OnePlanet Research Center: Impact Through Digital Technology

Published on
September 20, 2021

Together with businesses and research institutes from Gelderland and beyond, OnePlanet Research Centre (OnePlanet) is developing chip and digital innovations that provide solutions to the great social challenges in the areas of agriculture, food, environment, nutrition, and behaviour. In doing so, OnePlanet aims to make an active contribution to a sustainable world.

Started in 2019 with funding from the Province of Gelderland, OnePlanet is located on Wageningen Campus (also read the previous news item Kick-off OnePlanet innovation centre for sustainable technology) and is a partnership between nano-technology institute imec (a Belgian research institute), Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Radboud University, and Radboud university medical center.

What does OnePlanet do exactly, what are the connections on Wageningen Campus, and how did the knowledge centre develop over the past two years? A conversation with Liesbeth Luijendijk, director of AgriFood & Environment and member of the OnePlanet management team.

Autonomous Greenhouse
Autonomous Greenhouse

What were the past two years like for OnePlanet?

We have made great strides since we began in May 2019. In terms of staffing, we have grown from three people in 2019 to about 60 staff members at the moment. This includes technicians (such as electronics engineers, sensor specialists, biochemists, and biomedical staff) and data scientists as well as designers and behavioural scientists. The team also includes domain experts from WUR and Radboud with expertise related to AgriFood & Environment and Health & Nutrition. OnePlanet is a partnership, so all our staff members are employed by WUR, Radboud, or imec.

The technicians and domain experts combine their knowledge to develop inventive sensor technologies and digital innovations for different applications. We do this in several public and private projects with and for industrial parties. We are now housed in PlusUltra II, and we also have a location in the Mercator building at the Radboud complex in Nijmegen.

“The three key words for OnePlanet are Sensing, Analytics, and Applications”

What does OnePlanet do exactly?

We develop precision technology in two domains: AgriFood & Environment and Health & Nutrition. The three key words are Sensing, Analytics, and Applications. We primarily focus on innovative measuring technologies. For more sustainable agriculture, it is becoming increasingly important to precisely measure and monitor (crops, or air, soil, and water quality, for example). This is also true for preventive healthcare. Measurements give you a lot of data which must be processed and analysed before they can be used for application. Data analysis, using AI technologies such as Digital Twins, are therefore also important. We work closely together on this theme with WUR (including Wageningen Data Competence Center) and Radboud.

The key is that we always work towards concrete innovations: new profitable technologies, developed in collaboration with the industry, that have social impact. For OnePlanet, technology is not an end goal, but a crucial tool to actively contribute to a healthier and more sustainable world. Technology is great, but it must always be focused on the user. 

Sense2Sustain Nitrogen Sensing
Sense2Sustain Nitrogen Sensing

Can you give concrete examples of your work?

Within the AgriFood domain, we are developing advanced sensors to measure the ripeness of fresh fruit as easily and as cost-effectively as possible. In a collaboration with WUR Horticulture, we are also looking at how we can utilise sensors in autonomous cultivation concepts. Another example is the Digital Orchard in which you can collect and integrate information to predict the quality of the fruit harvest.

In the Health & Nutrition area, we are working on metabolic health by developing ingestible sensors (a smart pill) for monitoring inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, fibre uptake, protein digestion, and microbacterial composition in the human colon.

OnePlanet is also working on applications that support mental health, such as digital personalised advice about diet and lifestyle. We are also working on other digital tools for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Technology is great, but it must always be focused on the user.”

Who is OnePlanet collaborating with?

A good example of how we are collaborating and with whom is the development of a nitrate sensor for measuring water quality. Imec has created a prototype on the basis of specifications from WUR experts. The technical design studio on campus has collaborated as well, and the prototype is being tested in the Topsector PPS project “Handheld Nitrate Sensor” with businesses and other parties in the horticultural sector.

Another example is a smart toilet seat with sensors. A prototype was developed by OnePlanet, and it will now be validated and further developed in practical studies in care centres.

We also fund several PhD candidates who are conducting fundamental research. One of them, from Human Nutrition, is researching new digital techniques to measure food intake. Such knowledge is important for OnePlanet for future innovation and development.

How do these collaborations get started?

For our innovation programmes, we are looking for businesses and partners to work on innovations with us. This includes tech companies as well as businesses from the agriculture, food, and health sectors. To this end, we employ our own business developers. We also take part in and support existing networks such as Food Valley NL, Health Valley, ICT Valley, and we have contacts with the StartLife community on campus.

It is important for us to be part of the campus ecosystem so that we easily engage with companies, with all WUR groups and institutes, students, starters, and other organisations on campus.

In the region, we are working closely with the Regional Development Agency OostNL. Together, we are organising an Indoor Farming workshop soon, and we hope that it will help us find businesses in Gelderland that want to work with us.

In our second year, we have been able to start a number of EFRO projects (European fund for regional development). With entrepreneurs from Gelderland, we bring promising technology to market in these projects. We contribute to innovation in the region in this way.

Incidentally, it may seem that we do everything, but in all these activities we always focus on “our” innovation themes and sub-themes, as described on our website.

“It is important for OnePlanet to be part of the campus ecosystem with companies, research institutes, students, starters, and organisations”

How are you involved in education?

The explicit task from the province was to not only focus on academic research, but also connect with HBOs and MBOs so that future users of digital technologies can become familiar with them at an early stage. We have contacts with relevant schools in the region, and we have started our “OpenEd” programme with learning-working placements. This is where students from different educational levels work together on complex questions in the area of digital technology, from the practice of real commissioning parties. The collaboration on practical applications has been proven to work really well.

Of course, Wageningen (MSc) students are also welcome, especially by way of the Academic Consultancy Training (ACT) course. In the ACT assignments, WUR students work in small groups on practical problems that companies have presented to WUR. We are also open to internship positions. We need fundamental breakthroughs, and want to create impact with digital technology. In particular, it is the students’ fresh perspective that is so interesting.

“We want to create impact with digital technology”

How did you manage during the coronavirus pandemic?

It went surprisingly well for OnePlanet, in spite of the coronavirus restrictions. We physically started on campus in 2019, but we have worked from home for the greater part of our existence. Except for the laboratory work, everything is done online. It is a bit strange, as many of our people only know each other online. We had our first in-person event in the spring, and this was very special, to really meet colleagues you closely work with.

Apparently, we are an attractive employer as we have had a lot of applications (about 1900) since we started. We’ve noticed that many applicants from the high-tech sector want to use their knowledge for the development of technology for a better world and that Gelderland is appealing as a quiet living environment.

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we noticed that there was more reluctance among companies to invest. The collaboration with partners is also more difficult if you cannot meet each other in person. It is getting better now that the coronavirus pressure is decreasing.

How do you imagine the future of OnePlanet?

We have achieved our initial objectives: the centre is built, the innovation programmes have started, and the first projects and collaborations are in full swing. Plus Ultra II is a wonderful location that we can hopefully use even better in the coming post-coronavirus years: for the interaction with other campus residents as well as regional and international businesses, delegations, and stakeholders.

In that respect, we are also looking forward to Omnia, the new Dialogue Center, that is under construction on campus. We can also present ourselves there and have ample opportunity to meet parties.

For the future, I see a OnePlanet Research Center as the leading worldwide knowledge centre for chip and digital technology in AgriFood and preventive health care. An independent centre of innovation that has put Gelderland on the map as the “Silicon Valley for Food & Health”. And we will be able to finance ourselves, through a combination of public and private funding. With all the opportunities on Wageningen Campus, we should be able to succeed!