How can food technologists and their companies adapt to and innovate within the ever-changing realities, opportunities, and constraints of food product development? A Business FIRST panel of research and development professionals held at IFT FIRST on July 19 answered this question and spoke to several related concepts.
One perennial tension within the food industry is whether to build innovative capacity from within or buy it through mergers and acquisitions (M&A’s), noted moderator Bill McDowell, editor-in-chief of Food Technology magazine and vice president, content strategy at IFT.
Lauren Lackey, president at Centauri Innovations LLC, said larger companies that buy technology with the idea that M&A’s will produce quicker wins for revenue sometimes sap the creative, nimble spirit of the company that gets swallowed up. “You take that magic away,” she said. “Maybe it should go the other way, where the small company is teaching the larger company how to do things.”
Smaller companies tend to have higher risk tolerance, which means they’re where disruptive innovation most often begins, while larger firms provide volume, speed, and efficiency, said Shima Shayanfar, principal scientist at Herbalife Nutrition.
But overall, after a period during COVID when the pace of life and business slowed and people had “time to leisurely browse on the internet and come up with crazy ideas,” Shayanfar believes that “we’re now dealing with a stronger food industry that has gotten disruptive and innovative enough to come up with alternative solutions.”
The increased role that artificial intelligence has begun to play in providing actionable data regarding consumer behavior has helped target product development efforts in a more finely honed fashion, Shayanfar added.
Food tech companies need to find—and invest in training—strong product development researchers, Lackey said, adding that seldom happens anymore. “Time is king,” she said. “When developers are new to the company, the time for them to come up to speed and learn foundational things about product development is not there anymore. It’s, ‘Here’s a project. I don’t have time to teach you.’ That’s unfortunate.”
Building a strong culture is key—both the overall culture of the company and its culture of innovation, said Steve Marko, senior director, R&D at Tillamook County Creamery Association. Creating an overall culture where people love working for the company, leadership is engaged and respected, and the brand is strong leads to a culture of innovation, he said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Are we here, at innovation? What is our culture to drive it? How are we delivering products?’ If your teams are not all thinking the same way, you’re going to struggle.”
For teams to work in tandem, every scientist needs to be a salesperson, Lackey said. “If you talk in technical jargon to a marketing person, their brain will literally shut off,” she said. “How do you speak in a language they will gravitate toward? That’s a soft skill. You want to know a little about consumer market research. You want to know a little about marketing. You want to know a little about sales—just enough to be dangerous. So you can have a conversation and see where your puzzle piece fits.”
An audience member asked what to do when told, “That’s not the way we do things.” Lackey suggested behaving as though you’re building a lawsuit. “Think about what data and information you could gather to show why you want to do it the way you want to do it,” she said. “Think about your audience and what they want. Marketing cares about what revenue they’re going to make. It doesn’t have to be all about the science.”
Marko said that if you keep running into that wall, you might be in the wrong place. “And that’s OK,” he said.
Shayanfar said that culture change typically begins at the top of the organization, but Lackey said those in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy can help foment it—if they do it as a group. “There’s strength in numbers. You need volume,” she said. “The lower you are in the organization, the more volume you need.”
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