“I can imagine no higher privilege than doing my part to put Switzerland firmly on the map as a leading nation for food innovation”

A conversation with Christina Senn-Jakobsen, SFNV Managing Director

Monday, Feb 15 2021

I always say food is the best thing in the world,” says Senn-Jakobsen, smiling as she recalls some of the best meals of her life.

Food has always played a central role in Christina Senn-Jakobsen’s life. Hailing from a family with agricultural roots in Denmark, her interest in health and nutrition led to studies in food science and technology, and from there to a varied career in food innovation – including 12 years at leading consumer goods company Mondelez International in roles spanning R&D, innovation management, marketing and strategy. She has now been appointed as the new Managing Director of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley (SFNV).

“I always say food is the best thing in the world,” says Senn-Jakobsen, smiling as she recalls some of the best meals of her life. “People can relate to that: food brings us together. Notice how now, in the time of Covid-19, what most of us miss most is sitting around a table with friends. We bond over food. Whatever the celebration, there’s always food! Food allows us to travel, so even sitting here in Zurich, I can experience a piece of Spain by eating paella, or Japan with a bowl of udon noodles.

Food is why the Danish native, who has called Switzerland home for the last 14 years, pursued a Master’s in European Food Studies from Wageningen University: “Food nurtures our bodies, it helps children grow into healthy adults, and allows athletes to perform to the best of their abilities. The right food helps us focus, gives us energy and boosts our immune system. Good food really does nurture soul, body and mind.

Christina Senn-Jakobsen

Managing Director of the Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley

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Yet as she worked her way up the career ladder in the food industry, Senn-Jakobsen came to realise that food is also – in her own words – the absolute worst. “It is the biggest sinner when it comes to destroying our planet and human health. A third of food is wasted and we urgently need to lower our consumption of animal products, address soil depletion and plastic waste. What’s more, we can’t even feed everybody alive on Earth today and poor nutrition leads to illnesses that lower life expectancy and quality. So our food system is fundamentally broken.

That is not to say Senn-Jakobsen is without hope. Far from it: her sense of optimism is palpable, even across the virtual divide necessitated by Covid-19. “I really believe it is important that we do not sink into a depression about the challenges we face. It is very hard to act once you have lost hope. And there is a lot of work to be done! When we started mass-producing food during the Industrial Revolution, we did not understand the consequences of over-production, over-consumption, over-processing and over-packaging. But we cannot blame ourselves for that – we simply did not know any better.” Of course, today, says Senn-Jakobsen, we are far wiser: “Let’s celebrate the knowledge that we now have and get to work. We need to build a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and we can have fun while doing so!

My ambition is that the majority of Swiss actors in food and nutrition will become members of the SFNV in the years to come.

This proactive enthusiasm will resonate with many, particularly the movers and shakers of the Swiss food ecosystem. And that’s exactly who Senn-Jakobsen plans to involve further in the organisation’s efforts. “We have already welcomed so many fantastic actors as members of the SFNV. My ambition is that the majority of Swiss actors in food and nutrition will become members of the SFNV in the years to come. We’ll offer value that they won’t want to miss out on and each member will also bring their own unique value to the organisation.” And she adds, “The more members we have, the more creative opportunities for collaboration.”

When it comes to tackling our global food challenges, collaboration is key

For Senn-Jakobsen, the most important concept is exactly that: collaboration.Some commentators talk about food innovation coming from one company, or one particular field of science. But in my opinion, true change won’t ever come from just one sector or one group of people. All of these sectors are interconnected – or they would be, in an ideal world. So we have to foster that cooperation. Together we can achieve more, more quickly than any of us could possibly do on our own.”

She cites the example of an early-stage food tech startup:The company might be working on some amazing technology in their spare room, but it will take time to scale up, apply for a patent, raise the funds needed. It could take ten years – or more! – for this technology to become widely available. But instead, if you teamed up with a company who had knowledge in distribution and patenting, you could take off much more quickly.” Nurturing relationships between actors in the food system is one of Senn-Jakobsen’s main priorities as she takes up her role as Managing Director. 

She sees six major sectors as instrumental to the food and agri-nutrition industry within Switzerland: the government and cantons, corporates and SMEs, academic and research institutions like ETH Zurich, as well as startups and investors. The sixth is a group she likes to call ‘enablers’, denoting interest groups, accelerators, collaborators and innovation platforms. “All of these six groups are working on incredible initiatives or undertaking amazing research, and there are already some good collaborative initiatives between two or three organisations from these separate sectors. However, what’s missing is the unifying umbrella organisation where all actors from each of these six sectors can come together. I hope the SFNV can be that connective tissue. We have all the tools – we just need to line them up in the right way.”

We are on the cutting edge of food and nutrition innovation here in Switzerland and we have a duty to share our knowledge, expertise and resources with other countries around the world.

Switzerland is, after all, one of the most food innovation-dense countries in the world.We have some of the leading research institutions here when it comes to food and agri-nutrition,” says Senn-Jakobsen. “We have the top food and flavour companies in the world – think Givaudan, Firmenich, Nestlé. Cantons and the federal government are increasingly engaging in topics related to food and nutrition innovation. And we have this fertile startup culture, much of it centred around food. 

For Senn-Jakobsen, this brings both an obligation and an opportunity.We are on the cutting edge of food and nutrition innovation here in Switzerland and we have a duty to share our knowledge, expertise and resources with other countries around the world.” She attributes her global outlook to stints living and working in 14 different countries, a perspective that will inform her work at the SFNV. “This knowledge also gives us the opportunity to attract talents from outside Switzerland, whether that’s PhD students, amazing startups, SMEs, investors. That is going to be a big part of my job: advertising what we have here and making people aware that coming here is conducive to innovation.” 

Senn-Jakobsen believes that Switzerland has a way to go before it is firmly anchored in the public consciousness as a hub for food innovation. This is not for want of exciting developments in the sector, but rather due to a lack of awareness. “If you ask people to name the world’s top pioneering food innovation hubs? They say Food Valley in Wageningen, they mention the Kitchen FoodTech Hub in Israel. They might refer to Kitchentown Silicon Valley in California. Generally, they do not refer to Switzerland. They perhaps note an individual university or company, but not Switzerland as a whole. My goal for the SFNV is that together we can show what a fertile place Switzerland is when it comes to food, agriculture and nutrition – the right place for both local and global players to engage.

She is equally clear-eyed about the obstacles that could crop up along the way.The biggest issue I foresee is acknowledging that the SFNV cannot be everything for everyone. We are collaborating with six very different sectors and within these, there might be hundreds of companies, universities and individuals. So that is why I am keen to have members set their own agenda, in line with the bigger purpose of the SFNV.” Finding a common language will also help: “One that’s not corporate, not academic, not too much jargon, but something that resonates with all of these sectors.

The entrepreneurship culture is so needed. It makes you want to jump out of bed because you know you are doing the right thing and following your dream for a better world.

Source: Unsplash

Despite the challenges that await, Senn-Jakobsen is galvanised by the task ahead. She mentions the bubbling sense of optimism among entrepreneurs, investors and corporate innovation teams observed in her previous role as Food Vertical Lead at the Zurich-based accelerator program Kickstart. “That culture is so needed. It makes you want to jump out of bed because you know you are doing the right thing and following your dream for a better world. I hope the SFNV can be part of that for many people and companies.”

For Senn-Jakobsen personally, her new role at the SFNV is a source of both joy and responsibility:Having the opportunity to oversee the work of the SFNV is a dream come true. I’m being given a chance to do something about these issues that keep me up at night. I can imagine no higher privilege than doing my part to put Switzerland firmly on the map as a leading nation for food innovation and seeing the results of this work evolve. I feel like my whole career path has led me to this exact place and I am so excited to get started.

Christina Senn-Jakobsen takes over her new position from Fathi Derder, who has been leading early implementation of the SFNV’s work for the past 18 months. The SFNV Committee extends its thanks to Mr. Derder for his contribution to the Swiss food innovation ecosystem during this time.

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