Arie van Baarle

Future proof food

Vision Kitchen is convinced that our food chain is anything but ready for the future. Challenges faced by their customers are answered with IT-driven solutions, together with an extensive sector knowledge and a healthy dose of guts. ‘Why would you want to invest in a large area of greenhouses nowadays?’

Founders of the Rotterdam based start-up, Arie van Baarle (54) and Joost van Veen (42), present themselves as business hackers. This is a title to illustrate they hack into existing processes at client companies and then try to alter them for the better.

The two-year-old company focuses solely on the food sector, primary food producers in particular. The most gains are made here, according to Van Baarle. To illustrate his point, he points towards Rotterdam Central Station, more specifically at the pedestrian passage full of fast food restaurants. ‘It is very necessary that what we eat becomes healthier and contains more nutrients.’ He also mentions the ever-growing world population. ‘As a consequence, our current way of crop cultivation is no longer scalable. We need structural solutions.’

Joost van Veen

Strategic issues

The company already works for a few giants in the food industry. Because what they do mainly implies solving strategic issues, the entrepreneurs can’t say specifically which companies they work for. Vision Kitchen is, for example, involved with a large tomato grower, a seed company, a manufacturer of industrial kitchens and a European hard fruit producer.

The two men have several ongoing, long-running projects. One of them is the development of an online platform for a big tomato seed company. By using an app, customers will eventually be able to receive real-time information on crop cultivation. Van Baarle: ‘Nowadays we can basically measure everything within a greenhouse. How much light enters, the humidity, what nutrients a crop requires. Once there is a system present to measure these conditions, patterns can be uncovered based on big data.’ If a grower, for instance, uploads a photo of a certain crop, he gets an analysis and tips almost instantly. By using this app, a totally unsustainable habit will be able to disappear: crop advisors who fly around the world to visit customers.

Another project is the Scan-app, Vision Kitchen’s own initiative. The assumption is that people eat unhealthily because they are not aware what kind of nutrients – such as fat and sugar – certain foods contain. The application places a virtual layer over the aisles in the supermarket. ‘This allows customers to see which products are healthy or not, right at the decision-making moment and without the intervention of a biased party’, says Van Baarle. The first initial tests have been carried out and various reputable parties are prepared to invest in a follow-up.

Arie van Baarle & Joost van Veen

Finding the trigger

The Vision Kitchen approach is all about design thinking. The first thing both men do when meeting a company’s board of directors, is to indicate that their issue may not be the problem at all. Van Baarle gives a hypothetical example. ‘Is it about adjusting the light above the table, or do they want to see better?’ That is why Vision Kitchen is on the hunt for the so-called trigger. Accordingly, and based on discussions with the board, research and client needs, the small company examines where business opportunities lie.

An important step in the process is imagining the boldest achievable goal. This means placing a dot on the company’s horizon. ‘To get there, we can start with action A and B’, says Van Baarle. These actions often mean the introduction of IT-solutions. Van Veen, who’s been active in the food industry for many years, is convinced new technology can erase the lack of vision they have identified throughout the food sector. ‘Today, for example, grape tomatoes yield a lot of money. This means the market will be flooded the next day because everyone wants to grow this crop. We need to detect such developments faster and respond adequately. Big data can be an enabler.’
Both Van Veen and Van Baarle feel comfortable experimenting with IT. The latter has a long entrepreneurial track record. At the age of 19 he started his first company, graphic design agency L’Image Dangereuse. Later on, he was involved in developing the first version of the Funda home search website. Van Veen, who among other things worked as a cook and restaurant owner, travels around the globe in search of food innovations.

The two men met a few years ago when Van Veen acted as marketing manager at Agro Care, one of world’s largest tomato growing companies and was headquartered in neighboring “Het Westland”. Van Baarle was asked to further develop one of its brands. Doing so, he was surprised at ‘the limited degree of radical innovation in Dutch agri- and horticulture’. Eventually they decided to shake things up together.

Arie van Baarle & Joost van Veen

Highly flexible

Being just the two of them, one may think Vision Kitchen is punching way above its weight. In response, Van Baarle immediately cites a song lyric of the late Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen: ‘We’re trying to change the system from within.’ Hence their personal introduction as being business hackers. Van Baarle and Van Veen therefore act as ‘conductors of the orchestra’. This means for each project they want to bring together the best parties available – from software developers to visual designers. Solutions they come up with are often based on scenario planning, value proposition and brand development.

One thing becomes more than clear: there certainly is no lack of vision on the future of food. They can drive each other crazy, musing about it, Van Veen says. A prediction both men share, is the increasing importance of personalized food. Van Baarle: ‘Today, technology can analyze which nutrients you need exactly on a daily basis. With this information we can custom grow vegetables for groups of people.’ According to Vision Kitchen food has everything to serve as a medicine. The thing is, European regulation prohibits this. ‘For producers of, for example, tomatoes it’s nearly impossible to make health claims. A lot of money needs to be invested in research to demonstrate the beneficial effects. Nobody does that.’