Lucas Noldus: “Foodvalley provides great opportunities for joint business development”
Noldus Information Technology is making a big global impact with its innovative solutions for behavioral research. The secret of their success: Joint business development with other companies within the Foodvalley ecosystem. "We offer technology and applied knowledge, making what we can do for customers clear and tangible,” says founder and CEO Lucas Noldus.
A one-man start up, thirty years ago, Noldus Information Technology now boasts 165 employees with offices in nine countries. The company offers ingredients suppliers, manufacturers and retailers a broad portfolio of smart methods for research into animal and human behavior. These include technology that records consumers' eating and chewing behavior, FaceReader software for recognizing and analyzing facial expressions, and the TrackLab system that tracks consumers as they shop - while respecting their privacy, with their explicit consent.
Access to food-related knowledge
In the company became one of Foodvalley’s first members. “I believe you can’t grow, as a business, on your own”, stresses Noldus. “For us, as a technology provider, it has been pivotal to gain access to food and nutrition-related knowledge and expertise. Crucially, personal contact at board-room level opens doors to new customers.”
Fifteen years ago, awareness of the importance of observing consumer behavior, in order to better predict it, was growing. “This is how we became a partner in the Restaurant of the Future, a ten-year project initiated by Wageningen University & Research,” Noldus looks back. “This has been a great boost for the Foodvalley ecosystem in the area of consumer research.” Sensory science and consumer behavior have become popular topics in Foodvalley’s annual program of activities, and all main players in the food industry are now paying serious attention to it.
The project has not only attracted companies specializing in observing consumer behavior, it has also given a boost to Noldus’ business. “The Restaurant of the Future received regular visits from international delegations in Wageningen and became a ‘showroom’ for our products,” says the entrepreneur. “Foodvalley organized the visits and we arranged the technical tours around the restaurant and behind the scenes.”
The tours often led to follow-up contacts, for example with Swiss-based Nestlé, where they asked Noldus to build advanced consumer research facilities for them. The Chinese food giant COFCO, the Danish dairy company Arla and many others followed.
Noldus always mentions Foodvalley when presenting at congresses and workshops abroad. “I tell the audience, for example, about solutions developed in public-private partnerships initiated in the Netherlands and how we validate and optimize our tools in collaboration with food and nutrition experts from Wageningen University & Research,” the CEO illustrates. Without exception, he receives positive feedback. “People respond with admiration, sometimes even with jealousy. I have also noticed that mentioning our involvement in Foodvalley is a kind of quality mark, increasing customers’ confidence in our products.”
In his presentations, Noldus emphasizes that companies from abroad are very welcome to join the ecosystem, and that Foodvalley NL can be a tremendous asset if they wish to establish a presence in the Netherlands.
The CEO presents his company as part of a consortium with four other Foodvalley members: Wageningen University & Research, NIZO food research, Applegg and Hammer Intelligence. This was a smart choice, he stresses: “A joint business-development approach allows us, together, to present end-to-end solutions with concrete customer benefits.”
In China, in particular, the company is making inroads, again with other parties in the Foodvalley ecosystem. “Many Chinese companies do not yet have experience with consumer research”, explains Noldus. "Therefore we offer them both the technology and advice on how to use it.”
A superb example of the power of collaboration is a project for Beijing food giant COFCO. Noldus Information Technology provided the technology and training, and experts from Wageningen University and Research gave advice on embedding the research methods into the company’s R&D structure. For the Chinese dairy company Yili, the partners used a similar approach. "Our knowledge and expertise complement each other perfectly," says Noldus enthusiastically.
Another example includes cooperation with the China National Research Institute of Food and Fermented Industries (CNRIFFI). “We got to know them when, via Foodvalley NL, they visited Wageningen”, says Noldus. “Together with CNRIFFI we are increasing – and sharing – knowledge on consumer behavior for Chinese breweries and distilleries; we deliver the technology and tools, they provide the science.
According to Noldus, CNRIFFI can be a bridge to more companies in China. “This is an essential step: many people in China – even those running large multinationals – do not speak English fluently, and I don’t speak Chinese, so having a local partner who speaks the language and understands the application domain is essential. Moreover, in China you must spend an appropriate amount of time getting to know a potential partner before you can do business together.”
Recently, following a presentation at a congress, the entrepreneur was invited to Wuliangye, a leading producer of a traditional Chinese distilled beverageliquor, known as baijiu. The company would like to enter the European market and needs a good understanding of the preferences and behavior of western consumers. “Wuliangye plans to send employees to Wageningen and Wageningen Academy, part of Wageningen University & Research, will train them in our approach to consumer research and sensory sciences,” explains Noldus. “The next step will be providing our tools and training to their employees in China.”
In the coming years, Noldus will use joint business development even more frequently when approaching new companies abroad. "We are investing heavily in artificial intelligence. Here, computers are ‘trained’, via deep learning, to recognize products in video images that a person has looked at," he says. "We can only show the value of this technology if we have partners willing to test it in practice. Companies that want to join us are welcome.”
Be open, and invest time and energy in expanding your network, is Noldus’ advice to both starting and established entrepreneurs. “Putting each other in the spotlight, via the Foodvalley ecosystem, and seeing where we can strengthen each other, will benefit us all.”