In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the rise of touchless and touch safe technologies, automated retail, teleworking, virtual conferences, and more. RTI Innovation Advisors’ clients’ interests mirrored these trends. We successfully helped a growing number of clients adapt to their changing environments.
Exploring Touchless Technologies for Food and Beverage Retail
Since the beginning of 2020, we had provided technology monitoring for a global food and beverage company. Our technology insights were shared with R&D, marketing, sales and other internal groups, who used the information to stay abreast of new developments and identify potential solutions and partners that could support their new product development process. The pandemic emerged in the spring, raising concern about disease transmission through surfaces and face-to-face interaction. Our client became interested in opportunities in touchless and voice-based technology.
We quickly pivoted to include insights that reflected the shift in pandemic-related consumer and technology trends. We educated our client in the landscape of technologies being deployed in retail settings that reduce the need for touch, focusing on innovations such as smart devices. We identified companies that had the potential to collaborate on a pilot and recommended a handful that were the strongest fit. Our client narrowed their choice and has partnered on touchless vending prototypes.
Our success in the touchless vending program gave way to a follow-on project on computer vision, also in retail. Our client had already been working in this area and created a prototype prior to COVID-19. Their work accelerated in spring 2020. We identified companies with capabilities in product recognition on a vending machine scale, and our client has identified new potential partners.
Uncovering Sanitation Technologies to Reduce Virus Transmission
Related to touchless vending, a global manufacturer of retail fixtures—carts, checkout stations, shelving, furniture—sought new ways to help grocers and other retailers keep their stores “clean” and safe for shoppers. The pandemic meant more frequent cleaning and more labor needed to clean, combined with a huge spike in online orders. However, comparing antimicrobial sprays or UV disinfection lamps that could be used retail stores is complicated and data on direct efficacy against the virus that causes COVID-19 is limited. In addition, the EPA sets specific guidelines for the claims products make about sanitation and disinfection, especially in regard to COVID-19. The manufacturer needed to adjust quickly, reassuring their customers that they had solutions to reduce transmission and strategies to help minimize labor and effort while ensuring compliance with cleaning guidelines.
We educated them about sanitation and disinfection methods, helped evaluate potential product development partners, and planned and ran alignment and ideation workshops for the manufacturer’s central innovation team. We then expanded the workshops across eight additional business units, which increased efficiency by facilitating cross-organization collaboration. We ensured our client understood available technology options, ignored the pseudo-science, and defined a process to help them decide which solutions to offer customers. Our client is working on introducing disinfection solutions in 2021.
Drawing on Industry Knowledge to Help a Client’s Event Go Virtual
The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is the international professional organization for food science and technology; we are an active supporter of IFT. Over the past five years, Innovation Advisors Susan Mayer and Lawrence Blume, PhD., have held leadership roles in regional sections and topic-related division, and spoken at events. Each summer at the annual three-day IFT Expo, over 20,000 industry professionals and students meet to expand their knowledge at short courses and technical programs, to learn about new ingredients and services, and to share experiences through networking.
In March 2020, three months before the Expo, IFT realized they had to turn this important event into a virtual experience. With expertise in virtual training, and deep roots in the food industry, we offered to take the lead on delivering our session virtually. We were scheduled to lead a multi-day short course on Design Thinking in Food Product Development, and IFT invited us to host the virtual course a month before the others. Doing so enabled other instructors to learn from our course development and delivery approach, and from how we adjusted to our challenges. The insights we shared paved the way for more virtual courses.
Moving Forward in a New Reality
At the beginning of 2020, no one expected the massive adjustments in business strategy and practice that the pandemic would bring. Even as the world confronts the health crisis of COVID-19, life goes on, and this means creating new products and services that keep the economy moving safely.
RTI Innovation Advisors has a long track record of helping our clients move innovative ideas to impact in their respective markets. When the pandemic made quick adjustments a matter of survival, we drew on our experience with cutting-edge technologies and belief that business can make a positive impact. COVID-19 will eventually fade from view, but human behavior has changed. By helping our clients adjust their strategies in 2020, we have helped ensure safety and confidence for the long term.