Vitacress Real opts for innovation at Brightlands

december 8, 2019

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Ralph Coenen (picture) was one of those people who thought interesting things only happened in the megalopolis in the central-western part of the Netherlands called the Randstad. After studying at the HAS University of Applied Science and the Nijenrode school of business, he built a flourishing business in flowers, vegetables and herbs. The startup started with zero budget, and when Ralph got out, sales had grown to 12 million. After this venture, Ralph moved back south.

And there he wants to be a magnet for innovative talent with his new company Vitacress Real. That is why housing Vitacress Real at the Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo seems like a logical step to him. And if it's up to Coenen, crossovers to the other Brightlands campuses are only a matter of time.

An inviting table, with an Italian Ape trolley filled with herbs as a tea selection. A swing. Lots of living plants, also on the walls. When you step into the Vitacress Real hallway, you immediately notice that this is not your average company. The atmosphere is vibrant, inviting. And yet, the 120 production employees and the 30 people in the office work hard. "Working with fresh products adds a certain urgency," says Ralph. "Within 72 hours, our products have to be transported from the locations where they are grown to the points of sale.”

Vitacress Real grows herbs in different places in Europe, making sure their fresh herbs are available all year round. Ralph: “We prefer to grow our herbs as close to home as possible and choose the best location for each herb in each season. We have complete control over our herbs, from the soil to the plate. Our growers meet the high requirements for quality and working conditions.”

A sexy product

Vitacress Real's goal is to have people enjoy delicious food using natural flavoring. Ralph: “We grow and package 22 kinds of fresh, cut herbs. On average, a supermarket will stock 8 or 9 of those. If you consider that the average Dutchman buys fresh, cut herbs on average 5 times a year, you know that there is still a lot of room to grow for our company. This is why we think it is very important to tell our story creatively. We want to inspire people to do more with fresh herbs. Herbs are a super sexy product that matches this time in which health and vitality are becoming increasingly more important. That is why I find the research that Maastricht University is doing on campus so interesting. There is increasing knowledge about what eating certain foods does to your body and health. Fruits and vegetables are healthy; herbs can also have a healing effect. There is much to learn about the medicinal effect of herbs.’’

BOX 66

Although it was not so long ago that Vitacress Real started in a broom closet, the company has since outgrown the start-up phase. Ralph: "I want us to stay connected to what is happening, to stay connected to the latest developments and to work together. We can give and take, here at the Brightlands Greenport Campus Venlo. 

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We understand the world of start-ups well, and we now have a well-developed tool that start-ups can connect to if they want to. Box 66 will be our innovation hub. It is currently some sort of flexible workplace for us, while we are developing a structure for the innovation hub. Once this structure has been established, we will start using Box 66 as a starting point for the development of new things. The campus allows you to escape the hustle and bustle that is inevitable when working with fresh produce. You meet new people, learn to look at things differently. That's very valuable if you want to keep innovating. For instance, we want to use Blue Engineering to see if we can apply process innovation in our production."

Everyone is a quality controller

In due course, Ralph wants to investigate whether collaboration with the other Brightlands campuses is an option. Ralph: “We use a lot of data. For example, we buy consumer data that we use for quality improvement and concept development. However, that is stand-alone information. I think the added value lies in linking different data. We have developed an app for our store checks, where we monitor the quality of our products in-store. We can link that data to our ERP system, which means that we receive a lot of information for quality improvement. The app is very accessible and user-friendly. All employees can put it on their telephone, making them all quality controllers. While shopping, they can do shelf tests themselves. They can take a quick picture of a product that doesn't look good and signal an empty shelf. I see the benefits of this. I want to discuss these matters at the Brightlands Smart Services Campus in Heerlen. The Brightlands Chemelot Campus in Geleen is showing some interesting developments with packaging, which might also be very interesting for us. I see a lot of opportunities to do beautiful things within the ecosystem of the Brightlands campuses. First, we must firmly establish our innovation structure with facilities, time and resources, and then we must get down to work. It is amazing that it can all be done here, in the south!”

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