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‘We need companies in order to make an impact in practice’

Published on
June 22, 2021

Wageningen University & Research regularly works with companies and does so for a reason. Sebastiaan Berendse, director of Corporate Value Creation, understands that this collaboration sometimes leads to questions and explains why it’s so important.

In addition to research and teaching, Wageningen University & Research has been given a third core task by the government: creating value. This means that WUR uses the knowledge it develops to realise economic and social value. Sebastiaan Berendse, the director of Corporate Value Creation: “We try to form and accelerate the translation of scientific knowledge into practice. We do so by collaborating with a large diversity of stakeholders (government agencies, companies, NGOs, etc.) as well as by stimulating entrepreneurship among our students. And by stimulating interactions among the organisation on campus, by such options as shared facilities. For example, shared research facilities or a multi-tenant building.”

What’s the reason that WUR does so much research together with the business community?

“This is necessary to realise the impact that we want to make with our expertise. Many of the subjects studied by WUR fall under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and are very complicated. Food production, for example, or food safety and nutrition.

You need the business community to translate WUR’s knowledge into practice. To put it simply, WUR doesn’t sow the seed or bake the bread. Research results gain extra social value only when they are applied. In addition, companies contribute their enormous practical experience, which we can profit from.

Collaborating with companies also offers us new research topics, which students and PhD students can use
Sebastiaan Berendse, director of Corporate Value Creation

By the way, this collaboration isn’t something that has happened only recently. Ever since WUR was established more than 100 years ago, first as an agricultural college and later expanded with institutes of applied research, there has been cooperation with product boards and government agencies to put knowledge into practice. For example, to be able to sustainably feed the Netherlands.

This collaboration was also requested by the government via its policies for the top sectors and research. The Dutch government wants to stimulate innovations in sectors that are important to our economy and the job market. The top-sector policy was developed to break the innovation paradox: the Netherlands is a leading country at the scientific level, and we have good companies, but exchanging knowledge between those two is essential in order to be able to really innovate.”

The benefits for companies are clear: access to the latest scientific insights and the talent here in house. But what are the benefits for WUR?

“Apart from the (co-)financing of our research, it also affords us new research topics that our students and PhD students can work on. Our mission was to ensure that the Dutch agrarian product became so strong that we can also export. The question has now changed to asking what we can cultivate here ourselves so that we can decrease our food import and the related carbon footprint.

Could we, for example, grow bananas in Dutch greenhouses? Yes, we discovered that this is possible. That even has advantages because there’s a global problem with moulds in banana cultivation. But in a greenhouse, you can control cultivation and water use and limit the use of fertilisers and pesticides. But can bananas be cultivated on a large scale? It appeared that the greenhouses had to be taller. And is it then economically worthwhile? These last two questions are subjects of applied research at Wageningen Research, whereas the first question entails more fundamental research and comes from the university. The transition from lab to practice is difficult. As soon as upscaling and practical applications are concerned, we need our partners in the business community. They can finance further research.”

Can you give some examples of what you consider successful collaborations? And why?

“Both companies and WUR want to know how we can feed people sustainably and healthily. A good example is the foundation Samen tegen voedselverspilling, set up by Toine Timmermans, the programme manager of sustainable food chains at WUR. One of the goals of the foundation is to combat spoilage and extend the shelf life of food. Supermarket chains have also joined the foundation because, naturally, they too profit from the goals, as does the rest of the chain: from cultivation to processing. One of the driving forces in this collective is De Verspillingsfabriek in Veghel, where caterer Bob Hutten processes residual flows, such as tomatoes from a torn package or residual meat from a meat processing plant, into food products like soup and chili con carne. A number of these products are now being sold in the supermarket. I think this is a very good initiative because the five billion euros wasted annually in the Netherlands means that we have plenty of work to do. 

Another successful example is the KringloopWijzer, a joint venture between WUR, dairy farmers, the dairy industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Thanks to the KringloopWijzer, a farmer can identify the minerals and materials – for example, nitrogen or the percentage of protein in grasses – on the farm and thus use the minerals in the soil more efficiently. That is a pillar of circular agriculture and an important ambition of the dairy sector. Since 2016 almost all dairy farmers have been required to use this tool. This benefits nature and the farmers themselves. For example, farms can produce more grass, less manure has to be carted away or less fertiliser has to be bought.”

There are now a number of companies situated on campus. Is that a good idea or does it lead to intertwined interests?

“Companies look for answers to scientific questions that they can’t answer themselves. Then it’s indeed very handy if you’re situated close to each other. But this doesn’t mean that the companies located here are ‘financing WUR’ or determining WUR’s agenda. See this page for more information.

I understand that students are critical; it’s good to be questioned and challenged

We’re a neutral knowledge party and a public knowledge institution: we’re primarily financed by the government. The other, private part involves mostly the co-financing of public research subsidies, a government condition. We’re very aware that private co-financing or financing can raise questions about independence and integrity. We are also held accountable for this. In addition, we adhere to scientific standards of integrity.  

The scientific integrity of our research is regularly reviewed and the institutes are externally evaluated for quality. All the research financed by public money is public and accessible to everyone. And the government remains the most important financer of WUR research: 4% of the research done at the university is financed by companies. This is 15% at Wageningen Research, and the government has specifically instructed us to raise that percentage.”  

WUR works with large multinationals like Unilever, but there are also student start-ups on campus. How can you stimulate a more diverse business landscape?

“Not every company can establish itself on campus. First, a company must fit in with and be active in one of WUR’s domains. Second, it must carry out research & development activities aimed at innovation. Third, it must be willing to open its doors to us and to others on campus. These three principles lead to our mission of ‘Finding answers together’. Read more on this page.

We’re working on a good mix. There are now more than 180 companies on campus, and about 170 of them are small or medium-sized enterprises (SME), start-ups and spin-offs. An example of this last category is Surfix, established by a WUR PhD student. Surfix makes nanotechnology that you can use for sensors, for example to detect illnesses such as corona. These sensors can also be used in places where there’s no hospital. Surfix is now growing quickly and has been able to attract both private and public investors.

We’re particularly encouraging smaller companies to come to campus. In the multi-tenant building PlusUltra, the number of square metres you rent can depend on whether you’re a small or a large company.

In addition to commercial business, there are also NGOs and research institutes on campus, such as NIOO/KNAW, the Dutch Institute for Ecology. We have a fruitful collaboration this way. We share facilities and instruments, a number of NIOO/KNAW ecologists are lecturers or professors at WUR and the institute can more easily fill its job vacancies with the talent that we have here.”

Do you also specifically search for companies?

“Yes. We have a lot of companies that work on food processing and want to expand: more agriculture, more the ecological side and more NGOs. We want to connect to the latest knowledge, such as building with nature, in line with the WUR dossier of the same name. This is why we’re very happy with the engineering office of Witteveen+Bos on campus, who works on climate-robust water management. Very important in a delta like the Netherlands! Young talent from Wageningen, ecologists for example, can start working on nature-inclusive water management at this office.”

Where does WUR draw the line with regard to collaboration? Are there collaborative ventures that are never realised?

“Yes. We first consider our scientific integrity. Secondly, we don’t work with parties who are damaging to public health, such as the tobacco industry or the weapons industry. But, for example, you could also ask yourself if a positive contribution to the SDGs justifies working together with an industry that itself doesn’t make a positive contribution per se, such as the alcoholic beverages industry. But in that case, you could envision joint research that helps combat addiction and illnesses related to alcohol.”

Critical students say that WUR shouldn’t work with chemical companies.

“I think it’s unwise to exclude them a priori since that means that you no longer have any influence. It’s better to have them be an active part of your research so you can discover how the ecological influence of, for example, pesticides can be reduced. You have to be critical: can these companies be convinced to become cleaner and more sustainable? Unfortunately, pesticides are still necessary if we want to feed the world. That’s the difficulty of our domain: there are no easy solutions. On the one hand, the solution seems to be to stop using the pesticides but, on the other hand, this endangers the food supply or food safety.

I understand that students are critical; it’s good to be questioned and challenged to make our choices transparent. It’s important in this discussion to address the dilemmas, to search together for feasible solutions and to consider diverse points of view.”

What are WUR’s guidelines for entering collaboration with a company or organisation?

“To put it simply, doing scientific, honest and independent research. The integrity code contains a wealth of information about how research should be done and how you should behave as a responsible researcher. And there are also the guidelines for financing research that we have to adhere to.”

Do you still have any wishes for the future?

“I’d like to see more collaboration between start-ups and large companies. Many start-ups have innovative ideas, often in connection with knowledge at WUR, and are passionate about putting these ideas into practice, but they lack the means or upscaling to do so. Large companies have these facilities. If they work together with start-ups, acquire them or invest in them, the start-ups can create global scalable projects so that their innovative ideas actually have an impact. WUR profits from this as well because it provides us with answers to challenges in our domain. And WUR’s knowledge can be applied in practice worldwide. Wonderful, isn’t it?”