Wagralim is the competitiveness cluster for the Walloon agrifood businesses. Founded in 2006 by a group of entrepreneurs and academics, wagralim is an innovation network focused on the agrifood value chain. Over the years, the cluster has welcomed more and more businesses who are keen to support their growth thanks to their partnership. Today, there are some 150 members in the network, as well as a large number of regional, Belgian and international partners.
We spoke to François Heroufosse, general manager of wagralim, to find out more.
There is a lot going on in terms of innovation in the Belgian food industry these days. Could you explain the role wagralim has taken on?
François Heroufosse: At wagralim, our strength is really in our network. We bring together food companies, universities, R&D centers, laboratories,… in Belgium but also on a European and even on an international level. Facilitating the search for a suitable partner is one of our core activities, whether it’s an industrial, technological or scientific partner.
Over the years, we have helped launch all sorts of collaborative research and training projects. In addition, we have forged many links with foreign organisations and clusters, opening up a wide range of collaborative opportunities for businesses and partners in the world of research.
Can you shed some light on the mission and the strategic priorities of wagralim?
François Heroufosse: We want to be the number one partner for the Walloon agro-industry as far as technological, business or managerial innovation is concerned. Today, there are all sorts of themes concerning innovation in the agro-industry. However, the main challenges relate to the different industries that make up the cluster. These challenges represent wagralim’s strategic priorities.
Our first priority is health and nutritional quality. We support businesses and motivate them to design and develop products or ingredients with a proven health benefit (e.g. less sugar, less salt,…) and/or with greater nutritional value (e.g. rich in proteins,…). We also help companies to create effective scientific tools to assess the nutritional benefits of these products.
Next is industrial efficiency. We want to reinforce companies’ competitive edge by improving their processes and methods. Think about the clean label trend, new preservation methods such as using high pressure or mild temperatures, and so on. Developing the packaging of the future is another area of focus. And sometimes, we don’t focus on the products or the packaging at all but rather on organisational innovation by honing industrial management methods relating to production, quality, safety, skills or management. Introducing digitalisation to enhance efficiency is another hot topic at the moment.
And finally, sustainability. It’s no longer a question of “should we take a sustainable approach or not?”. It’s a question of how to further improve sustainability in agro-industrial businesses. We help companies address questions like ‘how can we add as much value as possible to the production process and by-products?’, ‘how can we take a (more) sustainable approach to the management of the production process?’, and so on. Helping businesses to conquer a position in the growing markets of organic or ethical products is another facet of our efforts.
Wagralim was founded in 2006, more than a decade ago – do food companies and other parties find their way to wagralim easily?
François Heroufosse: We are increasingly being found by companies. In the early days, we focused on large projects, bringing together up to 10 different partners. We still have a couple of those projects up and running, but they tend to be very ambitious. As a result, they often require a serious commitment of time and energy of the partners. Some of those projects last for 5 or 6 years. We are shifting gears slightly in that we now want to provide support on the long and the short term to companies. This lowers the threshold considerably.
We have, for example, facilitated the creation of a technological platform called Keyfood, where members can get answers to their questions very quickly. Every day now, the cluster puts businesses in touch with stakeholders from their domain, both to respond to ad hoc needs and to develop ambitious innovation strategies.
What kind of questions and projects do agrifood companies approach you with?
François Heroufosse: Sometimes it’s really about creating visibility for themselves: as a member of wagralim, they are automatically recognized as a company that focuses on innovation. On other occasions, they are after very specific expertise. Often times, we can help them with the knowhow we have gathered in-house. And if we don’t have the expertise internally, we are able to point them in the right direction very quickly. Sometimes it can be as simple – or difficult! - as helping companies (re)formulate a certain question.
What does the future hold for wagralim and the food industry?
François Heroufosse: One of the projects we are really investing in, is an international project concerning food and intestinal flora. It’s a topic on which we have a wealth of information in Belgium. A second focal point for the future is innovation in the management of food companies. How can we innovate the organisation of food companies? Third, there is the agrifood link. Consumers are asking for transparency in this regard: where does our food originate from? And finally, there is market innovation. Ultimately, it’s the consumer who determines the direction of the food industry. In order to thrive, food companies need to be able to cater to the consumer’s rapidly evolving wishes with innovative solutions. And we certainly hope to be of value in that regard.