On September 30th it was announced that TNO Food is moving to Wageningen to merge with FBR (WUR). The new center (sic!) carries the working title “Dutch Food Initiative” and will be the final step in the cooperation between TNO, DLO-FBR and TIFN that started in 2015 under the pressure (or was it inspiration?) of the Top sector Agri & Food.
According to the press releases about 50 TNO-employees will be transferred to DLO, I hope with the cooperation of the work councils of both organizations. I shouldn’t call them DLO anymore, because recently the name has been reformed to Wageningen Research. The latter seems logical, the name of the university being Wageningen University. The cooperation form called WUR has – as far as I know – no legal status, but that won’t be long now.
This fusion (or is DLO simply taking over TNO Food?) has been in the air for at least 15 years. Around 2000 it was already considered, and in the past 10 years the plans have popped up at least twice a year. So yes, fine that after 15 years of doubt the fusion is being effected. Two largely state financed – and on certain elements competitive – research institutes was a bit much for The Netherlands. And now we’ll hope for Economic Affairs to be so wise as to refuse “third parties” to form new state institutes inside the domains of food technology and food health.The state-R&D landscape has after all become too crumpled over the past 15 years.
The state-R&D landscape has after all become too crumpled over the past 15 years.On the sidelines I already hear governments patting themselves on the back: “Look, the golden triangle works!” People who know me a little, know that I find that concept utter nonsense. Hundreds of millions of euros are wasted every year and to the simple question “Which 5 innovations have emerged from TNO or DLO over the past 5 years?” the only answer is silence.
DLO, by which I mean the old practical research, has for decades been at the basis of the Dutch Agri-Food success. But it is no more. Lust for the large European projects that are mostly a money-merry-go-round, elitist thinking focused on fundamental research and an ancient workforce are better descriptions. With employees that by habit “stay put until their pension” there is little creativity, innovation and energy left.
For almost 20 years I’ve been working in this sector, and over 10 years with my partners in a fully private environment. Fortunately we’ve stubbornly decided 10 years ago to start an incubator next to the private R&D. Meanwhile our government has introduced a naïve PPS-policy, without regarding a) the need for high-tech SME, and b) the fact that governments or state institutes are never allowed to compete with private business (see also Commission Cohen, 1998). In 2012 I wrote three articles about this. DLO and TNO are comparable with the public broadcast: a public broadcast cannot compete with a commercial TV-network by broadcasting only popular programs.
In the end the situation has become worse over the past 10 years, something the Dutch food technology sector will duly notice in the coming ten or twenty years. This can be illustrated by the following numbers:
- At the end of the nineties, about 550 people worked at ATO-DLO (predecessor of FBR-DLO i.e. the new Dutch Food Initiative), now less than 20.
- At the end of the nineties, about 1200 people worked at Unilever Research in Vlaardingen, now less than 250.
- About 10 years ago 200 people worked at NIZO, now the staff seems to have diminished to less than 100. They’re not doing very well.
- The institutes focus more and more on “recipe optimization” (read: less fat and less sugar); new technology research is no longer a real priority.
- New conservation technology research at WUR has in 10 years’ time produced zero extra insight, products or value. This activity has now completely shifted to private parties. DLO should stop with this, as far as I’m concerned.
- The agro-mechanical research has been complete “cleared away” (IMAG-DLO). The machine and real technology focus have vanished from WUR and DLO anyway.
- No appealing innovations have been created by the institutes in the past five to ten years. (Who can come up with 5 appealing examples? Well?)
- At Heinz Global R&D (Nijmegen) the number of R&D employees has been reduced to between 100 and 125. Kraft Foods R&D USA is also shrinking.
- Danone R&D: a beautiful new building in Utrecht, but overall less R&D people are employed in comparison to 10 years ago. Currently probably around 100-200 FTE in The Netherlands. Focus lays on food-medical research; naturally a deliberate tactic of Danone.
- FrieslandCampina R&D: a big new building, but overall less R&D people are employed in comparison to 10 years ago. Currently probably around 200 FTE. Strong focus on the more-with-less strategy (see also Roadmap 2020). Little to no focus on new technology or disruptive other new products.
- A lot of pilot factories are closed (potato and fries line at FBR, milk line at the University, pilot bakeries at NBC, noticeable shrinkage at pilot-greenhouses in the Westland, less pigs practical research). How can you perform application research or NPD if you don’t have any ‘real’ facilities left?
- The “food and health / nutrients / dieticians” department of TNO no longer exists. This group has been incorporated in the Food Centre (Voedingscentrum) and afterwards lost in the cutbacks. Who within the Dutch food R&D is still dealing with the recommended daily allowances (RDAs)? Who makes the update for the Vitamin D norm?
I could continue endlessly. Nothing to be happy about.
Innovation isn’t executed through repetitive research, through PowerPoints or reports, through websites or through the training of young talents. Nor is innovation realized either by the efforts of process managers, project leaders or consultants. No, innovation is about ideas, concepts, prototypes, launching customers, startups and markets. What’s necessary for that purpose: creatives, developers and engineers, entrepreneurs, investors and customers with guts.
The new Dutch Food Initiative has the ambition to grow again to 240 FTE, is what I just read. But in fact the number of R&D staff (expressed in FTE) has in the past 15 years been reduced from around 2500/3000 to much less than 800 now. What particularly strikes me, is:
- that business is paying less and a lot of financing comes from the government;
- that there is little ROI on this government financing (except well paid and well educated researchers, not especially needed by the market by the way);
- less technology development (and especially GMV-members yearn for new technology), and much more focus on the applications (often at higher professional level…);
- less innovative, in-depth and creative fundamental research. More likely ‘engineering bureau’ style services by government institutes;
- less innovation ( = new products and technologies on the market) resulting in little examples for the multinationals;
- large scale initiatives in a killing competition with the existing business (think of Algae park and WUR).
Back to the WUR (Dutch Food Initiative). The less competition the better, I say as high-tech entrepreneur and CEO of TOP. The less offerings of R&D, the more request for specialized private companies like TOP bv. So, fine? No, not fine! A country like The Netherlands can only stay on top with very good, creative and fast-paced institutes. Therefore their clients (companies and Economic Affairs) need to crack the whip over the Dutch Food Initiative. Long ago I wrote a 20 point plan for a good R&D ecosystem; that plan is still current I think. The takeover of TNO Food by WUR is a fine first step, but what is needed now is true disruptive innovation and stepping up the pace AND making this knowledge and insight available for free to Dutch business.
The public broadcast and the private channels will go down together if no clear guidelines and appointments are made regarding the role of the public broadcast. This is also valid for the Dutch Food Initiative. By keeping working on the research of back then, this center loses its reason for existence. So become transparent, dare to break off research lines, open the shutters. Involve smart third parties in setting up research lines for the future. In short: put Open Innovation on the agenda. Don’t stick to the past. TNO has got hold of a nice subject with food printing. And biocascading (large scale processing of residual streams) would be a great collective theme. But technologies like AMAP, PEF and HPP don’t belong at Dutch Food Initiative anymore. These old technologies are now rolled out in practice in a way that they should let go of these subjects. In short: Move on! Dutch food Initiative should be at the forefront, no more listening to the top sector with the old mastodons like Unilever, FrieslandCampina, Vion or Greenery.
In short, let go of the old (in which I include people but especially the subjects), be at the forefront (ATO-DLO method 1997-2002!), and in the new economy start to make an Open Innovation program that looks ahead ten years. Involve third parties (I’m available!). And don’t be tempted to do easy research on a practical HBO method. The bar must be raised.
PS: Every creative business developer, every experienced researcher, and every technology developer at TNO and DLO (you may see flowers but you should smell a rat) I would like to ask to come by. This is the moment to switch over to a commercial innovative company. Have you got energy and do you want to move forward? TOP is the place to work for. You may see flowers but you should smell a rat. Be brave, and dare to jump over to a real commercial company. You wouldn’t want to just do your time until your pension now, would you?