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How The Value Engineers helped bring the first new food to the world since yoghurt

Breakthroughs are notoriously difficult to bring to market, especially when they involve something simultaneously as basic and yet as culturally significant as food.

But such was the challenge The Value Engineers inherited when it was approached in the early 1980s by a small science start-up in High Wycombe that was funded by two food industry giants: RHM and ICI.

The story had begun 20 years earlier when Lord Rank, convinced that the world was hurtling into a crisis of food supply, tasked his Ph.D.’s with the search for alternative and more nutritionally balanced sources of protein.

Having scoured five continents, it was perhaps ironic that they discovered exactly what they were looking for in a field in Marlow, not very far from their lab in High Wycombe.

It was a tiny plant and because of its microscopic size, they decided to call it myco-protein, and they spent the next 20 years researching its properties and assessing its suitability as a novel food. Myco-protein, when grown and harvested, has the bite and fibrosity of meat but without any of the negative nutritional complications that were becoming the subject of increasing health concerns in the 1980s. It was also an exceptional carrier of flavour. This made myco-protein a first-rate choice as an alternative to meat, especially beef.

After extensive consumer clinical trials, followed by food standards clearance and product development that included partnering with some of the U.K.’s biggest names, myco-protein was soon doing the rounds of the food trade and NPD conferences, describing itself as a Tomorrow’s World next big thing.

If only it was all that easy. Following on from the the disastrous failure of new smoking materials in the 1970s and the frankly indifferent success of soya, the trade proved to be a little sceptical of this new test-tube food. It appeared to be another one of those technologies in search of a market.

By 1983, and having already invested tens of millions of pounds, the main board of RHM showed signs of losing patience. Accordingly, and with a slight air of double or quits, they formed a joint-venture with the bio products division of ICI. Its goal was to build a pilot plant with a small capacity to prove (or otherwise) the existence of real consumer demand for myco-protein. A small executive team was formed to run a budget, make investment decisions and give myco-protein its final commercial chance.

At this point, the TVE founder partners were approached and were asked to pitch for some consultancy against the following essay question:

‘We have a new exciting food technology and a development budget of £1 million. What would you do with the money?’

In the somewhat Spartan accommodation of the Nissen hut where the start-up was based, we told the CEO that the two most important things to sort immediately were to acquire a good quality overhead projector and the best filter coffee machine money could buy, because in order to light the blue touch paper, they were going to be doing a lot late nights and a lot of presentations…

Thus, began the highly successful collaboration between The Value Engineers and what became known as Marlow Foods, together building the brand we all know today as Quorn. Incidentally, Quorn was originally going to be called Origen, but because of complex global naming and legal issues, it was decided to use an existing RHM asset, a regional sauce brand called Quorn, which was then only on sale in the Midlands.

Over the following 10 years Quorn and The Value Engineers grew and grew together.

TVE, acting as Marlow Foods’ primary marketing partner, provided strategic advice on positioning the basic raw material (“A distant relative of the mushroom family…the right food at the right time“), the identification of priority customer segments (J.Sainsbury, Unilever), the development of priority products (Supremes, pieces, sausages minced and even ice cream), all with the development of the appropriate brand architecture and personality.

Following Quorn’s successful launch in the UK in 1985, TVE went on to work with Marlow Foods on product launches in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, and created the innovation roadmap that paved the way for Quorn’s subsequent global development and later business success. Wal-Mart’s recent decision to list Quorn in 2000 US stores shows that what was once considered an unfamiliar niche has finally become part of the food mainstream.