Could Cork develop a “food valley” to boost innovation, particularly in dairy? That’s an idea being floated ahead of the abolition of EU milk quotas in 2015.
"I think it makes sense from a dairy perspective," says Prof Paul Ross, head of food research at Teagasc's centres in Moorepark at Fermoy and Ashtown in Dublin.
"A lot of the intensive dairy and a lot of the expansion on the dairy side is going to happen in the Munster region."
Cork is already home, or close to home, for many players in the dairy industry, and the region has built up an impressive track-record in food-related research through centres such as the Alimentary Pharmabiotic Centre, which includes University College Cork and Teagasc Moorepark as well as industry.
The Irish dairy industry is also involved in Food for Health Ireland, an Enterprise Ireland-funded initiative to mine milk for functional ingredients. This includes UCC, Teagasc Moorepark, the University of Limerick and University College Dublin.
And the Teagasc site at Fermoy hosts Moorepark Technology Ltd, which offers commercial pilot plant and research services for food industry customers.
With so much already linking food research and industry, how would the concept of a “food valley” work? It would benefit from more dedicated technology transfer, according to Ross.
“There’s an awful lot of knowledge there but I do think you need to put the tech transfer infrastructure in place,” he says.
“It’s one thing to do research, but you need to be able to transfer it in a way that the full economic impact of it can be garnered.
“If you service [private industry’s] developmental needs in a concerted way in facilities that will bring them further along the product development path I think that will ensure you get more take off research.”
He would see building incubation facilities at Moorepark as a stepping stone.
“I am talking about laboratory and office facilities where companies can have a presence in their own space on the campus,” he says.
“What we would need to really make this happen is to build units that could attract [more] companies, and I think if you had that incubation hub, that whole ‘food valley’ concept would flourish.”
He reckons the more concerted approach could ultimately attract interest from multinationals and indigenous companies and co-ops, and that it would also help to boost the development of high-potential startups in the food area.
But while there’s plenty of expertise in Cork, what about food-related research and innovation in other parts of the country? “I would see this as a dairy innovation hub that is based in Cork but I think would reach into the research pipeline across Ireland,” says Ross.
Of course bringing food research and industry together in a specific location is not a new idea in itself – Food Valley NL already does this in The Netherlands.
Would Cork be a replica? “I wouldn’t say we are modelling ourselves on that,” says Ross. “But we are very familiar with a lot of the actors there.”
The "valley" approach is a good idea, according to Gerald Fitzgerald, professor of food microbiology at UCC and deputy director of the APC. "Many countries have 'valleys', be they food, silicon, medical devices, technology," he says.
“And the basic concept with these valleys is that there is a convergence of elements that would allow something to happen that wouldn’t otherwise occur.”
The elements here include a concentration of human capital, facilities that individual companies would not have themselves and a vibrant research infrastructure, and he lists centres such as Teagasc Moorepark, UCC, Cork Institute of Technology and UL. "All of these institutions have a history of collaboration with each other and also with large food and SME food industries," says Fitzgerald.
“To me, a ‘food valley’ is creating a dynamic to get all of these elements working together to accelerate the innovation process, to reduce or eliminate the hurdles that slow down the route to commercialisation.
“We must do these things more efficiently if we are going to deal with the extra milk flow over the [impending] ‘no quota’ years. We also need to keep improving our international competitiveness across all sectors of the food industry.”
Minister for Research and Innovation Seán Sherlock, whose constituency is Cork East, is keen to get the relevant parties talking about a "food valley" in the region.
“It is nascent and there’s a long way to go on this, but I am very enthusiastic about the concept,” he says.
“I do believe if we are to seriously compete globally on functional foods and looking at food [for] health potential and delivering impacts for people in their everyday lives, the creation of a specific geographical location around this is the way to go.
“ Global food companies coming in and doing things from a research point of view in specific clusters like this gives you greater potential to drive further economic activity.
“It becomes a natural attractant for all sorts of potential innovation.”