PhD life: company visits

A few weeks ago, three of my colleagues and I felt as if we were back in school and going on a field trip: we went to Warmenhuizen and Enkhuizen for the day! Both these cities are located in the North of the Netherlands in an area known as ‘the seed valley’. We went there to visit two of the many companies that give the region its nickname, Bejo Zaden and Incotec.

Bejo Zaden and Incotec’s contribution to our research
The primary reason for our visit was to discuss how these two companies can contribute to our current research projects. As discussed before, almost all positions in academia are paid for by grants. In the field of plant research, most of the available grants require that part of the costs are covered by companies. The companies can contribute by giving money, or by making ‘in kind’ contributions. This could be sponsoring a machine to analyse samples, supplying research materials (microbes or seeds, for example) or even doing an experiment. The latter often comes in handy in plant research. Field trials, that is, experiments with hundreds of plants performed outdoors, and also large greenhouse experiments are generally hard to perform at a university because of space and manpower limitations, but are relatively straightforward to perform at a company. Since both Bejo Zaden and Incotec signed up to sponsor one of our projects, we went there to discuss the way in which they might be able to make their contribution. While we were there, we also got to see what these companies look like.

Bejo Zaden
We arrived at Bejo Zaden around 10 am and were greeted by three employees that all perform research at the company. First, they introduced their company and all of us introduced ourselves and our research topics to each other. After learning a bit more about research at a company and explaining our research interests, we went into the factory.

It was amazing to see the scale of the company and to realize how much is earned in this business. If I remember right, 1 gram of high quality tomato seeds costs about 50 cents. And we saw tons of these seeds… To get these high quality seeds, there are many hurdles to be taken. First, the incoming seed batches – Bejo has breeders all over the world – are checked for seeds of weeds by eye or by machines that remove the weeds by air pulses. Then, the germination percentage, the percentage of seeds that produces a plant, needs to be determined. If this is low, seeds can be sorted according to weight and size, again in huge machines. One or more of these samples might have a higher germination percentage than the total batch. Once a seed batch passes these tests, it undergoes rigorous disease tests. If there are fungi or bacteria present in or on the seeds, the whole batch needs to be disinfected and checked again – or thrown out. Two of our guides work in the department where they are trying to find quicker and easier methods to detect disease. Once (part of) the seeds are deemed of sufficient quality, the seeds are often coated with a colored layer, just like the chocolate in M&Ms is covered with colored sugar. In the case of the seeds, the coat can contain fungicides to protect the germinating plant from fungi, or fertilizers or growth promoters. Sometimes a thicker coat of about 3 mm is made to simply increase ease of sowing. While tiny, light seeds will be blown away by wind and seeds of different shapes will be hard to distribute evenly, a thicker coat around seeds results in seeds that are easily evenly distributed. Finally, the seeds are packaged, divided over pallets and ready to be shipped all over the world.

During the tour we unfortunately did not get to see the labs and greenhouses where most of the research is performed. This is probably partly due to the work having to stay secret. For the same reason they could not tell us whether they are already trying to use beneficial bacteria or fungi in their seed coating – which is what our research project will hopefully ultimately contribute to. They do not want other companies to know what they are up to. After the tour, we talked about what the company might be able to do for us. These options include providing us with seeds of their crops and performing disease assays. The details will need to be discussed later. A quick lunch later, we heading off to our next stop: Incotec.

Incotec does not produce seeds. Instead, they focus entirely on the seed coating mentioned above. They try to find new methods to do the coating and new coating components. This latter part is all the more important because the laws restricting fungicides, fertilizers and pesticides are becoming stricter. Thus, new methods need to be found to protect the seed during storage and after sowing. Among promising methods are the addition of beneficial bacteria and fungi that we work with in the lab as replacements for pesticides and fertilizers. Apart from developing new methods, Incotec also performs seed coating for other companies. In fact, Bejo Zaden is one of the bigger clients of Incotec. Once again, after having talked with a few employees we got a tour through the factory. Here we saw how the coating is performed and how seeds transform from tiny specks into little colored balls.

When we had seen all there was to see, we got back into the car for our 1.5 hour car ride back to Utrecht. It was good to see what companies in our field – which are not only contributors to our projects, but also potential future employers – are doing and to get a sense of the scale of them. It is too bad that it is hard to get a real sense of what working there would be like, since we did not get to see the laboratory part of the companies. However, it is definitely valuable to be forced to think about the application of our research and to look at our results it from a company’s perspective.

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