Interview With Laurens Klerkx, Professor of Agrifood Innovation at Universidad de Talca

Meet Laurens Klerkx, Professor of Agrifood Innovation and Transition at Universidad de Talca, whose journey from Wageningen University in the Netherlands to Chile is marked by a profound exploration of innovation in agriculture and food systems. With a recent publication co-authored with Pablo Villalobos, Laurens sheds light on the pivotal role of AgriFoodTech start-ups in driving food systems transformation. This interview delves into his motivations, key findings, and insights, offering a glimpse into the evolving landscape of agrifood innovation.

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Laurens Klerkx

tribu (T): Laurens, can you share a bit about your background in agriculture and how your journey led you from Wageningen University in the Netherlands to your current position as Professor of Agrifood Innovation and Transition at Universidad de Talca in Chile?

Laurens (L): I have a background in plant production systems for my master studies, but for my PhD research I went into social sciences, specifically innovation studies in agriculture. Since 2002 I’ve looked into a wide range of topics dealing with innovation in agriculture and food, such as agricultural extension, chain-wide collaboration for innovation, the role of innovation policies in agriculture, food systems transformation, and the role of novel technologies and digital transformation in agriculture. I made the move to the Universidad de Talca in 2022 since I was approached, and it seemed like a good moment to change horizons, and work in the country I’ve had a personal and professional connection with since I did an internship in Chile in 1999/2000.

(T): Your recently published paper, co-authored with Pablo Villalobos, explores the role of AgriFoodTech start-ups in driving food systems transformation. What motivated you to delve into this topic, and how many other studies have you come across that address similar themes?

(L): As a researcher, I monitor what happens in the agrifood sector, and I noted that the start-up approach and culture had become quite important in food systems transformation, in the last 10 years. There is obviously a lot of information on this available, on platforms like AgFunder, Food Tech Weekly, and Tribu, and also reports by organizations like World Bank, Inter American Development Bank, and IICA,  but surprisingly not so many scientific studies yet published in scientific journals and books. As researchers we always are a bit behind developments in practice, because there needs to be some history and dynamics of emerging sectors like AgriFoodTech start-ups in order to study them. Our paper reviews the state of the art, looking at what about 40 studies have reported so far on agrifoodtech start-ups, what topics they have looked at, and what can still be studied in order to get insights to support practice and policy. 

Lecture at Wageningen University on 9 Feb 2023: “Towards agricultural innovation systems 4.0? Supporting directionality, diversity, distribution and democracy in food systems transformation”.

(T): Could you provide a brief overview of the key findings from your research, especially in the context of Latin America? 

(L): The paper mainly looks at what other studies have been analyzing so far, and we can see that there are some studies that map start-up ecosystems in different countries. For Latin-America, these studies have focused mainly on Argentina and Uruguay. While there are maps of AgriFoodTech ecosystems, and some studies published through reports,  there is plenty of scope for more studies on the functioning of start-up ecosystems in other Latin American countries. This concerns topics like the role of public policy support in start-up ecosystems, flows of international venture capital, development of particular clusters of AgriFoodTech start-ups. Another line of work looks quite critically at the limitations of AgriFoodTech start-ups, in terms of their sustainability ambition, and whether they really do radical innovation or that this is just empty talk. This is something which has been studied for California (USA) based start-ups, but these more critical studies could also been done in Latin America, also given the different food systems transformation challenges here. 

(T): Drawing from your research as well as your personal experience, what are some advantages that Latin America holds over ecosystems in Europe when it comes to agrifood innovation? Conversely, what are the main disadvantages or areas that require attention and improvement?

(L): This question is difficult to answer, since there are no real comparisons yet of AgriFoodTech start-up ecosystems. Overall, areas that require continuous attention in stimulating agrifood innovation are making sure it connects well to the diversity of food systems present in a region, and making sure that innovators get the right support at the right moment. Coordinating support in the various stages of venture development is a key challenge often, but there is a lot of support in Latin America for AgriFoodTech start-ups which is positive.

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(T): How do you see the intersection of sustainability and technology shaping the future of food systems?

(L): Technology can be an important component of the transformation of food systems, and achieve greater sustainability, but it should not be seen as a magic bullet. Sometimes new technology solves one problem, but creates another. For example, while AI may lead to better decision making, it may have such a high energy cost that benefits are off-setted elsewhere. Also, it matters how technology plays a role in overall food system transformation next to for example behavioral changes as regards food consumption and diets, which deals with values rather than technology. 

(T): What role do you see academia playing in fostering and supporting the regional innovation ecosystem in the agrifood sector?

(L): Academia can plan several roles. I can stimulate that graduates and researchers become start-up founders and have incubators and accelerators on campus. It can support start-ups in critically analyzing the feasibility of their value proposition and feed in scientific knowledge to improve the product or service. Academia can also monitor and assess innovation ecosystems to see where these need to be improved. 

(T): What plans do you have for the near future in terms of research, and are there specific subjects within your field that you’re eager to explore further?

(L): I’d like to research several aspects of the agenda outlined in the paper, focused on the Chilean AgriFoodTech start-up ecosystem. Particularly I would like to investigate how start-up founders define and maintain their sustainability ambition in a force field of investors, public policy, and clients.

(T): Building on your expertise, what advice would you offer to aspiring researchers and entrepreneurs looking to make a positive impact in the field of agrifood innovation?

(L): Make sure to assemble a network of people with complementary expertise and competences, not only including people from the business or academic world, but also for example civil society organizations working on health and environment. Make sure to see how your innovation connects to a bigger picture and broader movement, and act as a collective to achieve your sustainability ambition.

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Laurens Klerkx


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