They say that speed kills. Then again, I’m convinced that the pace of change in today’s food industry - driven by technology and consumer demographics - bodes well for new business opportunities. So, in my scenario: speed thrills.

Let me explain. Distinctive new product or market niches used to be easier to spot because they developed more slowly. Heck, large CPG companies took a year or longer to develop a new item. Today, that new product development time frame is compressed to something between just three to nine months. Meanwhile, I’ve recently been in several “think tank” gatherings where - as part of a brainstorming game (“let’s name the most  ‘disruptive new technologies”) - we agreed that the Internet instantly had the most dramatic and widespread impact.

How do the food industry’s largest players respond to fast-paced change? Last month, we wrote about how Nestlé Prepared Foods engages an industry co-packer as a partner. Elsewhere, giants such as General Mills have formed other innovation programs to solicit and quickly leverage outside ideas and technologies.

Meanwhile, start-up companies and/or small- to mid-sized processors may be best positioned to read and respond to breaking market developments. And while you’ll find several familiar themes in this year’s “Ones to Watch” feature, I’d note that at least two honorees are …

targeting gaps in an emerging market.We’ve already written about companies covering organic and/or all-natural trends. In this case, I’m intrigued by New York’s Really Cool Foods. Other than the largest national deli salad processors (Reser’s, Orval Kent), I haven’t come across another food processor like Really Cool, which has a nationwide vision for developing and distributing refrigerated entrees and sides. The company is building a large processing facility in Indiana and says it plans for more.

leveraging technology in a distinctive way. Murray’s Chickens, South Fallsburg, N.Y., is creatively linking and synching existing technologies so that retail customers can visit Murray’s Web site and learn not only where a particular bird was raised, but also the farmer responsible and even the coop where it was reared. Notes Steve Gold, vice president of sales and marketing, “The cool thing is, you can take your PDA and do the search in the supermarket. We are the only company in the world that you can actually know who raised your food and where it came from as you put it into your shopping cart.”