Edwin de Zeeuw, DFPI

Who’s your customer and what’s their problem? If you can’t answer these questions, it’ll be hard to convince people to invest

In the previous High Tech Systems Center newsletter, TU/e Professor Patrick Anderson discussed the transfer of AMSYSTEMS Center’s Food and Pharma activities to the Digital Food Processing Initiative (DFPI). This collaboration between HTSC, TNO and Wageningen University & Research aims to support industry, research and authorities with knowledge on food and high-tech systems. HTSC Program Advisor on Agri & Foodtech, Edwin de Zeeuw, takes a closer look at the business development side of things.

The common denominator

With a background in mechatronic systems, Edwin has been working in the field of AgriFood start-ups and corporate innovation for several years. “I used to be a colleague of [HTSC Managing Director] Katja Pahnke,” he begins. “She told me that TU/e was looking to intensify its collaboration with Wageningen University to see how the technical universities could play a role in future AgriFood developments. Could I be the matchmaker to further facilitate collaboration?”

For Edwin, the benefits of cross-industry collaboration are self-evident. “Whenever innovation has taken big leaps, it’s always been by using existing technology in a different domain or application area. This can only start with a basis of shared interests. At Wageningen University and TU/e, for example, some professors have counterparts on the other side (and Patrick is one of them). They can easily find the common denominator. It’s about understanding the mutual benefits of a collaboration without hindering the ambitions of individuals within specific areas of the university.”

Technology looking for a problem

"It all starts with initiatives like the DFPI,” says Edwin de Zeeuw

As with any academic-industrial initiative, one of the challenges for the DFPI has been to bridge the value chain divide: TU/e and Wageningen University’s focus on lower TRLs and TNO and Wageningen Research’s work on market implementation. “My idea was firstly that collaboration can only be successful if people start in smaller projects and write proposals together,” explains Edwin. “For Patrick and associate Professor Leonard Sagis of Wageningen University, this went smoothly as they’ve known each other for 20 years. But making that bigger – that’s where I felt like I really had a role to play by organizing events and reaching out to industry.”

Although the DFPI began life as digital food processing, it quickly reoriented itself towards 3D food printing due to an existing basis there. However, as Edwin notes, this is technology looking for a problem. “I always ask, what are the fundamental challenges that are aligned with a specific, industry-recognized need? If you don’t have that, it’s hard to form coalitions or get grants. You need entrepreneurial people at the university, like Patrick, to kick things off.”

In writing proposals and trying to validate the underlying questions, personalized food has emerged as an area of high potential – but Edwin is quick to caution that a true use-case is yet to be found. “It’s a constant struggle to stay connected to the real-world needs of corporations who fund these research proposals,” he concedes. “You need to take it slowly while creating a plan to connect more universities on this topic like this. Small successes tell people that things are going somewhere.”

The chicken and the egg

In addition to his HTSC work, Edwin is the CEO of Ecochain, which helps businesses to measure and better understand their environmental footprint in order to improve on it. Although this chimes with the DFPI’s sustainable food proposition, he foresees a chicken and egg problem regarding technology and consumer behavior. “You really have to wonder about the impact of importing apples from New Zealand. But then again, people keep wanting to buy these apples, so companies keep selling them. Few are taking responsibility there.”

In other words: investments will only be made in 3D printers when it becomes clear that consumers or businesses will buy them because they solve a need. Yet this technology will be unheard of beyond academia until further investments are made. Behavior is also influenced by ethical considerations, such as the fact that a free-range egg has a higher footprint than an egg from a 100-hen coop. “What is sustainability then?” asks Edwin. “It’s so multifaceted and complex.

“It’s a shame because we’ve seen some great examples in which certain food textures can help people who have difficulty swallowing. In the healthcare sector, I think that a specific need can be addressed. The funny thing is that they’re still not embracing this technology even though everybody agrees that good nutrition helps you get back on your feet quicker or improves quality of life for the elderly. This is the paradox we see, but it’s slowly changing. In time, there will be hospitals and care facilities that will want to offer this.”

Insights from the past

To make the DFPI a success, a reassessment of priorities may be in order. “It would be a misconception to expect this to convert into something big in a short space of time,” says Edwin. “As a region, we do have a lot to offer in mechatronics development. But the biggest challenges for 3D food printing are in the chemistry and physics of ingredients, materials and processing. That’s where Patrick and the Polymer Technology group fit perfectly. I really believe in cross-sectoral cooperation, but the use-case won’t just pop up. We have to keep investing until something clicks.”

"You need entrepreneurial people at the university, like Patrick, to kick things off.”

In this case, Eindhoven’s past may offer a blueprint for its future: Philips’ NatLab, now the High-Tech Campus. Edwin: “On this one square kilometer, technologists were able to cross-pollinate without always having a clear direction, and great things came out of it. Eindhoven Engine aims to recreate such an environment of cross collaboration. But this is now done by different companies, combined with academia and a focus on purposeful research and development.

“I’d like to end on a plea. There shouldn’t be a disconnect between academia and what industry thinks will be needed in the future. At the same time, academia has moved towards industry and industry has moved a little further away, at least in the Food sector – less room to invest in things that don’t have an immediate RIO. There’s a middle ground, and something beautiful can come out it. It all starts with initiatives like the DFPI.”