Editor's spotlight: Startup Focus

Entrepreneur's view: The exciting and dangerous world of nutrition innovation

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Kerkez
Getty | Kerkez

Related tags: Startup company, Innovation, personalised nutrition

After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Social and Political Studies, Sasha Watkins didn't expect she’d end up an award-winning dietitian and food tech entrepreneur running three - soon to be four - nutrition focused companies.

But now the Sweden-based innovator runs her own nutrition consultancy as well as a low FODMAP dietitian training programme and a programme encouraging nutrition experts to share evidence based information on social media.

Her awareness of nutrition began in 2001 when she worked in the ice cream marketing departments of global FMCG giants, first General Mills and then  Unilever, where she witnessed how both corporations were trying to tune their products to meet the expectations of the increasingly health conscious consumer.

“I loved my time in brand management and in the food industry but it’s much harder to be a change-maker in a big corporation and I was starting to lose my passion.​ I was at my desk one night at 10pm thinking about new and different ways to sell ice cream when I started to feel it wasn’t something I wanted to do any more. 

“Then one day we had a nutritionist come in to talk about how we could improve the health profile of our products and I became fascinated by nutrition.”

She left her job at Unilever and went back to university to study Nutrition and Dietetics followed by a Masters in Science, specialising in allergies.

It wasn’t long after this that she had set up her own nutrition consultancy, which is still going strong today, and after moving to South Africa for her husband’s work, Watkins began to let her entrepreneurial mind wonder.

“There I met another dietitian called Erica who, at that time, had been one of the key dietitians working on IBS in the UK and had written a book on recipes for IBS.

“We got talking about our passions around gut health and IBS and low FODMAP diets and that’s pretty much how Eat Fit SA was born.”

The Eat Fit company was created to run training programmes specifically developed to share the latest scientific evidence related to gastrointestinal health. The programme now includes 80 trained dietitians.

After her 5.5 year ‘adventure’ in South Africa, she and her husband moved back to the UK where she soon found herself incubating another nutrition-based passion, although this time, it was entirely digital.

“I connected with two dietitians on Twitter - all of us from different backgrounds - Emma Carder is in the NHS and Nina Govinpji is in consultancy.

"But we had this shared passion for trying to ensure there was more nutrition advice provided on social media from trained experts.

“There’s a lot of noise on these platforms, whether it be from celebrities or members of the public. The problem is that the title ‘nutritionist’ is not protected so anyone can say they are a nutritionist and start giving out nutrition advice. And a lot of dietitians are nervous to get onto social media because as they aren't certain how to use it.”

So the three women set up RDUK chats for registered dietitians and others to share their questions, thoughts, research and ideas online.

The women simply inform their Twitter network of the discussion subject and the date and time for the next chat and they allow the conversation to follow.

Watkins explains that this helps people with little time and resource, to network with others in the industry.

“There are lots of wonderful conference that people can attend to share their knowledge and views but a lot of nutrition and health professionals don’t have the time or resources to travel around to these events so this allows them to interact with others virtually.

“So far all our chats have been really positive and fruitful. People have shared their top tips, recipes, experiences. We’ve had different health charities, forums and members of the public join in. And because we are using Twitter, everyone has to give the info in quick succinct point, which in this day and age is the best way to get information across to members of the public.”

Not one to stop innovating, Watkins has just been on an Antler foodtech innovation accelerator programme, incubating two nutrition tech focused ideas.

She is now working to take one of her ideas – which taps into the trend for personalised nutrition - to market.

"Now is a great time to be an entrepreneur in the nutrition industry. The industry used to be dominated by big brands selling through supermarkets but now people want want to buy from small, niche companies, specialising in the most specific areas of nutrition.

“The key challenge in creating a startup in the health arena is getting yourself heard over all the noise and how to differentiate yourself from everyone else.

"One key way to differentiate your business is with consumer experience. I think that tech is a great way to create that experience that consumers are after. It helps to create a community around the brand. I think the more personalised you want to go the more that digital offering can play a role.”

While she sees personalised nutrition as a huge opportunity for innovators, she adds that one big danger she forecasts, is distrust of data collection.

“Shoppers are becoming more and more suspicious about how their data is being used, especially when it comes to their health data. I think people will only give their data when they see a real benefit coming back to them – such as a health benefit – and this will create a huge challenge for companies.”

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