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"We have to break down barriers to encourage interaction between the economic sectors and researchers'

The Spanish National Institute for Agriculture and Food Research and Technology (INIA) is a public research organization founded in 1926 and ascribed to the Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

Ricardo Migueláñez.- You undertook an enormous challenge when you were named general director of agri-food research. What's your current view of R&D and innovation in Spain in that sector?

Manuel Laínez.- In Spain we have close to 2,000 research groups working in agri-food, all of which are high quality. They prove it every day in scientific publications and in their success in obtaining funding for research projects, in both Spain and internationally. However, they should work together more so as to collaborate on, and coordinate, their research.

Sometimes they say that research results are not transferred to the productive sector with a view to transforming them into innovation. But I've looked into it, and that's not entirely true. There are many research groups which collaborate directly with companies and cooperatives, both of which are able to use those results to improve their technology and productive processes.

The problem is that this type of collaboration is not systematic in most groups, although it's also true that not all companies and sectors are interested in working with research centers. We must continue to break down barriers to promote and assist interaction between the economic sectors and researchers, so that knowledge need not be transferred but, rather, applied directly, resulting in innovation. In short, we must work towards public-private collaboration in R&D and innovation.

R.M.- What is the status of the National Program for Agri-Food and Forestry Innovation and Research for 2014-2020?

M.L.- As regards funding for the sector, we have framed it within the State Plan for R&D and innovation, which was approved in 2013 and runs until 2016. There are two types of funding rounds, depending on research project objectives. Where the goal is to generate fundamental expertise, researchers would seek funding for excellence. Where the goal is to identify a solution to a specific problem in the productive sectors, they would apply for funding for challenges.

Specifically, the second challenge in the state program includes all of the objectives related to food quality and safety, productive and sustainable agriculture, and natural resources. Within that challenge, there are annual funding rounds organized by the Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation, as well as by INIA.

Funding for projects presented in 2014 is about to be awarded, and then the round for 2015 will begin. First funding will open up from the Secretary of State and then, in late May-early June, from INIA.

This State Plan aims to promote public-private partnerships in research projects. The goal is that the companies are able to undertake the work to address some of the objectives of the research project. To that end, they can receive funding of up to 50% of their total costs.

R.M.- The websites www.idi-a and www.agripa.org are tools that the government will offer sectors to ensure that research reaches the right people. What do they offer and what is their purpose?

M.L.- The first is a website created by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment so that anyone interested in the agri-food sector can learn how to finance his research or innovation, in both the State Plan and within the framework of Horizon 2020. It also explains who's who in the world of Spanish agri-food research.

Agripa is a platform we've developed at INIA. It is complementary to the first one, and it allows users to find out who is working on a specific research project with public funding at any given time. It's also a collaborative platform. It can be used to find researchers to get in touch with them and to learn about the projects they're working on. The website can also be used to create interest groups where researchers interact with one another and with companies and they can create their own spaces, both public and private, to manage projects and to track their needs or problems.

R.M.- Do you believe that agri-food companies are committed to R&D and innovation? Or is there still a long road ahead in that regard?

M.L.- The companies in the sector are in line with the average in Spain. However, as an industry in which internationalization is on the rise, compared with others with the same revenue levels outside Spain, we see that, as a whole, those companies need a boost in their innovation strategy. It's also worth noting that there are major differences between the sub-sectors of the agri-food industry.

Innovation is important as a strategy for remaining competitive abroad and for strengthening one's market position; however, it's interesting that, in many cases, the innovation in Spanish companies is the result of technology acquisition and, to a lesser extent, it's internal, developed within the company or in cooperation with research and technology centers. That's a limitation we must try to overcome together through greater public-private cooperation.

R.M.- With regard to the juice and nectar sector, how do you view its commitment to R&D and innovation?

M.L.- In the supermarket, it seems like new products are continuously being brought to market, but I don't have statistics in this regard. That may also be the case of specific brands. At any rate, the processed fruit and vegetable sector, and beverages in general, are two of the most innovative groups in the agri-food industry, according to the results of a research project conducted a few years ago in the Valencia region. Therefore, I would say that it is a dynamic sector.

R.M.- Which of your department's lines of work could juice and nectar producers use?

M.L.- Indirectly, some projects that the INIA finances for regional organizations could be interesting for them, in connection with topics related to mechanization, fruit collection and new varieties. The institutions that are receiving funds along those lines are the Valencian Institute of Agrarian Research (IVIA), the Institute for Food Research and Technology in Catalonia (IRTA), and the Andalusian Institute of Agrarian and Fishing Research and Training (IFAPA), as well as some universities that work with those centers.

If we look at fruit processing technologies to obtain juices and nectars, we find a current project, financed by the Spanish Research Society of Individual Differences (SEIDI), on which some groups at Miguel Hernández University are working. Working groups at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and in various Spanish regions may also be doing research on juices and nectars.

R.M.- Our sector is increasingly important outside Spain and innovation is a necessity for reaching those markets. What must a company that wants to develop a project in cooperation with INIA do?

M.L.- Opportunities abound in both research projects and in the application of existing expertise to a specific company with a view to innovation. The most important aspect is identifying the area of activity in which the company needs support. Any of the websites can be used to contact research groups, technology platforms or technology centers. At INIA, we help companies and associations of companies find groups that can provide a technological solution. Then a work program is created to address the needs of each party and to fulfill the objectives.

But what's most important is that "when you're granted aid in a funding round of these characteristics, you had to have conducted a complete analysis of your proposal, its technological and economic viability, and its market potential. The systematization required in the innovation process guarantees success".

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25/07/2017