Six months of Unilever on Wageningen Campus

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Six months of Unilever on Wageningen Campus

Published on
May 28, 2020

Six months ago, on 6 December 2019, King Willem Alexander opened “Hive”, Unilever's new Foods Innovation Centre on Wageningen campus. Peter Haring and his successor Wendy van Herpen look to the past and to the future: what preceded the move to Wageningen and the significance of Unilever's arrival for the Wageningen ecosystem.

Peter Haring

Peter Haring, R&D Director Foods Ecosystem at Unilever, retired on 1 May 2020. Together with a large team, he was closely involved in the move of Unilever's research departments in Vlaardingen, Poznan, and Heilbronn to the Unilever Foods Innovation Centre on Wageningen Campus. He looks back on the arrival of Unilever on campus.

How do you look back on your move to Wageningen Campus?

It was an intensive and exciting period. In October 2016 it was announced that Unilever would be coming to Wageningen Campus. A lot of time was spent on the design of the building and all its facilities. We took a good look at what was already available at Wageningen University & Research. After all, the collaboration with Wageningen University & Research was an important reason for us to relocate to the campus. So we had to construct a building that met our requirements in a short space of time. This not only required speed, but also great care. Of course, you want as many of your experts to come along with you as possible.

This is why we organised sessions in Vlaardingen, including a market, so that employees and partners could get an idea of working, housing, schools, and municipal and cultural facilities in Wageningen. This meant that people were able to prepare for the move two to three years beforehand. Employees from Poland and Germany also visited Wageningen and the surrounding area for several days to better prepare and inform them about moving to the Netherlands. In the meantime, we had reached a good agreement with the unions. Fortunately, a large number of our employees have joined us, moved, or are able to travel to Hive by public transport, private transport, or by taking the bus that reads “foods innovators on a journey” and runs twice a day. Employees from the detergent division moved to England or switched to the food division and now work in Wageningen.

How does Unilever fit into the Wageningen ecosystem, now and in the future?

Unilever was already in close contact with Wageningen University & Research. We also already had professors with a part-time appointment at Wageningen University & Research. Long before the move, we showed our experts the opportunities that working together would bring. By making optimal use of the knowledge and experience already available on campus, there was no need to reinvent the wheel.

The areas in which Wageningen University & Research and Unilever can, and sometimes already work together are:

  • Equipment from Shared Research Facilities: For example, we use the NMR facility and gain knowledge from the experts at that location.
  • Packaging: We strive to reduce packaging and to increase the use of recyclable packaging. There is a great deal of knowledge about this at Food & Biobased Research.
  • Information Technology: With our move to Wageningen, good contacts have also been made with the Wageningen Data Competence Center (WDCC) and OnePlanet, a collaboration between IMEC, Wageningen University & Research, and Radboud university medical center.
  • Collaboration with Start-Ups and Scale-Ups: We became a member of StartLife and are also involved in F&A Next each year.
  • Internships: We already had a lot of Wageningen University & Research students doing an internship with us, but this has become even easier now. We were also involved in the hackaton, organised by FarmHack. We offer students the opportunity to do internships in many different areas.
  • ACT Teams: Academic Consultancy Training is a great way for Unilever to work with young people with innovative ideas.
  • Collaboration with “Neighbour” Friesland Campina: If you look at our current way of working together, a lot has changed in three years!

The reason we came to Wageningen is to work together on major global problems such as obesity, climate change, and food waste (including packaging). To solve these problems, you need to join forces with large and small businesses, startups, research institutes, and the university. That's our idea; to tackle these problems together within the campus ecosystem by working on the same important issues. When you compare Unilever's strategy with Wageningen University & Research's Strategic Plan, you clearly see great similarities.

The text in the invitation for your goodbye said: “To make the world more sustainable together by taking actions with impact and inspiring others to do the same. His house, his car, and even his suits are an inspiration to us all!"
How do you think Unilever and Wageningen University & Research can contribute to sustainability?

Sustainability is pre-eminently a subject that you have to tackle together. It is not about getting a sustainability label for your own product. There is a lot of knowledge available on campus about sustainable cultivation and the preservation of crop diversity. We can easily make contacts or follow meetings in Impulse on these subjects as they also concern us. Of course, this can also be done virtually and remotely, but being physically present on campus helps.

During the construction of Hive we also had many discussions about sustainability. We wanted to create a building that “breathes sustainability”. I am therefore proud that we finally received the BREEAM Outstanding certificate for the building. Our roof is covered with solar panels, our kitchens are equipped with reused equipment from our branches. Recently, Unilever celebrated 10 years of Unilever Sustainable and our mission is: “Make sustainable living commonplace”. Our sustainable building also fits into this philosophy.

Unilever, foto: Ossip

Photo: Unilever interior (source: Ossip)

Looking forward

Wendy van Herpen

Wendy van Herpen, R&D Director of Ecosystem Foods and Refreshment succeeded Peter Haring at Unilever on 1 April. She is responsible for further shaping the existing ecosystem in Wageningen as well as ecosystems worldwide and for engaging in interaction/collaboration with the parties involved.

How long have you worked at Unilever? Did you experience the relocation process from the start, and what was your role in the process?

I have a background as a nutritionist and have been with Unilever for 18 years. Before I succeeded Peter, I worked as Digital and Data R&D Director on digitising the product development process. Family, environment, and work play a role in such a decision. I visited the campus and the building when it was under construction. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be part of this transformation and very much wanted to contribute to this new way of working. As a family we made the decision to move to Wageningen, my husband travels up and down to the Randstad a few days a week and our children go to secondary school here.

In the meantime, we all formulated a “purpose” at Unilever: What drives you in your work? For me, “research” and “collaboration” are important. In doing so, I want to look outwardly and play my part in achieving shared objectives. This is why the role of collaborating in the field of R&D with others on campus is a great fit for me. And just as with Peter, sustainability will play an important role in this. Peter also introduced me, digitally, to his many contacts at FoodValley, FrieslandCampina, TIFN, StartLife, and Wageningen University & Research.

You are also a member of FoodValley2030. What does that mean and what will the people at Wageningen Campus notice about this programme?

We are a member of FoodValley and have developed a vision for 2030 together with the partners on campus and externally. Unilever will be providing input and advice in this regard. Together with the government, province, municipality, university, and business community, we want to ensure that FoodValley continues to flourish and develops into a kind of Silicon Valley, also in the field of food (red: For more background information see the interview with Gerlinde van Vilsteren).

How do you see the future of Wageningen Campus and its ecosystem?

My role at Unilever is to build an ecosystem for product development, a good infrastructure, and strong connections with other partners with a shared vision. Not just at Wageningen Campus, but globally. It is just wonderful when companies, small and large, and ditto researchers come together across the globe. If you are open and transparent about your challenges in the field of nutrition, then we can join forces, tackle these challenges, and form a sort of ecosystem to find solutions together. To continue this analogy, such an ecosystem is truly alive and it needs nutrients to be kept alive.

In my opinion, our building on campus mirrors that too; an open, accessible, and attractive concept. This is needed if you want to work together with others on campus and outside it. To make collaboration part of our DNA, this process of transformation is still ongoing. That is why we use our common motto when solving problems: “if we think we can do it alone, we are not thinking big enough”.

“Such an ecosystem is truly alive and it needs nutrients to be kept alive.”

- Wendy van Herpen