Food cluster unites private interests to push research forward

Summary

To boost innovation in the agri-food sector, Flanders’ Food is providing local and global companies with access to research and training

The food network

In a recent report on innovation in the Belgian food industry produced by the industry federation Fevia, part of the credit for the country’s advances over its foreign competitors was given to Flanders’ Food. But who or what is Flanders’ Food?

“Flanders’ Food is a public-private partnership,” explains Veerle Rijckaert, the organisation’s community and new business development manager. “We were founded by Fevia Vlaanderen, with about 10 founding member companies. We receive structural funding from the Flemish government, topped up by membership fees from the companies.”

Flanders’ Food started in 2005. According to the latest figures from 2016, the organisation now has 350 members. About two-thirds of them are producers of food and food ingredients, while the rest is made up of companies from sectors like machinery and technology, animal feed and retail. 

The organisation receives funding from the Flemish government and sets up projects with universities, university colleges and other research organisations.

“We submit dossiers to Vlaio, the government’s agency for innovation and entrepreneurship, and it evaluates them for funding,” Rijckaert says. “Vlaio sees Flanders’ Food and the other spearhead clusters as their front office – in this way we have a direct link to the Flemish authorities and support them in their actions. From 2018, this will be especially true once we become a spearhead cluster for the agri-food industry.”

Leading the field

The Flemish authorities initiated five spearhead clusters: energy, sustainable chemistry, materials, logistics and transportation, and agri-food. Each cluster aims to increase the competitiveness of its sector and improve collaboration by connecting with knowledge centres, other sectors and the authorities.

Research is a way of turning money into knowledge. The next step – innovation – is even more important, because you turn that knowledge back into money

- Veerle Rijckaert

“Until recently, there were several organisations involved in research, innovation and so on,” Rijckaert says. “Their funding was more scattered and they were not really focused on any specific themes or organisations. The government decided to focus instead on areas that are already economically important and strong.” The aim is to help make the sectors leaders in Europe and around the world. 

“Flanders’ Food applied to become the spearhead cluster for agri-food, and we were approved,” Rijckaert says. Between 2018 and 2028, the organisation will receive €500,000 a year. Membership fees are expected to match government funding, bringing the total annual budget to €1 million.

“Flanders’ Food is not the spearhead cluster,” Rijckaert says. “We are its co-ordinators. The spearhead cluster is the eco-system for innovation in the agri-food industry. As well as agri-food companies it includes research organisations and other partners.”

Pilot projects

Flanders’ Food is also involved in European projects and provides its members with access to funding from the EU, while strengthening their position on the continent.

A big advantage of a structure like Flanders’ Food, says Rijckaert, is that the organisation gives small and medium-sized companies access to facilities they would never be able to afford otherwise. 

One example is Food Pilot, a project set up in 2011 with Ilvo, the institute for agricultural and fisheries research. It provides companies with access to food processing facilities on a pilot scale, giving them the opportunity to scale up new products, methods and technologies.

“The food industry in Flanders is heavily weighted toward small and medium-sized companies,” Rijckaert says. “This impacts how innovations are picked up and how quickly they are implemented. Food Pilot is very interesting for the companies because they can work on new things without having to invest in additional production facilities and equipment or stop their existing production lines to do a test run. This is crucial to making innovation happen.”

Innovation cycle

Flanders’ Food also puts its members in contact with research organisations and other food and non-food companies, increasing the potential for synergy.

According to the latest annual report by Fevia, the Belgian food industry is more innovative than any other in Europe, especially in food processing, with almost half of all producers having introduced innovations in production processes between 2012 and 2014.

The Belgian figure of 47% compares favourably with Germany (17%), France (26%) and the Netherlands (33%). Local companies also scored highly for organisational and marketing innovation, with 46% of them recording new innovations, compared to 40% in France, 39% in Germany and 35% in the Netherlands.

With the help of Flanders’ Food, Rijckaert says, the Belgian food industry is succeeding in turning ideas into research and, ultimately, concrete innovations. Rijckaert has a formula for that success: “Research is a way of turning money into knowledge. The next step – innovation – is even more important, because you turn that knowledge back into money.”

Photo: Lies Willaert/IPV-IFP

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