Interview with Juha Nousiainen, Director at Farm Services and Milk Procurement in Valio Oy
Juha Nousiainen started his career in Valio more than 30 years ago. In 1985, he commenced at the R&D department as a laboratory worker responsible for development of pro- and prebiotics. Since that time Juha’s roles and related responsibilities have changed leading to his current position of the Director at Farm Services and Milk Procurement. At present he supervises expert work related to milk production, milk quality and development of sustainability measures.
Why do you collaborate with universities?
There are several reasons why to collaborate with universities and research institutions in general. The first one is a demand for young skillful experts and universities are places where these experts grow up. Valio seeks to make contacts with them as they represent the future thinkers and developers.
Next reason is of a practical nature. Valio is not a self-contained research unit. We have our own in-house expertise but if we want to apply research results in the entire food production and development chain we need to collaborate with research organizations. Our research is narrowly focused and deals with very specific topics. We can’t cover the whole value chain ourselves.
Add to this the fact that research funding, particularly the EU funding, is granted upon cooperation with research institutions.
Last but not least is a range of novel viewpoints we can get by letting external experts to see our activities. Having one’s own viewpoint is limiting. We want to learn from others.
“Publications are learning points, they develop our thinking, shape our opinions and help to clarify our ideas.”
Can you think of another added value you might get out of the collaboration?
I believe that it is also valuable to admit importance of publications arising from the collaborations. “Publications are learning points, they develop our thinking, shape our opinions and help to clarify our ideas”, Nousiainen adds.
What kind of impact do you think the collaboration you have been involved in have had?
“I would have to reverse the question to be able to answer it. Valio is regularly asked to join different kinds of projects. Prior deciding to join a project, we carefully evaluate its possible impact on different stakeholders. The impact left is thus the primary selection criterion.”
If we talk about our R&D initiatives, animal welfare and environment are the soundest topics. It is the society, our customers and consumers who care about these issues. We aim to meet their demands. Our customers are increasingly conscious of environmental issues and price is not the leading purchase criterion anymore.
How do you find suitable partners?
Suitability of our partners varies project by project. However, it is important to find the best partner available for our problem. In addition to that, awareness of each other helps a lot – the company should know the researcher’s work (e.g. previous projects or publications) and the researcher ought to know what the interests of the company are.
“Research work requires continuity to obtain results as projects are not solved in two or three years.”
What has worked? And what has not?
From my point of view, if there is a problem, most often it is related to the overall concept of how research is done and funded. Nowadays, researchers have to put a lot of time and effort into applying for funding from several sources instead of putting this energy into research. This might discourage many academics.
The duration of co-operations is related to this. Research work requires continuity to obtain results as projects are not solved in two or three years. Co-operations should be long-lasting. Unfortunately the current (funding) system makes it very difficult to maintain long-lasting relationships. Consequently, it is also problematic for business organizations to establish collaboration ties.
Could you give an example of a success story?
At first, it is important that business organizations have enough communication with R&D organizations (universities) so that they can get a common view on problems and agree on the big picture what is to be done. This is the precondition for success stories to come.
To give a concrete example, in 2012 occurrence of Mycoplasma bovis bacteria was recorded in Finland. The Mycoplasma bovis causes illness in cattle including arthritis, pneumonia, mastitis, fertility problems and ear infections. To understand and tackle this animal welfare issue, a collaboration project between Valio, ETT (Animal Health ETT), Evira (Finnish Food Safety Authority), University of Helsinki, HKScan and Atria took place. ”It was the immediate reaction which helped to deal with the bacteria effectively and to avoid a massive outbreak in Finland”, Nousiainen believes.
What advice would you give new researchers interested in collaboration with companies?
My advice would be to be open to discuss and communicate actively with companies. And to put up with the fact that first research ideas does not have to lead directly to collaboration projects. There must be patience in the continuous communication to make the partnership work.
What would you wish that research organizations did differently?
The way research organizations and individual researchers communicate with businesses. To see the big picture and collaborate on projects with considerable impact we need to communicate efficiently. We are doing a lot of work in our own organizations but we do not share the expertise and learn from each other as much as we could. And again the communication should be continuous.
“We have set a big goal to make our milk production fully carbon neutral within next ten to fifteen years.”
Are there any new research directions Valio is considering at present? Where do you see new possibilities for collaboration?
We, at Valio, have set a big goal to make our milk production fully carbon neutral within next ten to fifteen years.
To achieve the big goal, there are many sub-goals to be accomplished. For example, improving land use and production of feed for cows in a sustainable way, or improving animal welfare in terms of general health and longevity of dairy cows. We are also searching for new ideas in milk production technology and its energy efficiency.
Another topic of our interest is biodiversity related to the dairy production and dairy farms. We would like to hear about projects seeking to contribute to the biodiversity in these areas.
Finally, we also try to enrich our knowledge and understanding of all kinds of issues by utilizing modelling tools. For instance, simulation of our production practices enables us to see weaknesses in the production chain. Similarly we can model environmental impact of the production, monitor healthiness of dairy cows and the like.