The Chinese dairy giant Yili is the first foreign company to gain a foothold on the Wageningen campus. Which is entirely in line with Wageningen UR’s plans to beef up its research portfolio with research partners on campus. ‘We want to valorize our knowledge.’
The Chinese press was present in striking numbers when the Chinese dairy giant Yili opened its R&D branch on the Wageningen campus last month. Yili is a big name in China, and the Wageningen branch is its first bridgehead in Europe. The Chinese corporation’s plans are certainly ambitious. Although the branch is starting out with just a few project managers, it is intended to grow into a European research centre worthy of the name. But Yili’s arrival constitutes a milestone for Wageningen UR as well, as it is the first foreign company to settle on the new Wageningen campus in order to embark on long-term research collaboration. A step entirely in line with Wageningen UR’s strategy, which explicitly provides space for internationally operating research partners – something reflected in the spacious design of the campus. To this end, Wageningen UR works closely with the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency at the ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ) and the East Netherlands Development Agency Oost NV. These three formed the ‘acquisition core team’ which brought Yili to Wageningen.
FOOD VALLEY IN FIGURES
The majority of the companies with which Wageningen UR collaborates are not located on the campus. They are elsewhere in Wageningen or in the Food Valley region in a radius of 30 kilometres around Wageningen. This region boasts more than 1500 agro- and food-related companies (not including freelancers, retailers and farms), says development agency Oost NV, basing its figures on a baseline study done by four Wageningen students. In the last nine years, Oost NV has been involved in more than 200 investment applications in the Food Valley region from agrofood companies wanting to establish themselves there, or to expand, or to set up collaborative projects with the university, DLO or other local knowledge organizations. The harvest so far: more than 30 companies have established themselves, more than 20 have expanded, and more than 40 joint projects have been established with the collaboration of Oost NV. These investments have led to the creation of at least 1600 jobs in the Food Valley region, says the development agency. Of the companies seeking to invest here, 37 percent come from the Netherlands, 26 percent from Asia, and 20 percent from North and South America.
Why collaboration with R&D companies is so important to Wageningen UR is something Petra Caessens can tell us. She supervises the process of drawing companies to the campus for Wageningen UR. ‘The aim is to expand research collaboration. We want to valorize our knowledge and earn some of our money from assignments from companies. By bringing our clients into the fold, we hope to expand collaboration or at least to consolidate it. In that way we also want to stay attractive in future for students, PhD researchers and research partners.’ In the development of the campus, the aim is to attract three large international companies, which between them will bring two million euros’ worth of extra research assignments to Wageningen UR, says Caessens. A fully occupied ‘incubator’ with knowledge-intensive startup companies should deliver another million in turnover. ‘That is why it is so important that these companies link up with our domain of expertise,’ she explains. Coming to Wageningen is of interest for the companies too.
Not just for the Wageningen expertise, but also for the Wageningen experts, because graduates form the perfect bridge between a knowledge institution and a company. That makes it interesting for the companies that the university attracts so many foreign students, says Caessens. Chinese Wageningen graduates, for instance, are of interest to both Yili and FrieslandCampina, which is starting up a research centre in China. All internationally operating companies stand to benefit from graduates capable of working in more than one research culture.
Growth or decline
Wageningen UR is not the only organization in Food Valley, of course. If we look beyond the campus, we find at least 20 R&D companies in and around Wageningen, as Bernold Kemperink of Oost NV is well aware. The biggest and most prominent of these are Dutch companies such as FrieslandCampina, KeyGene, BLGG, Noldus and Nizo Food Research (in Ede). But there is also a cluster of startups launched both by Wageningen researchers and other starters from outside the region. Together with the larger companies, the university and the DLO organizations, they form the ‘campus ecosystem’, says Caessens. She wants to create a cluster of companies which strengthen each other, for example through the building of the incubator and business centre where starters and departments of larger companies can share knowledge and facilities. This collaboration and cross-fertilization is the key factor in attracting new international parties. Some attempts work out better than others.
In 2007 both the America enzyme producer Dyadic and the Japanese soya sauce manufacturer Kikkoman set up R&D departments in Wageningen. Dyadic now has 30 staff here and embarked on an expansion of its Wageningen branch early this year. At the Kikkoman branch, by contrast, there is still just one person. Nothing has come of the original idea for a laboratory of its own for research on flavour and aroma. Other companies have even left again after a short stay on the campus: one of these was the Japanese food company Nippon Suisan, which established itself in Wageningen with a staff of four. ‘We didn’t manage to secure the collaboration of this company with potential research partners, partly because communication between the Japanese-speaking R&D staff and the Dutch partners was so difficult,’ says Kemperink.
Yili’s arrival will doubtless give a new impulse to the development of the R&D landscape in Wageningen and on the campus. Thanks to all the media attention in China, Caessens has already had visits from two other Chinese companies seeking to explore the possibilities for collaboration and a branch on campus. Wageningen UR, Oost NV and the ministry of EZ also have a list of names of companies which are a good match with Wageningen’s research topics and could strengthen the cluster. Both Asian and American companies are on the list. Caessens hopes to attract not just agro and food companies but also companies wanting to invest in R&D in the field of the biobased economy. The copycat effect is the basis of a tried and trusted strategy here, with one company’s move attracting the interest of others, as more and more companies realize they can no longer innovate fast enough in their separate R&D centres, and need to collaborate with other parties, says Kemperink. ‘They need to develop new products fast; the ‘time to market’ is short. To do that you have to collaborate in clusters and where necessary, incorporate small knowledge companies with new technology. It is all about exchange and the dynamics of people and knowledge.’
Photo; Bart de Gouw