Alland & Robert on industry and academic collaboration: 'You can't put a figure on the value it brings'

Acacia gum - the Maria Callas of the hydrocolloid world.

Acacia gum supplier Alland & Robert has been working with researchers from Montpellier University for five years and has just signed up for another five. "It deepens our understanding of the ingredient and adds value to the relationship we have with our customers. You can’t put a figure on that,” says the company.

Alland & Robert provides around one million euros each year to Christian Sanchez, professor in Agropolymer Engineering and Emerging Technologies (IATE) and his team to work on the acacia gum DIVA project, so-called in honour of the humble gum’s importance. “The idea was that acacia gum is the diva of the gum world - like Maria Callas!" Sanchez told us. "It’s a very unique ingredient with very special properties.”

Head of research and development (R&D) at the Normandy-headquartered company Isabelle Jaouen said: “We decided to develop this collaboration with Professor at the University of Montpellier to develop our expertise in acacia gum through both applied and fundamental research.”

According to Jaouen, the company reaps more benefits than if it simply invested the one million euros into its own internal R&D labs, notably because of the pool of “high level” professors and student researchers they can work with. 

Sanchez, who has been studying biopolymers such as acacia gum for over 20 years, was already well-known to Alland & Robert thanks to his published work.

"We determine the most interesting topics to explore with them," said Jaouen, "mainly focussing on new trends or specific concerns coming from our main customers. When you are a small or medium-sized company (SME), you can’t invest in all the equipment needed to study the structure, behaviour and composition etc of an ingredient. 

"Universities have laboratories dedicated to the study of specific ingredients so you can access these specialists, laboratories and up-to-date equipmentIt deepens our understanding of the ingredient so we can answer our customers’ questions, and that adds value to the relationship we have with [them]. You can’t put a figure on that.”

France is an attractive country for multinationals to invest in research, Sanchez said, thanks to a government subsidy programme called Le crédit d'impôt recherche (CIR).

If a company finances an academic lab, half of this is reimbursed by the government so it’s very interesting for companies, even foreign companies, to work with French labs.­ Without this, it might have been impossible to have such a long project [with Alland & Robert].”

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For the researcher, the benefits are also clear – access to funds and the chance to see how fundamental research can be applied to practical problems.

We could publish our findings at any moment because have collected some very interesting data on acacia gum’s functionality but we are waiting to see first if these data can provide new product development for the company,” said Sanchez.

The team, which counts between 12 and 15 people, has also developed a “new and very original” fractionation process to separate the three molecules of acacia gum. “We know the functional properties of the gum as a whole but we don’t exactly know what the role of the different biomolecules is, so this new protocol will allow us to study them. If we find very interesting properties for one of the fractions, the challenge will be to find a cheaper process to do so.”

Working with a private company can mean pressure to find positive results, Sanchez admitted, but the biggest challenge is often down to timing.  “The company pays so the company wants results, but we know this and it’s normal in research. We just have to organise the lab to be as efficient as possible.

Companies move fast, they need new ingredients and processes but a lab experiment might take a long time. We need to better take into account industrial constraints – timing, the need to beat the competitor etc.”

Sanchez’ team also works with Nestle on meat analogue plant proteins, and he’s open to developing more industry partnerships. “If tomorrow another company wants to work with us on another fibre, why not?”

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