By Hermione Wilson
We spoke to Winnie Chiu, Director of George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt), about how the research and development centre contributes to the future of the Canadian food industry.
What is FIRSt and what is its objective?
We’re a technology access centre and we’re partially funded by the federal government. Our external focus is to help the food sector be more innovative and productive. We believe in the marriage of applied food science and culinary arts to enable local food companies to be more competitive.
What are the services you provide to the industry?
We provide quite a broad range of services, from concept ideation, market research, to product development, sensory evaluation, product scale-up and helping industry go into manufacturing.
What role do George Brown students play at FIRSt?
Apart from developing retail products…we also work with healthcare organizations, hospitals and doctors to develop healthy recipes. So that’s the two prongs of what we do: there’s the retail food service side of things and there’s also the health component. We mostly work with students from the culinary arts program, [but] we’ve also had students who are in the marketing and business programs because when we have clients who need to have market research or business plans – we’re talking about smaller clients or the SMEs – we can tap into them. We have also in the past worked with the technology students. So for example, we have clients who come in and we would first help them develop a product, but then if they needed specialized small equipment to help them advance into scaling up the products, we can tap into the technology students for mechanical engineering to design small equipment. We’ve also worked with some health science students, [including] students from the nursing and personal support program, to help evaluate and develop recipes.
Do you have a food science program at George Brown that prepares students for careers in quality control, food product development, etc?
In our Culinary Management and Nutrition in the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, part of that program has courses in product development, research and development, focusing on developing retail products and also on CFIA compliant nutritional labelling. So Culinary Management and Nutrition in particular is the program where we tend to get students to work with us in FIRSt. They work with our with our food scientists and our chefs and also interact with our industry partners, our clients, so that they can get hands on experience and they understand that what they’re working on, whether it’s a prototype of a beverage or snack bar, the project is eventually going to go to market.
Can you talk about an industry project FIRSt has taken on that you are particularly proud of?
There’s a beverage company call Zpirit Fruit Infused Water, an entrepreneurial company who came to us [in 2013] with an idea of selling a concept that the owner of the company got from Europe of having fruit pieces infused in flavoured water…as a refreshing beverage. The owner is not from the food industry but he’s very business oriented, so he came to us and the team helped him develop a line of products with different flavours and with a bit of innovation to deposit fruit pieces into the water and to ensure that there is an herb-based flavour to it as well. We helped them optimize the prototypes and assisted them in scaling it up with a co-manufacturer. They launched in the U.S. in November 2015 and they started exporting to Europe in August 2015. They also hired one of our graduates, one the students who actually worked with us on other projects. She worked there for three years before moving on to another beverage company.
George Brown College received a $7 million investment from FedDev Ontario in 2015. How did that benefit FIRSt?
Back in 2007 the college started building the capacity for applied research – not just food, but applied research over all – but the food research FIRSt does has been one of the more progressive areas of applied research and the government at that time also realized that there’s unique value that the colleges can bring to industry to solve problems swiftly. So since then we’ve gotten a good amount of funding, both from the Ontario government and the federal government, and the FedDev funding is part of the continuing support to fund us. We used to be in a smaller facility at 300 Adelaide St. E, in the chef’s school, but because of the FedDev funding we were able to expand and move to the 4th floor of 215 King St. E in April 2016.
Besides being an industry resource, what do you think FIRSt contributes to the education of future members of the Canadian food industry?
We like to provide students with innovation literacy. We want them to be able to understand how be entrepreneurial and innovative, and specifically with the culinary students, we want to provide them with enhanced tool kits to broaden their career horizons. So while there are great opportunities for the students to go into food service and to go into being chefs in restaurants, there are also opportunities for them to work with consumer packaged goods companies, national grocers, food manufacturers, because they can bring the creative culinary spin to developing products or even in purchasing. What FIRSt contributes is we’re able to teach them the complete package of not just cooking, but how to turn a recipe into a product that could be widely consumed and widely purchased by consumers.
Read our full report on what’s going on inside the classrooms of Canada’s food science students.