Agri-food industry and academia

Different languages but a common future

by Rodrigue El Balaa

They say Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars, but they can still manage to settle on a common ground, and carry a fruitful relationship which might last for years. Industry and academia have long been considered as living on two different planets and speaking two different languages, but what if they succeeded in setting a common language? How would they both benefit? And most importantly, how to get there?

Recently, one international beverage company with business in Lebanon decided to explore the possibility of valorizing its by-products by using them as a component for animal feed, as part of its circular economy initiative to decrease its waste disposal cost. A collaborative thesis was agreed upon, and research work started on identifying potential buyers and the nutritional input of these by-products. It went very well and the student was able to successfully defend the thesis. However, when a complementary collaboration was discussed which included production optimization, the collaboration could not move any further since there was a need for access to the production process, and the delicate data it included. Yet such information could not be divulged, so it was impossible to publish any peer reviewed papers; the university lost interest and the collaboration ceased at an early stage. Both parties had their points, the industry needed to protect its production process which is integral to its success, while the university needed to publish papers to preserve its ranking.

This is just one example of many collaborative initiatives which either were short-lived or failed to launch. Limited access to data, as illustrated in the above case, is only one of various difficulties between the collaboration, which include:

• Timing; universities have their own academic year cycle and research projects are identified usually in September at the beginning of the fall semester, but a company cannot wait if it needs quick answers for technical challenges.

• Intellectual property; for any innovated process, the technology or product is debatable between the industry and the academic institution, and sometimes the researchers themselves, which warrants a serious legal support and collaboration framework.

• Research pace; usually researchers have solidly established protocols and have the ability to accumulate knowledge over years, meaning they have a relatively slow but steady pace. For industry, solutions usually need to be developed quickly and need to be adapted even faster to market variations. 

• Objectives; which can be can be contradictory for academia research to industry priorities. So while researchers could be concentrating their efforts on subjects like social responsibility, the greenhouse gas effect, and animal welfare, many companies may prioritize production cost reduction, market access, product quality, etcetera.  

Time to collaborate?

Nevertheless, collaboration between universities and industry through technology or science parks started in developed countries, in 1951 with the Stanford Research Park which emerged later as part of the Silicon Valley and in 1972, Europe’s first technology parks were created with the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, and Cambridge University in England. The concept has thrived since then and has become one of the major strengths of modern economies. Can it be applied it to the Lebanese agro-economic ecosystem? And is now the right time to reflect on such a collaboration?

At the end of 2019, the dramatic downward spiral of the Lebanese economic system started, with the agri-food model the fastest to fall apart, although many argue that there was no agro-food model to start with since it was based largely on import input. Access to finance became a nightmare, cultivated land decreased, food processor companies went out of business, and consumers saw their purchasing power disappear in a terrifying pace as many became largely dependent on monthly food basket support from local NGOs.

Universities were also hit hard and fast. In a record time, the value of student tuition evaporated as the Lebanese pound plummeted against the dollar, the same went for the professors’ wages, and thus a “brain drain” was triggered. For many, there was nothing to do but to reminisce on the “paradise lost”; but for others, it was the birth of a new era, where anything was possible. But first, it is important to reanalyze the effects of the multidimensional cataclysm and most importantly focus on what can be built now which was impossible before.

The disruption brought by the crisis led agri-food stakeholders to rethink their strategies, and they have since discovered that monetary depreciation could be an actual incentive to produce more price competitive products through accessing foreign markets. But price is not the only parameter to be considered, international markets need specific thresholds of quality, hygiene, packaging, and transportation conditions to be respected. In addition, investing in Research and Development departments within Lebanese agri-food small-to-medium enterprises proved impossible, so the only way to improve products to enter international markets was through access to already available facilities for specific product development. This could not have come at a better time for universities which lacked the needed funds to carry out research activities, with an added bonus to pivot research activities into more practical use with greater emphasis on development. Moreover, the large pool of experts that can be provided by universities offers an immense advantage for industries that seek solutions to their challenges without the need to hire experts on a full-time basis. 

The need to collaborate between academia and industry is clear and the benefits for both parties are numerous, especially within the current crisis context. But how is it possible to initiate this collaboration and what is the needed physical and administrative infrastructure?

The first element for the success of the said collaboration is the human element and the need for actual “translators” who can play the role of mediators between academic institutions and industrial companies. These entities would base their interventions on qualified personnel from both sides who can understand the challenges and the expectations of each and provide a mediation to come up with the best collaboration framework. These “translators” would also work on adapting the mindset of both parties to more collaborative approach while at the same time preserving each party’s interests.

There is also a great need in university technology transfer offices who provide support to researcher and student in transforming their research findings into viable products or business models, and to protect them through proper intellectual property frameworks where the university, the researchers and the industry have all their part of the patents ownerships.

Initiating collaboration between academic institutions and industrial companies needs a physical framework where they can meet, exchange ideas and expertise to eventually adopt different collaboration models. This initiative is part of the Agri-Food Innovation Days organized by Berytech, a local entrepreneurial support system. Over three days, universities and industries met and exchanged ideas, challenges and solutions. This year, six grants were offered by QOOT, the Lebanese Agri-Food cluster, for final year projects in universities to provide answers to challenges faced by different members.

This collaboration could evolve to establish technology parks within university premises, which would also offer a common space for research on technological solutions to agri-food companies, as well as offering both researchers and students direct contact with companies. Through this platform agri-food companies would also have access to universities’ incubators where start-ups are being created and provide vital input, but also create investment opportunities, and perhaps eventually work with them as sub-contractors or developers.

The world is full of success stories where industry and academia collaborated and the opportunities currently offered by the Lebanese context are immense. The country needs to work its way up to Agriculture 5.0 where artificial intelligence, IoT and machine learning are used in a multidisciplinary approach. This set of diverse human know-how and equipment is available in universities, and the objectives for their application are determined by industry. To my knowledge, this is a perfect combination for a long-lasting collaboration between two entities which may speak two different languages but share a common future.  

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Rodrigue El Balaa

PhD, is the director of the Agricultural Value Chain Development Center at the University of Balamand

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