Why corporates need startups to shape the future of food solutions

Published on : 7/12/19
  • While we embrace technology, we are very mindful of not forgetting the human touch

    E27 Cheney Guo

    Just like how the industrial, finance and transport industries have picked up digitisation, other trades like food services are quickly doing the same. And for good reason.

    At Sodexo where I work, we’ve been striving to improve the quality of life through integrated services (such as facilities management and food services) since 1966. Our chefs and nutritionists fuel national athletes on tour, provide nutritious and balanced meals to workers in challenging environments like mines and oil refineries, design thoughtful corporate dining solutions; and educate school children and communities on food wastage.

    As a market leader, we could continue conducting out business the way we had been doing for decades. But suffice to say, staying status quo is the surest way to bite the dust and become irrelevant in no time.

    That’s why I’ve been tasked to lead digital transformation – it’s at the top of our business agenda and will be for some time. Why? Because it is the way forward for us to impact lives in a meaningful way.

    However, we know we can’t do this on our own. This is when we call in the experts – nimble, creative and courageous start-ups that are the salt to our pepper.

    Partnering start-ups for success

    There are many reasons why large companies choose to work with start-ups and vice versa. On one hand, many innovative solutions by bootstraps are creative and efficient. This helps us offer a greater variety of services (or provide greater depth) to our clients seeking new perspectives in areas such as automation, streamlining of processes, mobile purchases, food waste management, safety training, and more.

    On the other hand, by incorporating start-up solutions into our supply chains (we serve 100 million consumers every day), these innovations get a larger platform to shine. Their products or services can potentially make a huge difference in elevating mealtime experiences in schools, workplaces, hospitals, restaurants and everywhere else.

    At the 2018 edition of VivaTech, an annual technology conference held in Paris, Sodexo brought 37 start-ups to the exhibition. At the event, these companies were able to showcase their capabilities to over 100,000 visitors from around the world across three days.

    One particular standout was AEYE-GO from China. The company, founded by professors and PhDs from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, developed the world’s first self-checkout system for food solutions based on artificial intelligence recognition technology. They are the first start-up in China that Sodexo Ventures, our VC arm invested in.

    Asia as a start


    It isn’t surprising that China was chosen as Sodexo’s first market to lead the way in digital transformation. The country is after all an epicentre of innovation, with a growing number of vibrant start-ups. It is also of close proximity to other forward-looking Asian countries that are receptive to testing out new digital solutions.

    AEYE-GO is one such innovation that we believe can go far. The cutting-edge technology is able to recognise both dishware and facial features so it offers customers fast and personalised checkouts at dining outlets. Plus, it integrates machine-learning software for food recognition, and is able to automatically provide the price and nutritional information of each dish with a quick scan.

    We are piloting AEYE-GO right now at several sites in Shanghai and have plans to take it beyond China. The rapid scale-up can be attributed to our geographical reach – we operate in 72 countries.

    And in Singapore, Cryowerx’s RFID smart fridges and corresponding mobile application have given colleagues at our new regional headquarters (Sodexo Asia Pacific House) convenient access to fresh meals without the need to queue in long lines. Plus, the cashless payment makes the transaction fuss-free – in land-scarce Singapore, the reduced need for cashier counters can be quite a relief.

    But is this it? Have we arrived? The answer is simply no – because these technologies we have now will not stagnate. Instead, they will continue to evolve and improve every day to adapt to people’s needs.

    This is also why we collaborate with tech incubators and accelerators like neoBay and XNode in China and Zone Startups in India to discover best-in-class solutions and take them to market.

    People-first approach

    While we embrace technology, we are very mindful of not forgetting the human touch. We start by asking, “How will this improve the quality of life for the user?” In food services, this may translate to, “How can we get consumers to waste less food?”, “How can university students get a better campus experience through their meals?”, or “How can we make the kitchens safer for staff?”

    This is how our digital transformation efforts then become purposeful. This is a philosophy that we believe applies in any industry and company in the world. With this premise in mind, we can truly improve quality of life with all our partners, be they start-ups or other like-minded companies in the eco-system. If you’re a start-up owner with the same aspirations, I welcome you to connect with us – it’s high time for a chat.(China.Digital@sodexo.com