How can you increase the chance that your research actually results in useable innovations? “By calculating the practical consequences at an early stage,” says scientist Pieter de Wolf of Wageningen UR. De Wolf has increasingly been asked to ‘quantify sustainability’, and helps parties analyse the economic, environmental and social consequences of new cultivation systems or technologies at an early stage.
What is most commonly lacking is a timely economic analysis, Pieter has noticed. “Research in the field of crop protection is often directed at fewer chemicals, for example. Although a good starting point in principle, this shouldn’t be the only one. Measures that cost too much will not be taken on board by growers. This is something that has to be considered at an early stage. Even before a concept has been completed, there are often plenty of leads for a rough calculation.”
Simulating various scenarios
According to Pieter, an important aspect in coming to a proper analysis is the right choice of indicators. “You have to know what to measure. Take, for instance, a recent study into the effects of more large-scale crop rotation. There were a lot of practical issues that arose at the same time: what are the consequences for the soil, the environment and the farmers’ bottom line? How does one distinguish between short and long term effects? Together with the client, we developed a framework. To make it tangible, we calculated the available data into standard business concepts. Using key figures, we then simulated what would happen if farmers adapted their crop rotation, and were able to draw conclusions per region or business type.”
How to make the right choices in an innovation trajectory
Pieter is not afraid of intervening at too early a stage and nipping possible innovations in the bud. “Innovation is a decision trajectory: does it work? Can it be improved? Can it be marketed? An interim impact analysis can help steer research in the right direction. It can also help provide clarity for financers.
Refinery of sugar beet leaves: economically profitable?
An example given by Pieter is the value of sugar beet leaves. These are normally left behind when beets are harvested and yet contain many valuable substances that can be extracted, such as proteins. “Various partial technologies were developed for harvesting and extraction over the years, but we haven’t come closer to applications in practice. Together with the initiators of the refinery plans, we therefore chose a different approach. We said: what can you do now with the current technologies? We then calculated various scenarios. This way, it is possible to provide potential investors with an impression of what investments would be required as well as insight into the possible risks and cost recovery times. This can make the difference between stopping or continuing a project.”
For more information about quantifying sustainability or increasing the chance of success of your research and innovations, contact Pieter de Wolf.