Working together on high-tech innovations for major social challenges
The application of emerging chip and digital technology will be the key to achieving a healthy and sustainable society, according to the OnePlanet Research Center, founded in 2019. This innovation hub brings together researchers from imec, Wageningen University & Research, Radboud University and Radboudumc. In collaboration with the private sector, they’re working on game-changing innovations to help solve major social challenges related to the climate, sustainability and preventative health. Three years on from its launch, what’s the secret behind the success of the initiative?
Imagine drones flying over orchards and capturing three-dimensional images to steer pruning robots. Or sensors measuring nitrogen emissions and other greenhouse gases in the vicinity of farms. How about an ingestible sensor to measure digestion and nutrient absorption, while also looking out for early signs of any gastrointestinal disorders? It all sounds futuristic, but for the researchers at the OnePlanet Research Center, it’s just another day at the office. They know better than anyone how to apply nano and digital technology to agriculture, food, health and the environment.
Cross-overs make all the difference
OnePlanet is developing game-changing innovations at the cutting edge of agriculture, food, health and high-tech in order to address social challenges related to the climate, sustainability and preventative health. WUR and Radboud have expertise on those themes and the centre is linking that expertise to imec’s technological capabilities in the realm of sensors, sensor connectivity and data sciences / artificial intelligence. It’s a unique marriage in the world of food, nutrition and health. “We believe that the cross-over zone between subject areas is precisely where we can make the greatest impact,” explains Liesbeth Luijendijk, Director of Agrofood & Environment at OnePlanet.
Researchers at OnePlanet work closely with the private sector on their projects, and that includes both multinationals and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The outcome of this collaborative approach is the production of valuable, validated sensors and analysis tools which industries can immediately integrate into products and services. “We’re delivering innovations at an high Technology Readiness Level (TRL), meaning the stage of implementation at which technologies are ready to be introduced to the market,” says Liesbeth.
Links to applied practice
The OnePlanet Research Center programme focuses on a few thematic areas where the researchers believe chip and digital technology can have the greatest impact. “This includes more sustainable food production with higher yields and lower costs on the one hand, and healthier populations, lower healthcare costs and reduced pressure on healthcare systems on the other hand,” explains Liesbeth.
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OnePlanet is focusing in particular on the development of sensors and other digital solutions aimed at greenhouse horticulture, vertical farming, fruit cultivation and food processing. It’s also working on sensor-based solutions for measuring air, soil and water quality. And OnePlanet also focuses on preventative healthcare: measuring and monitoring gut health, mental health and dietary habits.
According to Liesbeth, chip and digital technologies are paving the way for new solutions. “These technologies enable us to take measurements in a way that we couldn’t have dreamt of a decade ago, and we can even predict outcomes. That means we can make timely interventions – whether it’s about the climate and the environment, or the health of an individual person.”
The technological knowledge on offer at the OnePlanet Research Center is valuable to the various partners of the initiative because it complements their in-house expertise. Wageningen University & Research, for example, excels in measuring the emissions associated with livestock sheds. “OnePlanet is now working with researchers from Wageningen Livestock Research on applications that enable those measurements to be taken in outdoor settings. This provides business owners with useful data and facilitates informed policymaking,” explains Liesbeth.
Nutrition research is a sport-related field in which Wageningen University & Research has world-leading expertise. “We’re working with academic researchers on smart technologies that provide an insight into people’s eating behaviours.” One example is a smart serving tray that monitors how many bites you take of something, and how many times you chew it (box 2).
More about Camps and de Gooijer's at the bottom of the page.
Collaborating on innovations
Researchers at Wageningen University & Research can participate in OnePlanet Research Center innovations as experts in a particular thematic area. Jan Vonk at Wageningen Livestock Research is one example (see box 1). These researchers can use or test new technologies, for example, and in doing so gather additional data for their own research. “If researchers have ideas related to the innovative use of sensors or digital technologies within the main OnePlanet themes, we can develop projects together and look for funding,” says Liesbeth. From OnePlanet’s perspective, it’s important that innovations have potential for real-life application. ‘We can make that next step happen.”
More about Suer and Vonk's project at the bottom of the page.
Liesbeth is proud of what the OnePlanet Research Center has achieved in its first three years: “We now employ nearly 100 ambitious people and the first patents have already been filed or are in the pipeline.” OnePlanet is now well known among innovation accelerators such as the Hightech XL initiative. The organisation is also one of the partners in the network and in the PhotonDelta Growth Fund. PhotonDelta is using photons (light) to develop precise, ultra-fast, energy efficient sensors.
Integration into study programmes
Wherever possible, insights gleaned from the research are integrated into study programmes. Students following the minor in Quantified Self at Wageningen have been asked to build their own heart rate monitor, for example. This teaches them a lot about how to gather and interpret data. The OnePlanet Research Center also regularly offers internship positions and graduation thesis projects for Master’s students at Wageningen.
Furthermore, the organisation also works with lecturers, SMEs, healthcare organisations and civil society organisations in the province of Gelderland to develop learning-working placements for students enrolled at universities or in secondary/higher professional education (MBO/HBO) to acquire the skills likely to be in high demand in the future. “That includes digital skills but also creativity, entrepreneurship, co-creation and collaborating in teams made up of people from different backgrounds and levels,” says Luijendijk. One example is the Grip op Gras project, in which ICT students from the Ede Christian University of Applied Sciences are working with students from the livestock farming programme at Aeres (see box 3).
More about Stienezen's project at the bottom of the page.
Silicon Valley for Nutrition and Health
Luijendijk hopes that over the next few years, the OnePlanet Research Center will grow to become a ‘Silicon Valley’ for global nutrition and health: a high-tech R&D hub developing economically viable digital technology solutions for a healthier world.
It already looks promising. “The first prototypes of nitrogen sensors, ingestibles and other smart sensors have been successfully tested and are now being fine-tuned,” says Luijendijk.
An interim evaluation report found that OnePlanet’s efforts have had more impact than was expected. “According to the report, we’re a valuable addition to the regional business landscape and the social relevance of our initiative is increasing,’ says Liesbeth, proudly. “And we are in fact now participating successfully with partners in tens of projects to come up with innovative solutions.” The Province of Gelderland agrees and has authorised a second tranche of funding for the initiative.
How it began
The OnePlanet Research Center story started with a University Partner Challenge in 2018, issued by the Province of Gelderland, to further strengthen the AgriFood & Health knowledge infrastructure in the region. Gelderland wants the region to strengthen its position as the world's leading centre of excellence in agriculture, food and health. Imec submitted a proposal, and the provincial authorities then invited Wageningen University
& Research and Radboud University and Radboudumc to work with imec to flesh out the details of the initiative. The idea of establishing an innovation centre quickly took shape. “For Wageningen University & Research, this dovetailed nicely with its strategy of focusing on digitisation in agriculture and food. The Province of Gelderland provided start-up funding for the initiative to establish a research centre over an eight-year period.”
Want to know more?
“We want to understand eating behaviour”
“It’s difficult to measure how people snack, and that makes nutrition research even more challenging than it already is. But it’s important to know exactly what people eat, and how much. It’s the only way we can establish good nutritional guidelines, give feedback to consumers and, ultimately, improve the health of the country.
The OnePlanet Research Center and Wageningen University & Research are jointly developing a smart serving tray that can help us do this. The tray contains a number of scales and camera sensors that track how many bites someone takes of a product, how often they chew on something and how much of it they end up eating. This provides a great insight into the process of food consumption.
The second prototype of the tray is now ready, but there is still a lot of noise in the data it provides. We are now using algorithms to clean up the data so that we can then extract valuable information from it. We’ll then carry out a pilot study with it, possibly in a nursing home or in another setting where adequate food intake is an issue. We want to be able to deploy ten trays simultaneously in a particular space. This would be a significant time-saver for us as researchers in terms of collecting and processing data.
We would never have been able to do this research without the involvement of the OnePlanet Research Center. You need to draw on lots of different kinds of expertise to develop this type of serving tray: not just expertise in nutrition and human behaviour, but also industrial design and sensor technology. What’s fun and challenging about this project is the way we’re focusing much more on real-life application than we’re accustomed to doing in a university setting. For example, we need to consider scaleability and whether the product fits in with other products in the OnePlanet portfolio.”
Understanding eating behaviour
It would be great if technologies like the smart serving tray eventually became widely used in nutrition research. Only then can we really start to understand eating behaviour, and this would considerably improve the effectiveness of nutrition education and other interventions.
Guido Camps, research associate at Wageningen University & Research and the OnePlanet Research Center and scientific director at the Innovation Center of Artificial Intelligence (ICAI) Lab for Precision Health, Nutrition and Behavior.
Femke de Gooijer, PhD student at the Department of Human Nutrition and Health, Wageningen University & Research
“Eventually, we’ll be able to map air pollution locally”
“Direct measurement of the ammonia emissions attributed to livestock sheds is one of the priority areas of Dutch agricultural policy. This approach is seen as the quickest way of providing farmers with the tools they need to reduce nitrogen emissions. But confidentiality restrictions mean that data kept by farmers themselves on nitrogen emissions in their livestock sheds cannot easily be shared. It’s also important to link these emissions to nitrogen concentrations in the surrounding area.
The National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) has set up eight high-end outdoor monitors across the country for this purpose. These monitors perform constant and very accurate measurements of nitrogen levels in the air. However, they’re often located far away from farms: too far to provide an insight into local emission levels. Measuring tubes have also been placed around nature reserves, measuring how much ammonia gets released into the air each month. However, these don’t provide enough detail of emission peaks.
Supplementing and enhancing
For the past few years, the OnePlanet Research Center and Wageningen Livestock Research have been working on sensors that supplement and enhance the data derived from the outdoor monitors. We’ve now completed a prototype of a sensor that can measure concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (mainly attributed to traffic and industry) and of ammonia (mainly attributed to agriculture) in the open air.
Initial test results are promising: the equipment seems accurate enough to provide granular data that can complement RIVM's outdoor monitors, at an acceptable cost. The pilot project ‘Maatwerk met Meetwerk’ (September 2022 to August 2024) will enable us to further refine, scale up and validate this sensor technology. This will include partners from across the whole supply chain and will be located close to a Natura 2000 site.
Ultimately, we want to move towards a combination of sensors and computer models – digital twins – that provide a complete picture of air pollution and can accurately predict what air quality will look like under particular circumstances. For example, how does building on brownfield land affect air pollution in a residential area? What’s the maximum number of cows you can keep while still maintaining good air quality? Having access to that kind of information will eventually enable the government and farmers to implement fully informed measures.”
Remco Suer, programme manager for Environmental Sensing at the OnePlanet Research Center
Jan Vonk, DLO research associate at Wageningen Livestock Research and thematic expert at the OnePlanet Research Center
“It's fun and interesting to work with students”
“I like to involve students in my research: they have a fresh perspective. The assignments they work on are a way for me to test the waters and move forward too. My students and I all learn a lot from these projects, and it helps scientific knowledge trickle down into study programmes. It’s just difficult getting the funding for it.
I’ve found the OpenEd programme to be a solution.The programme is a way for the OnePlanet Research Centerto work with lecturers, SMEs, healthcare organisations and civil society organisations in the province of Gelderland to develop learning-working placements for students enrolled at universities or in secondary/higher professional education (MBO/HBO) to acquire the skills likely to be in high demand in the future. One of these is ‘Grip op Gras’, which is already on its third intake of students.
It brings together students from two schools. One group is students from the ICT study programme at the Ede Christian University of Applied Sciences – the technology experts – and the other is students from the livestock farming study programmeat Aeres University of Applied Sciences Dronten– the thematic experts. They’re focusing on a tool that we developed at Wageningen Livestock Research, aimed at farmers: how can they improve itanddevelop it further with new functionalities? They’re thinking about this and they’re going to make prototypes and test them.
When assigning things to students, you have to be aware that it’s a learning process for them. So you can’t expectfancy, market-ready solutions. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how the next generation of professionals looks at things and how they apply new technologies. Above all, it’s also great fun to work with students. It’s quite a challenge for them, to be innovating and collaborating with students from different backgrounds. But time and again, they succeed.”
Marcia Stienezen, research associate in Grasslands and Fodder Crops at Wageningen Livestock Research
Facts and figures
- high-tech R&D-hub
- non-profit foundation
- established in 2019
- 4 internationally renowned partners
- sensor and digital technology applications with social and economic impact
- 2 themes: Precision Agriculture, Food & Environment, and Precision Health, Nutrition and Behavior.
- 100 employees in 2022