Interview with Josep M. Monfort, managing director of the IRTA

“We Want to Work Together with Mercabarna Businesses”

The Institute for Agrofood Research and Technology (IRTA) is a public company, created 25 years ago, whose purpose is to promote food research, innovation and development in Catalonia. From the office it will open in Mercabarna, the IRTA will now endeavour to makes its services available to all precinct businesses.

Q- What do you hope to gain from this new office in Mercabarna?
A- With this permanent base we intend to establish a smoother relationship with Mercabarna businesses and work alongside them. We also hope that new agreements and common projects will emerge from this greater mutual acquaintance.

Q- Why is it important for the IRTA to actually be onsite?
A- First of all, because Mercabarna is by far the leading food business core in Catalonia. And second, because of its physical proximity and involvement in the Barcelona Innovation Zone (BZI) project, which will be developed on the land formerly owned by the SEAT car company and which will have the agrofood sector as one of its main focuses. All this led to the need for the IRTA, as Catalonia’s foremost institution for agrofood research, to have onsite presence at Mercabarna.

Q- And what exactly will the office do?
A- Every day there will be an IRTA expert at the office who specialises in one of the Mercabarna activity sectors. For example, on Mondays there will be a fruit specialist; on Tuesdays, an expert on fish; on Wednesdays, an authority on meat, etc. These professionals, with the cooperation of Mercabarna’s business associations and management, will visit the businesses of each sector to find out their needs and expectations. The office will also be a meeting point for firms that would like to meet with the IRTA for the purpose of devising projects, establishing agreements and so forth.

Q- What sort of projects are you referring to?
A- The IRTA provides all kinds of scientific and technical services in terms of food research, innovation and development. This means we can reach tailor-made agreements, depending on a given company’s needs.

Q- Could you give an example of a project related to fresh produce?
A- Some years ago, an important distribution company decided to get rid of, first, the meat sections and, next, the fish sections in its stores and to provide these products pre-packaged. The supplier businesses of this outfit turned to us for technical support in adapting their processes and technology to the new format required of them.
Another example we are now working on are projects related to packaged, ready-to-eat fresh and prepared fruit and vegetables. In these cases, we advise above all on matters such as hygiene, traceability, critical points, new processing technologies, compatibility between fruits and so on when it comes to using technology.

Q- What about fish?
A- Right now we are working on two rather bold projects for the future. One is the development of a device for removing the flesh from certain shellfish, such as lobster, ensuring that no pieces remain caught in the shell. Removing the flesh by hand when these products are fresh is no easy task; this machine will result in 100% profitability.

Q- Very interesting! And the other project?
A- We are developing a project for cold, high-pressure pasteurisation of products such as the clam and oyster, which will make it possible to eliminate the harmful agents that can be found in these species and cause digestive infections. The system will also make it possible to extend the useful life and freshness of the products for up to 21 days.

Q- Let’s imagine I’m a SME and I want to carry out a project like this. Where do I start?
A- To begin with, these types of businesses need administrative backing. That is what the IRTA provides. The company just has to tell us what it needs and we will develop a project, provide an estimate, find the financing, etc. This will be so much more convenient now, because they will have an office right in Mercabarna.

Q- Is there a high cost to innovation?
A- Part of our job is to obtain grants, subsidies, interest-free loans and so forth for innovative projects. All this, added to the tax breaks businesses can obtain through R&D, makes innovation very viable.

Q- So why don’t businesses innovate more?
A- Sometimes the everyday routine is so frenetic that businesses can’t stop and give serious thought to what and where they want to be in, say, five years’ time. This type of reflection is very healthy not only for businesses but also for our society, especially because Catalonia needs the food sector, the backbone of its GDP, to be solid both now and in the future.

Q- Yet I imagine some firms don’t innovate because they can’t while others simply don’t want to...
A- The IRTA wants to help both: the former because we back firms lacking the necessary structure for addressing these issues, and the latter because part of our job is about making businesses see the need to commit to innovation as an opportunity.

Q- And how can they be won over?
A- We need the businesses keen on innovation to act as mirrors for those that aren’t. Above all because those that opt for this approach tend to repeat it and incorporate it systematically into their businesses. For example, we have cases of family-run meat businesses that have been developing successive innovative projects for the past 20 years.

Q- How is the economic downturn affecting the field of innovation?
A- The economic downturn started just when I was appointed IRTA director in September 2008. One of my main concerns was that companies would decide to cut costs in the field of innovation. However, now that 2009 has closed, I can honestly say it was a good year for the IRTA. By this I mean that the businesses already committed to innovation continued in that vein and that a number of new ones took the plunge, as a way of having a solid base in these complicated times.
And it’s clear that, in this globalised world, any and all food businesses that want to stand out with a quality product, one that is reliable and adapted to new consumption needs, has no choice but to innovate.