This, if I’m correct, is an area where customers and all the Bühler staff can meet together to forge new ideas and solve problems… is that pretty much what you’re looking to achieve.

IR Yes, we spent years building this collaborative innovation approach, building our ecosystem of start-ups, innovative customers, partners, suppliers. We’ve built this whole framework of academic partnerships, and this new one, this week, which I think is very, very exciting, which is all over the press, so you’ve got all the handouts about it.

Now, the question is, how do you bring that together in your company? So, I think, on the first level it’s to say, how do you create an environment where everybody feels free and secure to share, develop, create, suggest and work together? That sounds very trite, but I tell you, try and do it. Try and find an environment where a 20-year-old digital native is comfortable, and a 65-year-old near retiree with 40 years experience is equally comfortable to work together to solve problems, and where you’ve got different business areas coming together.

You know, every business area in our company has got innovation activities running in there. We’ve got suppliers in and out, and we’ve got customers coming in and asking to do special innovation projects, and we’ve got external start-ups in there. Now, this is an absolute melting pot. If you get this right, you drive a pipeline of new business.

AK I see.

IR You can think of it like a business factory. We’ve been learning how to do this. I mean, we’re heavily engaged with these big start-up accelerator programmes, you know, and we’re very close with MassChallenge, for example. We’re one of the main… Well, I’m the president of MassChallenge in Switzerland, so we have great insights into how to do this. So, we try and bring some of this start-up culture into the company, this buzz, this energy, but it’s focussed on building commercially viable products, versus this idea of creating technologies. This is a different pipeline.

Now, as you digitalise a company, if you don’t have this culture prevalent in your company, you don’t digitalise. You know, digitalisation is a cultural challenge. It’s not a technology challenge. If you pick up the phone, and one day you’ll find all the experts to solve all the technology problems.

AK That’s brilliant. You’re not just looking to give the ability to create new products, but new companies, new companies that can change the planet.

IR It’s business opportunities, all of our investment and innovation goes towards this 30% waste reduction, 30% energy reduction. Why do you need digital technology? Because you can do that more effectively. Because you can optimise on a system, and not just on a technology. You want to look at equitable wealth distribution in cocoa? Well, you need transparency and data across the whole system.

AK That’s a big subject.

IR It’s a very simple thing. If you want to ensure that you can capture more value, and get it back to the farmer, you need visibility, you need transparency. How many pairs of hands? Where’s it going? How much is being taken off them?

If you were to ask me for a definition of a sustainable value chain, for me it’s quite simple. It’s highly idealistic, but it’s quite simple. A sustainable value chain is one where those who create value can extract wealth, in the absence of subsidies, with a fair price on resources. That’s a sustainable value chain.

It’s about connecting along the value chain and ensuring that grain ‘A’ or cocoa bean ‘A’ that leaves the farm, and is claimed on the pack, for example. And what is in the pack, and if that farmer received enough money to invest in the farm, invest in the business, to ensure their kids can go into education… to feed them adequately. You need to have that visibility across the value chain.

I’m not suggesting that we solve that problem overnight, but this is why we need technologies. If you can solve that problem, there is a business opportunity behind it. Any problem worth solving unlocks a business, and it unlocks an opportunity, and not just for us but for the other entrepreneurs in the value chain.

So, this is why, when we talk about supporting entrepreneurs, unlocking new businesses, we’re very genuine about this

AK This year, at iSM, I saw quite a few new companies, relatively new. What’s your message to those new start-ups, and how you can help them? Your message to someone who wants to get into the chocolate industry, or expand, or do something really special?