Start-ups provide the needed momentum and flexibility required in many fast-moving industries. The give and take between investors, mature companies and entrepreneurs provides a win-win for all stakeholders, bringing game-changing solutions and products to customers quicker and more efficiently. GEA’s incorporation of start-ups in its own business and product development is bearing fruit, much to customers’ delight.

The days of going-it-alone are long gone in business and industry. Companies, including GEA, are embracing what is often referred to as “cooperative competition,” which seeks to create more added value for all parties involved – one of which is often a start-up. Founded by one or more entrepreneurs, start-ups are companies that have an idea for a scalable business model which they develop and validate together and often with the support of more mature companies and venture capitalists. Despite a relatively high failure rate, the number of start-ups has exploded in the last decade given the important role they play in today’s fast-paced digital business environment. Via its own collaborations with start-ups, GEA is launching new technologies and solutions in the market that represent a significant step-change in several industries.

Building on a strong innovation foundation

Innovation and optimization are daily business at GEA. Given its extreme importance, we have a formal innovation process that is open to all employees, including apprentices and work study students. This process is managed by an internal team whose members have defined roles and responsibilities, each of whom brings with them a particular area of expertise. Collectively, they are responsible for gathering, evaluating, prioritizing, sharpening and where applicable, finding the right external partners to bring selected ideas to market. For ideas to be selected, they must first meet one of two key criteria: 

  • they solve a customer challenge, or
  • are an optimization of an existing product or process

Coordinating innovation efforts across a large, global company is like creating a movement. It’s critical to encourage participation across the entire organization and beyond, while managing expectations and reinforcing our GEA innovation vision – which means our efforts must reflect the needs of our customers.– Lydia Schneider, GEA Innovation Manager

Open innovation, where we engage with customers and suppliers or collaborate with scientific institutions, public authorities or start-ups, allows us to obtain valuable insights and identify potential synergies – hand-in-hand with our partners. Yearly GEA Innovation Forums, for example, bring diverse stakeholders together and provide opportunities for networking, which often leads to the formation of small work groups for incubating, defining and accelerating ideas.

As explained by Wolfgang Deis, GEA’s Strategic Innovation Manager, “Our USP is top-notch products at a premium quality and technological level. Process innovations push down costs and product innovations increase product quality. Offering customers competitive advantages and solutions that promote their purpose and long-term sustainability, depends directly on our ability to foster and leverage our own innovative potential.”

Delivering results with start-ups that improve the customer’s business

Partnering with start-ups gives GEA the opportunity to tap into new markets and industries as well as find support for developing our own ideas and getting them to market more quickly. These were the key drivers behind our decision in 2016 to become a founding partner of MassChallenge Switzerland, a business accelerator program that invests more than US$2 million per year in emerging start-ups globally. As a major sponsor, GEA is able to network with entrepreneurs and other participating companies to explore disruptive ideas around topics such as nutrition, health and energy. 

A GEA team gains valuable experience presenting its own idea for a bag filter made of natural materials, MassChallenge Switzerland, 2017 (l to r: Todd Siwik, Sikker Rosendal (GEA Drying), Maddie Drewiske (GEA Dairy)).
A GEA team gains valuable experience presenting its own idea for a bag filter made of natural materials, MassChallenge Switzerland, 2017 (l to r: Todd Siwik, Sikker Rosendal (GEA Drying), Maddie Drewiske (GEA Dairy)).

This single sponsorship has already yielded positive results, starting with a conversation in 2016 with MassChallenge participant and winner, MachIQ, an Industry 4.0 software start-up. MachIQ approached GEA with a vision for a platform strategy for servicing GEA’s diverse customers based on an open, cloud-based platform for maintenance management and digital services, such as remote maintenance, online spare parts distribution and data analysis.

What makes the solution, GEA Advance, disruptive is that the platform is supplier-neutral and independent, bringing customers and all of their partners together onto a single platform to ensure seamless digitalization while driving transparency and efficiency. That conversation at MassChallenge led swiftly to GEA validating the idea and approach with diverse customers – who were quick to recognize the value add it would bring to their own manufacturing businesses. Pilots were then established, which delivered quick business and bottom line results.

According to Roy Chikballapur, co-founder and MachIQ CEO, in terms of the process, “GEA is incredibly open and action-oriented; less than a month after incorporating our company, we signed a letter of intent with them. Although GEA is a large company, we moved rapidly together from concept to pilot projects.”

GEA gives us a lot of advice on strategy and MachIQ is able to execute quickly. This means we are able to stand on the shoulders of giants and see much further than we could alone as a small company.” – Roy Chikballapur, co-founder and CEO, MachIQ

The key benefits of GEA Advance for customers is that it: 

  • leverages two interconnected modules: one for machine builders/OEMs (suppliers) and one for customers, both running in secure, private areas
  • allows customers to connect an unlimited number of suppliers via the same portal and decide what data to share with individual suppliers and which OEM services they want to use
  • can be integrated with most ERP systems
  • leads to more machine up time
  • drives transparency through just-in-time alerts, scheduling & reporting
Smiling faces at Rücker’s dairy production facility in Wismar, Germany, February 2018, after signing their contract for GEA Advance. (l to r: Jörn Möller, Head of Technical Maintenance, Rücker; Malte Derner, Deputy Plant Operations Manager Rücker; Cobers Mohr, Plant Operations Manager, Rücker; Markus Old, GEA; Roy Chikballapur, MachIQ)
Smiling faces at Rücker’s dairy production facility in Wismar, Germany, February 2018, after signing their contract for GEA Advance. (l to r: Jörn Möller, Head of Technical Maintenance, Rücker; Malte Derner, Deputy Plant Operations Manager Rücker; Cobers Mohr, Plant Operations Manager, Rücker; Markus Old, GEA; Roy Chikballapur, MachIQ)

Longtime GEA customer, Rücker Dairy, which has large cheese production facilities in northern Germany, has been using GEA Advance since October 2017. It has helped the 130-year-old dairy company modernize its processes and tools by migrating its maintenance and spare parts inventory management to a single solution, which allows information to flow automatically between team members. This transparency means that Rücker can evaluate its own maintenance performance in real time. And they are continuously connected to GEA personnel and systems for all of their service needs – and to their other suppliers.

We’re running a lot of GEA equipment, so the opportunity to have all of our documentation online, on a single platform was a no-brainer for us. We’ve made a huge technological leap given the platform is cloud-based, intelligent and easy to use, eliminating 4 of our 5 maintenance systems by integrating the data, processes and users onto the new platform.” – Cobers Mohr, Plant Operations Manager, Rücker Dairy, Wismar, Germany

Additional GEA customers, including a global brewer and a German grocery chain, have already committed to implementing the platform. They will have access to even more digital services which will be implemented by the end of 2020, including condition monitoring, programmable logic controller (PLC) connections and video support.

This approach, according to Chikballapur, is a first step in what is a larger business transformation which will change how machine-builders work with customers – regardless of industry segment: “The machinery business is moving towards “production as a service” – wherein we’ll see more customers subscribing to use machinery versus outright buying it and having to service it. Working together, we’ll be able to help GEA and its customers remain at the front of this transformation and prepare for future business models while enabling them to run their legacy businesses.”  

A second collaboration with Swiss start-up Aquantis, specialists in sensors using electromagnetic wave technologies, led to the award-winning CALLIFREEZE® system. The first industrial device of its kind, CALLIFREEZE® provides an absolute value of food product level-of-frozenness (LOF) – and in real-time. The system continually measures the LOF as food exits the spiral freezer, interacting with the freezer and refrigeration control-command system to optimize air temperature, fan speed and freezing time. The key benefits for customers are:

  • improved product quality due to optimal LOF
  • reduced product waste compared to batch systems operating via manual control
  • energy savings

In January 2019, Bergia Frites, a market-leading frozen french fry manufacturer in theNetherlands, agreed to integrate the CALLIFREEZE® system and test it on diverse cuts of potatoes. The impressive results in energy reduction make an important contribution to the sustainability of Bergia Frites’ plant. Edgar Meeuwissen, Bergia Frites CEO, anticipates an 18-month ROI period for his investment in CALLIFREEZE; for larger plants the savings would be even greater and the ROI quicker.

Because of CALLIFREEZE, we were able to raise the evaporation temperature by 3 degrees Celsius for our crinkle-cut fries, reducing our energy usage. This translates into a savings of about €41,000 per year, based on a company running a 10 tonnes/hour plant – all while maintaining product quality.– Edgar Meeuwissen, CEO Bergia Frites, the Netherlands

A peek behind the GEA R&D curtain

Creating wins for customers with start-ups

The R&D pipeline at GEA is always buzzing. In the area of alternative proteins, we continue to support producers and manufacturers in the insect industry, on both the food and the feed side. Likewise, we are engaged in conversations with start-ups to see how we can help them scale up their alternative protein businesses with machine support and process know-how from our diverse test centers. GEA is also involved in initiatives, some EU-funded, to develop processes and technologies for the production of functional proteins and biomass from food processing side streams for use in other products to reduce CO2 and food production waste.  

Working with business incubator garage 33, which is connected to the University of Paderborn, we’re finding solutions to challenges faced by our marine customers. Together with UoP students, we’ve formed the corporate start-up, ZentriTec, which focuses on the use of sensor technology to support a more sustainable marine industry. Working in a dedicated garage33 co-creation space, where coaching is also available, made it possible to get the first prototype on board a ship for testing within 10 months of kicking off the project. The close cooperation with all parties, including the shipping customers, has meant these solutions were able to add real value quickly.

We’re also partnering with food tech intelligence start-up, Hungry Ventures who will help us obtain an ongoing and holistic view of food tech trends by developing a heat map from which GEA can plan its own R&D roadmap. “Our goal at GEA,” explains Deis, “is to be fit for changes and disruptions that might have monumental impacts on our business and our customer’s business. The past reveals little about what future needs will be, so we need to move beyond mere extrapolation – beyond our comfort zone. This means not only focusing on solving challenges for existing customers, but also identifying who our future customers might be and how we can support them as well.”