Kikkoman: how collaboration leads to innovation

Published on
May 22, 2023

One of the first members of Food Valley is the Japanese company Kikkoman. This company has a R&D hub since 2007 on Wageningen Science and Business Park, which is also part of Wageningen Campus. The current general manager Takuya Sato is now working for one year on campus and reveals what kind of research Kikkoman did together with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and why he is hoping for new longtime scientific research projects to enlarge their knowledge of consumers and add new values to Kikkoman’s business.

Why is your company hub located on campus/Business Science Park in Wageningen?

In 1997 Kikkoman established a production plant in Hoogezand-Sappemeer, in the province of Groningen, to produce naturally brewed soy sauce for the European market and expand our activities in Europe. Since 2007 Kikkoman has a R&D hub on Wageningen Campus. I work here as general manager for approx. one year now. I have one female coworker here in Wageningen. She is a senior scientist who works alternately in Wageningen and in Soesterberg, where she does research in collaboration with TNO.

Can you tell something about the background of the company, about the core business?

Kikkoman has been naturally brewing soy sauce for over 300 years. This process of fermentation and aging takes us several months. In the seventeenth century, soy sauce was produced completely by hand and was extremely difficult work. Today, soy sauce is produced in highly automated plants using cutting-edge technology – yet the core process of natural brewing hasn’t changed for centuries. Kikkoman's Soy Sauce is produced at eight factories worldwide in North and South America, Asia, and Europe, and is cherished in over 100 countries around the world. Kikkoman is not only known for soy sauce, but also for its soy milk (largest soymilk producer in Japan), tomato-based goods and canned fruits and vegetables under the Del Monte brand in all of Asia excluding the Philippines. To leverage the synergies between promoting both the merits of soy sauce and the allure of Japanese food culture, Kikkoman began operating the American-based Japan Food Corporation in 1969. The focus of this business continues to be the wholesale of Oriental food products, with a particular emphasis on Japanese ingredients. Kikkoman is conducting basic science research at our four R&D hubs located in Japan, the Netherlands, the U.S., and Singapore.

Photo shows the production of soy sauce (especially the bottling process) in 19th century.
Photo shows the production of soy sauce (especially the bottling process) in 19th century.

In Wageningen we started in 2007 with scientific research on drying our products into powder and we worked together with AFSG on salt reduction in food. By using our soy sauce in dressings and tomato soup we could reach up to 50% of salt reduction without affecting the salty taste intensity and overall liking, thanks to its rich flavors including Umami taste.

From 2015 we have been conducting fundamental research on taste experience and consumer science. We wanted to understand how people understand deliciousness and appreciate foods. We have studied these topics in collaboration with WUR and with TNO Human Factors. Together we developed a new tool called ‘EmojiGrid’, which is an affective self-report tool consisting of a rectangular grid that is labelled with emojis, for consumers to point out their emotions which match with their feelings with the taste of a product. Consumers can score in gradients of like/dislike and of excitement/not excited. In the future we want to use this as a business tool in countries where Kikkoman wants to explore business opportunities. It has been nearly 7 years of research to understand emotions of people while eating but it is still long way to go.

Kikkoman also did some research with WUR on Food Neophobia, which is the fear of trying new food. Why some people don’t want to try new food of new cuisines, and others do? The younger generation seems more open minded to try new things. We are curious how this works and studied using a Food Neophobia Scale, which consists of 10 questions and determines one's degree of fear towards food. We want to know what the factors are, for example generation, character, education, courage and how they affect the Food Neophobia Score.

Did you know that Food Valley is famous in Japan? We referred to the Dutch concept of Food Valley to boost innovation in agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and food industries in Japan.
Takuya Sato, general manager Kikkoman Europe R&D Laboratory

What are the benefits of being on Wageningen Campus?

Our main research topics are fermentation, scientific consumer research, salt reduction and food safety. On all these topics there is a lot of knowledge on Wageningen Campus. Kikkoman is also working in microbiology; we produce enzymes for in vitro diagnostic tests (for diabetics and kidney function, for example) and we make hygiene monitoring devices for detection of microorganisms and residue in restaurants, hospitals and food production facilities (based on ATP-tests). We are looking for partners/universities to discuss possible research collaboration and develop new technology together. We think fundamental research projects are very important to create new business opportunities. In addition to Food Valley, we recently joined the Food & Bio Cluster in Denmark to expand our R&D activities to entire Europe.

Do you use facilities on campus?

At the moment we are not using WUR facilities, only rent this location. But we are exchanging ideas for future collaboration with WUR and hopefully we can use the shared facilities on campus.

How do you see the future of your company hub in Wageningen?

Did you know that Food Valley is famous in Japan? From 2019 to 2022 I was seconded to the Japanese ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) from Kikkoman. In Japan we have an exchange program for employees of private companies and of the government. That is how I worked three years for the ministry. MAFF has an open innovation initiative named ‘Field for Knowledge, Integration and Innovation’, which refers to the Dutch concept of Food Valley. This shows that Food Valley is a good example for other countries. I had learnt so many things about the Food Valley when I was at MAFF, which helps me a lot to work in Wageningen now. We were introduced the Food Valley when it was started, and we are the first Japanese company here Wageningen. From the presence of Kikkoman in Wageningen Food Valley we learned how this initiative for innovation works. That is why Kikkoman and I myself are very proud to work here in Wageningen and Kikkoman hopes to find more collaboration in Wageningen to strengthen our R&D capabilities.