Emission free greenhouse cultivation

Interview with Division Q director Bart van Meurs

In this interview we speak with Bart van Meurs, director at Division Q, where he’s on a mission to emission free greenhouse cultivation. The name of their brand new company is inspired on the clever inventor of the James Bond series, which seems to be a great fit with Division Q’s abilities and ambitious mission. 

Bart, congratulations on your new position as director at Division Q, a new sister company of Koppert Cress. What does Division Q stand for?
Bart van Meurs - Division Q - emission free cultivation
Bart van Meurs – Division Q’s director

Division Q’s mission is actually twofold; Firstly, we want to scout and implement new technologies and innovations that contribute to the big goal of Koppert Cress; emission-free cultivation in our greenhouses. Secondly, as impact investor we want to co-invest in these new technologies and innovations and make them available for the horticultural sector.

The ambition of Koppert Cress to produce emission-free can now be pushed further and become a reality. It forces us to stay relevant and to keep innovating. It also provides us with a vehicle that can promote new technologies and help startups for the benefit of the whole sector, the horticultural ecosystem in which we are active in.

If you then look at the name, we wanted something that really captured our position as innovator in the sector and reflected our ambition. Hence we came up with Division Q, referring to the clever inventor from the James Bond series. Not only did Q actually exist, but he even advised Bond writer Ian Fleming. Q also stands for ‘Quartermaster,’ which is precisely the role Division Q is taking on.

In the past 12 years I’ve been working as product developer for Koppert Cress and other horticultural companies and led various, sustainability-oriented innovation projects. This new step enables me to keep on doing exactly that, but at the same time have more impact in the sector and hopefully beyond.

Winston Churchill already said ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. We can safely say we’ve got multiple crises on our hands in Europe right now. What opportunities do you see for horticultural producers? What innovations come up next? 

It’s clear that due to the nature of the current energy crisis in the Netherlands, innovation is not always the solution, simply because the funds for investing in new technologies are not available. I do feel that this crisis is a giant wake-up call for all producers and will step up the energy transition in the Netherlands.

I therefore think that new technologies or solutions will focus on reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. Think for example about electrification in combination with geothermal heat, but also using heat and cold storage and heat pumps. With the current energy prices it is clear that the benefits are greater than the costs.

Could you elaborate on a recent innovation that you are working on right now and has commercial value?
Bubbles to increase or decrease insulation value in a greenhouse
Bubbles as greenhouse insulation

We are cooperating with BBBLS, a Dutch Norwegian scale-up that specializes in greenhouse insulation. They do this via a rather simple, but ingenious technique; using bubbles to increase or decrease the insulation value of your greenhouse, thus creating an alternative for screening solutions.
We are now testing this technology to see if we can achieve the same production volumes and product quality as in our other greenhouses. If it works, it also means we will be able to cut energy inputs with some 75%.

How does innovation work in horticulture? Do you primarily look  within the horticultural domain or do you also follow what happens in other sectors?

Well, I was born and raised in Westland, so very familiar with production in greenhouses. However later on I left for TU Delft and got my Msc. in industrial design-engineering. I still feel very much connected to the TU Delft ecosystem and have noticed that, over the years, more and more students and graduates are interested in what is happening in greenhouses. The combination of food production, sustainability and new technologies is now much more visible and attractive also to students so the sector is gradually placing itself on the map, but much more progress can be made of course.
If I look at what we do at Division Q, I’d say half of our projects and ideas stem from sector developments, so horticulture related and the other half comes from external contacts or other sectors and industries.

In addition, at Division Q emission-free cultivation is our dot on the horizon, but on our way towards that big goal we specifically look at the different elements that need to be altered or improved to make that happen, such as energy, water, CO2, fertilizers.

For this Koppert Cress is a fantastic test location. Due to the fast and fragmented cultivation of our products (cresses) our greenhouses are a great trial station. Especially specific, non-cultivation solutions, so more generic technologies, can be tested here frequently and without any problems for other growers.

That is of course important to us, because from our experience we know that true innovation takes time. It is trial and error of course, so we start various experiments we truly believe in, but we do know that real successes are few.

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What does it take for a company to become a true innovator?

I reckon that you have to actually believe in your dot on the horizon, and be intrinsically motivated to improve and keep improving until you reach that final goal. To me, sustainable entrepreneurship has to do a lot with innovation, with coming up with new ways, new methods. In addition, I think it’s important that you are able to create a company environment in which people feel safe, but at the same time challenged to experiment and try out new things. You need support from your team, and from your employees, to do things differently.

At Division Q, that is also something I am acutely aware of. When you hire new people or build a new team, skills are obviously important, but mentality and commitment are perhaps even more important.

Who or what inspires you?

Since a couple of years now I get a lot of inspiration from reading books and read a book every week.  I consider myself a ‘techno optimist’ and I am inspired by writers who explain the future as opportunity. Think of Johan Norberg (Open, Progress) and Paul Hawken (Drawdown, Regeneration).

When it comes to my work or Division Q, I am inspired by simple ideas or solutions to (often) complex problems. A good idea can be described in just one sentence.

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The Division Q partners
Going back for a moment to the current crises many companies are facing. The Netherlands is the 2nd biggest agricultural exporter in the world, will the country still maintain that position in 5-10 years from now?

I think that bulk production will be more geographically spread out over the world, or over Europe, if you look at it from a Dutch perspective. However, I do believe that in the Netherlands there will always be room for high-quality production. Not only because we possess the necessary knowledge and technology, but also because we’ve created a unique ecosystem that combines production with logistics, distribution and inputs, all at a stone’s throw from our final consumer.

When you look at the type of companies in horticulture, you see that the sector is made up of mostly SME’s and family companies. I am convinced that this contributes partly to the innovations that have been taking place for years already; decision making processes are easier and faster and family companies are in it for the long run, not for quick gains. Of course, the sector has become more mature in recent years and investors have discovered the value of high-tech production in greenhouses. This also means that innovation can be sped up and there’s more room for experimenting. I look forward to see how these different models will adapt to an increasingly uncertain world around us, one of many challenges and changes.

When you mentioned final consumers just now, they are often not aware of what is happening in greenhouses. Communication is the sector’s weak spot. What to do about this? 

I agree with you, and I also believe that in today’s world of polarization (not only in the Netherlands!), sectors need to be aware how fast a negative public opinion can turn against them. I certainly believe that each sector and company carries a responsibility to share its story. And not only to the people you know or know you, it’s much more important that you tell others. Others who don’t know what happens in greenhouses, and how much product innovation and technology that red tomato you buy at the supermarket every week contains.

Sharing my story is something I had to learn as well, and I have been well-trained at Koppert Cress in the past years. I am convinced you should be able to turn negative publicity around by yourself, by sharing your story. That’s why we also value what EatThis. is trying to do, because storytelling is not easy and it’s time consuming as well. I am not always a very patient man, but I understand this is a slow process.

I feel that everyone with a voice who can make a positive impact, should make him/herself heard. Not for the benefit of yourself or your company only, for the benefit of us all. Sustainable food production is the only way to go, there are no alternatives and I am confident we’ll make this happen.

This interview is part of our Inside Out series of in-depth interviews with our contributors. Follow us on Instagram or Twitter for updates!