Toespraak staatssecretaris Van Dam bij Startup Fest F&A Next

Toespraak van staatssecretaris Van Dam (EZ) bij het Startup Fest F&A op 25 en 26 mei in Wageningen. De tekst is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I hope you don’t mind me interrupting at this exciting moment, as the award ceremony is coming up. But I’d just like to share a few thoughts with you.

So many promising ideas have been presented here today. From innovative processes to innovative products. No matter how different they are, they all have one thing in common: they are the result of bold – and sometimes unexpected – combinations.

Last week King Willem-Alexander and I saw a demonstration of ‘agriculture meets high tech’ in the field. We were visiting an ultra-modern arable farm in the south of the country. The farmer had fitted his tractor with several different sensors. But he still needed to cover thousands of kilometres every year to check on his crops. During our visit he met an engineer who had spent years building a drone that was capable of aerial observation.

As we watched, the engineer flew his drone, with built-in sensors, over the farmer's fields. He printed a map, with detailed information about each crop. A farm consultant could now translate the data into an advice. And the farmer could turn advice into action.

The King and I were impressed. Of course, I know that pairing up agriculture and high tech isn’t uncommon. Around 1 in 10 farmers already use drones, even though they’ve only been around for a few years. However, the engineer told us that this is only the beginning of a new green revolution. A revolution that will probably dwarf the previous one.

Right now, a drone is just an extra pair of eyes. But if it’s programmed with a farmer’s knowledge, it will be a fully fledged farmhand that knows exactly what a crop needs and can dispatch farm machinery accordingly. The result: optimum growth with minimum inputs. So: higher yields and more sustainable production. And that’s exactly what we want. And what we need.

Between now and 2050, the global population will grow by another 2 billion people. If we keep producing as we’ve been doing in past decades, we’ll need around four Earths to feed everyone. So we’re not only aiming to double productivity, but to do that using half the inputs we do now.

This isn’t just a goal, it’s a hard requirement. Because we have only one Earth, and its resources are finite. Not only do we need to produce more, with less, we also need to make food healthier: the current Western diet is too high in salt, sugar, fat and animal protein. And we need more transparency: consumers want to know what’s been added to the food they eat and who processed it, packaged it, and shipped it.

There’s no country better equipped to deal with these challenges than the Netherlands. Limited by our size, innovation is second nature to us. For years we’ve used knowledge to do the same thing, but better and more efficiently. Now we need to use that knowledge to do the best things differently. By combining agrifood knowledge with know-how from other sectors. By making new combinations. It’s like the farmer and the engineer. The knowledge in their heads needs to come together before it can be programmed into a machine.

Data from one sector can be used to innovate in another. For instance, to develop new plant varieties that are both disease-resistant and drought-tolerant. Or IT applications that help consumers make sustainable and healthy food choices. Crossovers between sectors are crucial. And I’m happy to say they’re becoming more common.

In the Netherlands, government, companies and knowledge institutions have a tradition of working together. It’s a good basis for crossovers. Our top sectors policy now connects sectors like agri-food, horticulture and high tech. 'High Tech to Feed the World' is a joint programme in which companies and researchers test the feasibility of innovative ideas. Like robots that monitor poultry health and carry out certain routine tasks. High tech also features strongly at the new Dairy Campus in Leeuwarden that I will be officially opening tomorrow.

But it’s not enough to link up sectors. Our agri-food companies are innovative and strong, but venture capital investors aren't falling over themselves to invest in Dutch food innovation. Is our head start in this area becoming a handicap? Or is it something else? I think it’s the latter.

Increasingly, we’re seeing innovation come from startups. From small, flexible companies that can adapt their original plan as they go along by trial and error. That’s important when you’re marketing an innovative product these days. Because new versions of the same innovation may already be available elsewhere in the world.

So startups are responsible for innovation. But there aren’t many agri-food startups. In this sector, innovation has traditionally come from large, multistakeholder collaborations. And from family businesses like Lely which spent ten years developing its automatic milking system.

Times change. Needs change. Yesterday, fellow minister Henk Kamp announced that he was continuing StartupDelta and giving 50 million euros to boost startups and scale-ups. But we need to do something extra for startups in the agri-food sector. I discussed this just now at a roundtable meeting with investors, startups, corporates and knowledge institutions.

First, we need to encourage young people to innovate in this sector. To take the path less-worn. So it’s important that agri-food universities and colleges join forces with our universities of technology. And that we organise battles like this afternoon’s. So it’s a good idea to go forward with F&A Next!

Second, we’ve talked about setting up a ‘Food Accelerator’ to provide training, mentoring and advice to startups on the interface of agrifood and high tech. I invite all interested to join this initiative.

Third, no matter how brilliant an idea may be, not every startup will grow into the next HelloFresh. Investing means taking risks. And the many F&A investors here are prepared to do just that. To make the decision easier for them, the ministry is prepared to share part of the risk. So we’re setting up investment funds especially for startups in agri-food technology. Six million euros of government money is available through a seed capital scheme. I invite interested investors to get in touch with my ministry. So that, together, we can provide 12 million euros of venture capital.
The next Start-up event will be on 13 October. I hope our plans will have evolved by then. From startup to scale-up, as it were.

This afternoon’s pitchers are also keen to grow from startup to scale-up.

For me,

Whether you extract protein from duckweed, or energy from wet waste,

Whether you make snack foods from seaweed or regional sweet blue lupins,

Whatever great ideas are at the basis of your innovations – ideas that I wish I’d had – you are all winners. Winners of a sustainable future.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say. So I’ll leave it to the jury to announce the official winners of today.

Thank you.