Peter Korsten, Brightlands Villa Flora. © Marcel van Hoorn.
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Computers, machines, artificial networks that can produce a higher quality than growers, and this is just the beginning. “A real difference was made last year,” says Peter Korsten from Villa Flora at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, where he’s one of the driving forces.

He has six companies in his portfolio, all of which are active in product development for the agro sector: Botany (tests and develops new cultivation methods), Exploras (open cultivation), Brightbox (expertise center for daylight-free multi-layer cultivation), Asperico (knowledge and development partner for hard and stone fruit), Innexo (molecular farming research), Innoveins (plant, technology, business development and innovations) and Innoveins Seed Solutions (research in seed technology). In short, these organizations are all active in research and development for the horticultural sector. Peter Korsten is a specialist in the field of plants and high-tech.

Just to be sure: is this good news that cultivation is being taken over by computers? “It’s good news for this sector,” Peter says. “In the Netherlands and western Europe, it’s a struggle to get people enthusiastic about the cultivation and production of vegetable crops. This problem is only getting worse, and it’s not just about the concept of manual labor, but also about technology. The aging population has been presenting us with challenges for years. The average age of growers with green thumbs is pretty high; the younger generation is more open to automation. In this regard, young people are getting more interested in our profession.”

Over bright people

BRIGHT PEOPLE are indispensable for making tomorrow’s world a bit more beautiful, cleaner and better. In this series we interview a prominent figurehead of the Brightlands Campuses each month. These born innovators talk about their mission and how they want to achieve it. Today we present the fourth edition with Peter Korsten.

Read the other editions of this series here.

Tomato growers

Korsten grew up in Panningen as the son of a tomato grower. “I really do see a big gap between my generation and those that followed. We are the last generation of growers who grew up and worked for a horticultural business. The farms have gotten a lot bigger, so you notice how much the distance to these farming families has grown. The new generation no longer comes from the sector, and their main interest lies in producing safe food in combination with biology, engineering and automation. I personally believe that vertical farming (growing in layers without soil, ed.) which combines technology and plants appeals to young people.”

The fact that these developments would move so quickly didn’t really come as a surprise. “Predictions were being made as early as the late 1990s that medium-sized farms like my parents’, located on 1.2 hectares, weren’t going to survive. They would need ten or even fifteen hectares to make it according to these forecasts. You also had to have other qualities; you also needed to be a manager, for example. My generation was already struggling with the so-called ‘charm’ of working six days a week from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. He’s retired now, but my father did everything himself, going into the field from sunup to sundown. You can’t survive on this alone anymore.”

By 2050, we might be able to say that we can take a circular approach to feeding the world for the next five hundred years

Peter Korsten


Korsten’s work involves everything that can affect plants. He has never had doubts about the future of the sector; after all, the demand for fresh food is only growing. However, the advent of technology meant he had some explaining to do. “The best example is vertical farming. We started growing plants in boxes without daylight around ten years ago. When we built the Brightbox here at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo in 2015, the trend for organic products. And this was a high-tech product. There was quite a lot of resistance from the organic camp: it’s not natural, there’s no sand, no one’s wearing clogs. When we were just starting out, a lot of people came to see what we were working on; we also really wanted to show them what we were doing, so we explained our process often.”

People thought it was unusual. Korsten explains the image in many people’s minds that only plants that come from the ground can be healthy. He knows better now. “It’s not about whether it’s organic or not; the important thing is whether the food is safe and clean, and isn’t processed using pesticides, but protected with products of a natural origin. Young families want fresh, safe and healthy food. We can use our innovations to make plants healthier, and since the younger generation has grown up with more technology, we don’t have to explain it to them. The absence of pesticides is now more important than the method of cultivation you use.”

Lush nature

Peter Korsten also thinks that food produced in a factory has a funny taste. He remembers there being lush nature everywhere when he was a child. “There were plants everywhere, even inside, and there were so many forest areas. The scent of greenery was all around you; nature stimulated your senses. This has completely disappeared. Gardens are now made of stone and artificial grass; trees have been cut down in the cities. Even when they’re two hundred years old; no one objects to this. But oh no, that old factory smokestack must remain standing…”

He has since made it his mission to bring back that sense of freshness. “I want to bring that green life back, and fresh food is part of that. Fresh food is only one day old, it’s healthy and should be available all over the world. It’s a choice: you can make very healthy food, but you can also make food that contains nothing more than water and a little cellulose. But I can also make lettuce that is healthy, and grow roses that are fragrant.” He has noticed that there is a renewed focus on taste and smell. “For young people, good food is an experience again.”


Peter Korsten, Brightlands Villa Flora. © Marcel van Hoorn.

Healthy and fresh come at a price, of course. Would you rather buy a bouquet of roses from Africa for €2.50 or great-smelling, hearty Dutch roses for twice that price? He personally swears by Dutch products. He calls it a mild form of occupational hazard that he asks where products come from in every green grocer or supermarket he patronizes. “The bar is so high here; it’s a guarantee for safe food.” There is however the need to make money, of course. So, the question is: are you making a product that is good for the planet or good for your bank account? “This is a tough one; we take it step by step. If it were up to me, I’d say let’s finally do it right, but it is a gradual process. You can’t change everything at once.”


Is this the same as the Wasserbombe story? Back to real tomatoes? (In Germany, they once gave Dutch tomatoes the moniker, Wasserbombe, or “water bomb” meaning it was very watery, and had little flavor, ed.) Peter Korsten: “It’s actually because of that exaggerated story about the Wasserbombe that we now have a huge variety of tomatoes in the Netherlands. You can still buy tomatoes for fifty cents per kilo, but now you also have the option of delicious honey tomatoes. We want to make the tomato even healthier now, to make them more appealing to the elderly and young children, and offer other flavors and colors. There’s still so much room for development in terms of taste, appearance, nutritional value and health. What makes a tomato healthy? What can help make tomatoes healthier? Should they contain more vitamins? Antioxidants? Certain oils? This isn’t dependent on the tomato but on someone’s diet. You can grow a tomato with extra vitamins but will the body absorb them? We need more research to answer that.”

This sounds like customization. And what about the rest of the world? “We no longer have to help people to get vegetables here, but this isn’t true of the rest of the world. These are the areas where you can make the fastest progress. In countries where water is in short supply, it’s better to build an indoor facility where you can grow plants. These areas normally get plenty of sunshine, making it easy to generate electricity and grow vegetables. In the future, we will see more and more vegetables being grown indoors because of food safety issues.” The ultimate goal? “Everyone should have access to fair and delicious food,” argues the CEO of the Botany Group.

Also read: Agri robots for vegetables and the most fragile fruits: they’re (almost) here!

New growth

Korsten’s choice for Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo is a logical one. “We’re here because we come from this area, and we’re staying here because this is where the developers and ideas come from. Innovations are an everyday occurrence at this campus, and people are here because they want to do it better or differently.”

This doesn’t diminish the fact that he still feels they are lacking sufficient mass. “We actually need more innovative parties, companies that want to work on innovation with other people, startups, innovative students and companies. Even though there’s a good supply of new growth here, the environment is still very much inward-looking, so real innovators are choosing the path of least resistance, which involves very large companies that are in a better position to facilitate their growth. This doesn’t change the fact that there is a lot of talent here, and the presence of the HAS still has a considerable power of attraction.”

Artificial Intelligence

The future of horticulture also lies in artificial intelligence. “We’re seeing major breakthroughs in this sector in terms of cultivation, but also in natural growing methods. Seed-coating development is very focused on making products plastic-free, and a lot of work is being put into crop health. We’re slowly seeing the first breakthroughs, products of natural origin that have the same effect as chemical products.”

We have hundreds (if not thousands!) of chemical products to replace. This means that we can move away from products without a natural origin, step by step.

Peter Korsten


One of the concrete examples he gives is mildew control using a vaccine that comes from a llama. Llamas naturally produce certain antibodies against disease. These can be extracted from llama milk and added to products used to control mildew in tomatoes. “Not all of the attempts were equally successful. It takes time. Growing new plants also takes at least fifteen years. We are now at the point where we can compete with the chemistry sector. Even though we have been around for 20 years, we are just now getting somewhere. We still have hundreds (if not thousands!) of chemical products to replace. This means that we can move away from products without a natural origin, step by step. By 2050, we might be able to say that we can take a circular approach to feeding the world for the next five hundred years.”

Support base

Peter Korsten firmly believes that Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo can play a major role in these efforts. “The best part about this campus is the interaction between the university and its students and companies. Innovating involves meeting with others and understanding the demand and the opportunities. This works differently at a high-tech campus where everyone is working on technology and no one knows why you have to water a tomato plant. We offer the combination of both here. Nine out of ten innovations happen by chance. You have to be organized, but coincidence always plays a role. A student sitting here at the table, enthusiastically talking about what he does, might give me the idea that if he can do that, maybe he can solve my problem too. This is something that gets my heart beating faster. With an existing company, you continue to pursue a pre-existing line; here you can think outside of the box. I’m not creating real change from my office in Horst-Meterik. We have a lot of support here from the province, municipalities and companies; they see how important our work is. However, we need to let more people know about this, and that’s a challenge. We have to have a greenhouse where we can show how innovative we are when it comes to food and plants. And we are getting such a greenhouse. After all, you experience what you see.”


This story is the result of a collaboration between Brightlands and our editorial team. Innovation Origins is an independent journalism platform that carefully chooses its partners and only cooperates with companies and institutions that share our mission: spreading the story of innovation. This way we can offer our readers valuable stories that are created according to journalistic guidelines. Want to know more about how Innovation Origins works with other companies? Click here