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Pioneering Sustainable Innovation and Commercializing the Future: Maria Velissariou's Vision for the Future of Food Technology

Updated: Apr 24


Dr. Maria Velissariou

Innovation Science & Technology

Special focus on Food & Commercializing Novel Ingredients

Consultant








Rache Brand and Maria Velissariou discussed Maria's background, her current consulting work, and her vision for the future of food technology and sustainability. This interview provided a deep dive into the strategic and innovative approaches Maria employs to solve complex challenges in the food industry.


"By embracing the "AND," we challenge ourselves to think about not just what is easy or will maintain the status quo, but what will improve it." – Maria Velissariou




Synopsis: Maria Velissariou delves into the wealth of experience she brings from her extensive background in food technology and sustainability. This interview captures Maria's transition from a successful career in R&D to her current role as a consultant, where she applies her deep understanding of the food industry's complex challenges to foster innovative solutions. Through the conversation, Maria shares her insights on the importance of integrating sustainability with consumer needs to drive the future of food technology, emphasizing the role of innovation in shaping market dynamics and creating impactful products.


Rache Brand: Maria, I'm absolutely thrilled to have you here. The energy and insight you've brought into my life this past year have been incredible, and I'm excited for our conversation today. Just to introduce myself briefly to our audience, I'm Rache Brand, co-founder of Superstruct. My work revolves around extending the lifecycle of businesses by unlocking core challenges and helping them to generate non-dilutive revenue. Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Maria Velissariou, a seasoned professional from DC with a rich Greek heritage.


Rache Brand: We were introduced by a mutual friend, Harry Epstein, a quantum physicist in Chicago. We spent a few days at a summit last summer hosted by Harry and we got a chance to learn more about the great work Maria is doing.


Maria, you've created innovative products that have significantly impacted the market. Can you share more about your background and what brings you here today?


Maria Velissariou: Thank you, Rache. I'm excited to be here and have been looking forward to our discussion. I've spent nearly 30 years in the food industry, originally hailing from Greece. I started my career in chemical engineering, then pursued further studies in the UK in biochemical engineering. This education paved the way for my deep interest in biological systems and product innovation. My journey began in the chemical industry, which transitioned into food, where I've been fortunate to work in R&D and manufacturing roles, bringing meaningful, enduring products to the market.


Quaker and PepsiCo Brands

Rache Brand: That's fascinating, Maria. Let's dive into what you're currently working on. You've had a remarkable career in various prestigious companies and recently started your consulting practice. What excites you about this new phase?


Maria Velissariou: Consulting represents a new chapter where I learn the ropes from a different perspective, focusing on the needs of my clients and tailoring solutions that respect their resources and capabilities. It's about understanding the problem fully, often redefining it with the client, and embedding seeds of innovative ideas that hadn't been considered before. My approach is curious and problem-solving, aimed at resolving paradoxes that clients face, like balancing taste with health benefits.


Rache Brand: I'm eager to hear more about the specific types of projects that excite you and how you engage with businesses in your consulting practice.


Maria Velissariou: The perfect projects for me are those that align with my expertise at the intersection of food technology and energy. I thrive on helping businesses navigate the complexities of food systems, leveraging my extensive corporate experience and deep knowledge of the food and science sectors. My role often involves educating clients on scalable solutions and ensuring that their innovations can be commercialized effectively.


Rache Brand: And looking towards the future, how do you see your role evolving, especially with the challenges and opportunities that 2030 may bring?


Maria Velissariou: The future is about continuing to integrate sustainability, health, and technology in food production. My goal is to help companies innovate responsibly while ensuring their products meet consumer needs and stand out in the market. I believe in creating products that not only attract consumers initially but also turn them into brand advocates. Rache Brand: Maria, I'd like to delve deeper into your perspective on the future of food, especially within the consumer packaged goods (CPG) sector. Given your extensive experience, how do you see innovative products shaping the market? Could you share insights on products that stand out and those that might not meet market expectations?


Maria Velissariou: Certainly, Rache. A product that truly inspires me is the smartphone. While not a food product, it epitomizes how diverse technologies can merge to create meaningful, transformative user experiences. It's an excellent metaphor for what we can achieve in the food sector by integrating various technological advancements. On the other hand, products that fail to innovate or lazily rely on less healthy ingredients without adding genuine value—these are destined to falter. The food industry, especially in the realm of plant-based nutrition, faces similar challenges. It's not just about replacing animal proteins with plant-based alternatives but doing so in a way that maintains nutritional integrity and consumer appeal.


Rache Brand: That's an interesting comparison. Now, regarding plant-based foods, you mentioned that this area is fascinating but also fraught with over-promises and potential pitfalls. How do you approach these challenges?


Maria Velissariou: Plant-based nutrition is indeed promising but complex. The key is not just in substitution but in innovation—creating products that genuinely appeal in taste, nutrition, and sustainability without overwhelming consumers with complex ingredient lists. For instance, at Solmea, where I advise, we're looking at novel protein sources like converting carbon dioxide into usable, nutritional ingredients. This approach doesn't just innovate in terms of product but also in process, making a significant environmental impact.


Rache Brand: Speaking of environmental impact, how do you align these innovations with the need for scalability and commercial viability, especially for startups with limited resources?


Maria Velissariou: This is where disciplined scaling strategies become crucial. Using what I call a "waterfall approach" helps identify and prioritize the cost drivers and scalability levers without compromising critical factors like food safety. It’s about understanding what’s feasible within the existing regulatory and market frameworks and making informed decisions that align with long-term sustainability goals.


Rache Brand: That systematic approach sounds like it offers a strategic advantage. Given the complex nature of these innovations, how should startups or new ventures approach market entry?


Maria Velissariou: Startups should focus on disciplined innovation and lean operations. They need to identify their unique value proposition and understand the market dynamics thoroughly. This involves balancing the innovation with practical market needs and consumer expectations. It’s not just about having a groundbreaking idea but also about ensuring it can be executed effectively and scaled responsibly.


Rache Brand: You’ve mentioned guiding startups through the process of balancing innovation with market realities. Can you share more about that?


Maria Velissariou: Absolutely. One critical juncture for startups is deciding whether to continue refining their technology or start scaling production and sales. I advise startups to focus on achieving a balance between further innovation and commercialization. For instance, one of the startups I worked with had developed a promising second-generation technology. While they were keen to refine it further, I advised them to standardize their current product to ensure it could generate revenue and attract further investment.


Rache Brand: How do startups manage this balance without risking their long-term innovation potential?


Maria Velissariou: It’s about prioritizing and timing. Startups need to secure their financial future by generating sales, which often requires them to temporarily shift focus from pure R&D to production and market introduction. This doesn't mean abandoning innovation but rather pacing it in such a way that ensures steady funding and market presence. Essentially, it's about creating a sustainable cycle of innovation and revenue.


Rache Brand: That sounds like a delicate balancing act. Any final advice for startups trying to navigate these complex decisions?


Maria Velissariou: Startups should remain flexible and responsive to market feedback while steadfastly adhering to their core mission and capabilities. It’s also crucial for them to engage with experienced advisors who can provide insight and foresight about both industry trends and foundational business practices. Ultimately, the goal is to build a robust platform that not only supports current commercial activities but also paves the way for future innovations.


Rache Brand: As we look toward the future, how do you see these innovations evolving, and what role will digitalization and AI play in this transformation?


Maria Velissariou: The future of food tech will increasingly be driven by digitalization and artificial intelligence. These tools will enable faster, more precise product development and market adaptation. Moreover, the integration of AI can lead to more sustainable production practices and enhanced nutritional profiles. However, it's vital to bridge the gap between older, experienced industry veterans and the younger, tech-savvy generation to fully harness these advancements.


Rache Brand: Any thoughts on how investors should view opportunities in the food tech space?


Maria Velissariou: Investors should look for companies that not only promise innovative solutions but also demonstrate a clear path to scalability and sustainability. The focus should be on those ventures that are not merely disruptive but also prepared to address and adapt to the regulatory, environmental, and consumer complexities of the food industry. This holistic approach will likely yield the best returns on investment.


Rache Brand: It’s clear that the future of food technology is not only about innovation but also about making meaningful, sustainable changes that benefit all stakeholders.


Rache Brand:  Can you talk more about embracing the "AND" in product development. Could you start by explaining what you mean by the "AND"?


Maria Velissariou: Absolutely. The "AND" is about considering contradictory ideas or statements without outright rejection. It’s about seeking pathways that lead to solutions which are superior, not just compromises. This approach aligns with a growth mindset, urging us to explore beyond initial contradictions to find innovative, unexpected solutions.


Rache Brand: Can you give us a practical example of how this "AND" approach has been applied in your work?


Maria Velissariou: Certainly. A few years back, I was involved in developing a global snack product. We created a foundational "chassis" for this product, allowing us to adapt its attributes—like taste and size—to suit local tastes globally. When we introduced this prototype internationally, the initial feedback was disheartening; many regions found it too costly due to certain expensive ingredients like specific nuts or dried fruits.


Rache Brand: How did you address these challenges using the "AND" approach?


Maria Velissariou: We took what I call a waterfall approach. Instead of insisting on the expensive ingredients that were initially part of the product design, we encouraged local teams to find alternatives that were cost-effective and locally sourced. This maintained the product’s core innovation—the chassis—while adapting the specifics to fit local economic realities and tastes.


Rache Brand:  It sounds like this approach not only solved the problem but also enhanced the product's local appeal. How do you encourage teams to adopt this mindset?


Maria Velissariou: It starts with culture. You need to cultivate an environment where the team feels safe and motivated to explore alternatives. I often tell my teams, “You can do better than that.” It’s about pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible and encouraging a relentless pursuit of options. This involves a lot of communication, stamina, and logical reasoning to find the best path forward.


Rache Brand:  In what ways do you think this approach challenges conventional business practices?


Maria Velissariou: The "AND" approach challenges us to rethink business as usual. Traditionally, businesses might opt for the easiest or most cost-effective route that satisfies market demands. However, by embracing the "AND," we challenge ourselves to think about not just what is easy or will maintain the status quo, but what will improve it. This might mean developing new processes, engaging in deeper research, or rethinking how we define target markets and product success.


Rache Brand: Finally, Maria, what advice would you give to leaders who want to integrate the "AND" philosophy into their strategy?


Maria Velissariou: Start by encouraging a culture of curiosity and resilience. Promote cross-functional collaboration and ensure that your teams have the tools and freedom to experiment and learn from failures. It's also critical to keep the end consumer in mind—innovate in ways that genuinely add value to them. By doing so, you turn challenges into opportunities and compromises into innovation.


Rache Brand: It's clear you bring a wealth of knowledge and a strategic approach to your work. Maria, thank you for sharing your insights today. We look forward to seeing how your projects develop and contribute to a more sustainable and health-focused food industry.


Maria Velissariou: Thank you, Rache. It's been a pleasure discussing these important topics with you, and I look forward to our future collaborations.



 


Work with Maria

- Waterfall for cost and value 

- Commercial stage gate process (innovation, renovation) from ideation to market

- Science/Technology stage gate process

- Intellectual Property (IP) strategy

- SWOT analysis and implications

- Porter's Five Forces




Core Strengths


R&D Leadership

Sets vision and strategic priorities, aligns with stakeholders. Develops talent and enables organization to anticipate, develop, and commercialize to drive top-/bottom-line growth and future-proof the business. Excels at performing and transforming.


Innovation

Connects end-to-end, from discovery to in-market, with integrative thinking and strong business acumen. Cross-functional agility, consumer/customer insight, cultural sensitivity.


Transformation

Articulates/builds organizational capability and drives cultural change to improve business and organizational outcomes. Instills pride in functional excellence, nurtures out-of-the-box thinking.


Vertical Expertise

Product/process dev.; innovation process; design thinking; scientific discovery/applications; technology transfer; open innovation; scale up; quality; food safety; policy/regulatory compliance; digitalization; SC optimization; procurement strategy.


Sustainability, Influence & Authority

Influential thought leader for sustainable food systems and inter-disciplinary collaboration. Strives for mutual outcomes, inspires and motivates internal and external stakeholders. Advisor, mentor, and proponent of diversity and inclusion.

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