Dutch province to become Silicon Valley of agrifood

The Dutch province of Gelderland is a (financial) supporter of the F&A Next event that will take place in May on the Wageningen University campus. Wageningen is situated in the province of Gelderland and it is for a good reason that the province supports F&A Next.

Gelderland has great ambitions in innovation of agri and food. With the Foodvalley region the province wants to become the global centre of innovation in the agrifood sector: the Silicon Valley of agrifood. To achieve that, the province is actively working on bringing research locations of large companies to the province. Research locations of Unilever, FrieslandCampina and Heinz are already a fact. The ambition is to triple the number of R&D companies in Foodvalley within ten years.

To reinforce the ambition, the so-called AgriFood 2030 programme is being developed. It is a long-term programme that is drawn up by the province together with other partners. As deputy of Innovation, Economy and Europe, Michiel Scheffer is closely involved in the region and the programme.

What exactly is the province’s ambition regarding agrifood?

“We want to become the Silicon Valley of agrifood: the global leader in food and agri. In Foodvalley companies and knowledge institutions work together on innovation and knowledge in the agrifoodsector. We want to strengthen the region further so that large companies will settle their R&D locations in Gelderland. The Agrifood 2030 programme which is now in development has to strengthen this position.”

What does this programme imply?

“The Agrifood 2030 programme is a long term development and financing programme set up by the province, municipalities, the Dutch ministry of agriculture and companies like FrieslandCampina. The programme will clarify what is needed to become the Foodvalley that we have in mind. All partners contribute financially and non-financially to strengthening the region. Within ten years we want a tripling of the number of R&D companies in the region.”

That is a high ambition to aim for. What drives this ambition for the province to play a major role in the knowledge and innovation in the agrifood sector?

“It is not just a random choice. Agrifood is something that is connected with the province, it has grown traditionally. I think that is important, because you do not want to be the best in something that is not in your genes. If you find out what you are good at, you can reinforce that and that is exactly was our purpose is. Additionally we as a province want to play a role in the tasks we face in the agrifood sector, like the protein transition, the production of food with a smaller footprint, the use of precision agriculture and the use of food to improve the health of people.”

The region Foodvalley officially consists of eight municipalities. Is the Agrifood 2030 programme limited to this area?

“No, Foodvalley actually has no limits. It is more a network model. If we can achieve more through cooperation with a company in another region or country, we will not say no immediately. We do have the principle that we only do things if we can become the best. That is why we are constantly looking at what other regions are doing. Sometimes that means you have to say no to things that are not good enough. That is too bad, but necessary to follow our ambition.”

Can you mention an example of a cooperation with other regions?

“The technological and innovation centre OnePlanet is a good example. It is a cooperation between the Radboud University Nijmegen, Wageningen University and the international research institute Imec. Imec does research in micro-electronics and nanotechnology. In the cooperation, innovative technologies are being developed for food, agriculture and health. For example sensors to measure nutrients in soil.”

(Shortly after the interview the Provincial States of Gelderland agreed with the opening of the centre in Gelderland and a financing of €65 million for OnePlanet, ed.)

To fulfill the ambition of Foodvalley, the wish is to attract more large international companies to Gelderland and Foodvalley. FrieslandCampina, Unilever and Heinz have already settled here. How do you achieve that?

“This requires an attractive business climate. Provisions such as sufficient housing, good infrastructure and cultural provisions determine, among other things, whether companies want to settle in the region. The presence of Wageningen University also contributes to generating interest among large companies. With the development organisation Oost NL we do targeted acquisition of companies that can strengthen the region. For example, we now have someone in the United Kingdom to make companies, which are looking for alternative places for their business because of Brexit, familiar with Foodvalley.”

In which way is Wageningen University important for generating interest from large companies?

“The university is not only important because of the amount of research that is being done. WUR alumni spread themselves around the world. This creates a powerful network of WUR alumni worldwide. This is attractive for companies that want to establish themselves in Gelderland. In addition, graduate students often start their own company, a start-up, and that is also attractive for larger companies. Start-ups are important for existing companies, to bring in new ideas. Start-ups have the intrinsic motivation to do something new.”

So start-ups are an important factor in innovation. What is needed further to bring innovation to a higher level?

“There are three things that stimulate innovation. The first thing is bringing together different parties. For example through organised meetings or seminars. After such meetings, there are companies that are financially strong enough to set up a cooperation by themselves, but also companies that cannot. For these companies financial support is essential. This is the second factor for innovation. As a province we can support these companies by, for example, issuing a so-called growth-voucher: a subsidy amount for the deployment of experts. These vouchers are issued via Oost NL, a development company that invests public money in entrepreneurs in the east of the Netherlands. Thirdly, the provision of room for testing is an important factor for innovation. Companies at all levels should have the opportunity to try new things.”

What is a concrete example of an investment by Oost NL?

“Solynta is a company in Wageningen, which started up not so long ago, that grows new potato crops from seed instead of seed potatoes. A pioneering innovation. Via Oost NL we have bought shares in this company so that Solynta can develop further. Solynta is just one example. We have already supported some 800 starters via Oost NL.”

Is guiding starters so easy? What are the challenges in helping starters?

“The use of public money for helping starters is always difficult. Starters must meet many financial conditions. But we now see a movement where rich people are increasingly investing in start-ups instead of in real estate for example. That is a positive development to help innovation grow further, through start-ups.”

In May, the F&A Next event will take place on the Wageningen University campus. Gelderland financially supports this event. How important is this event for the ambition of the province?

“The event fits very well with the ambition and with the province. The event contributes to what we have in mind: bringing companies together to promote innovation. The event therefore defines the region as a global centre for food and agricultural innovation.”

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