These technologies include freeze drying, membrane concentration, cooking extrusion, plant leaf protein, Dihydrochalcone sweetener, retort pouch foods, “aseptic” fresh sausage, 2 liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soft drink bottles, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) replacing sugar in baked goods, acidified foods, blend-in-can vitamin mix, automated material handling for cereal and ice cream, reduced water consumption for ice cream, cold extraction for baby foods, and aseptic juices.
Over those years, my experiences have included international locations including Mexico, Canada, Egypt, Moldova, Albania, Malawi, Haiti, India, Honduras, China, and Europe. The point is that my opinions on commercialization are influenced by experiences in several cultures and many different circumstances.
Issues in Commercialization
Commercialization is the successful conversion of a new product or process to profitable use—the transition from lab to plant and market. The key issues include economics, market need, the team, timing, and robust technology.
Economics means that the technology or product (used interchangeably here) offers a significant benefit to the consumer, that it requires affordable capital investment, and that it offers a satisfactory margin to the manufacturer. What makes a benefit significant, what is an affordable investment, and what is a satisfactory margin are important questions whose answers depend on the circumstances—the broader economy, the size and nature of the firm, and the target consumer.
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Market need refers to whether the need is real or perceived, whether it is niche or broad, and whether it can be communicated. Real needs are more likely to sustain a viable business than those that are perceived, but not tangible. On the other hand, markets have been created by visionaries who have seen opportunities before the opportunities are appreciated by the general public. Niche markets are generally small, but may support high margins. Organic foods as a category may be an example of a fast-growing niche market. Finally, if the benefits of a technology cannot be explained or rapidly appreciated, the technology may founder.
The right team is critical for successful commercialization. This typically means that it must be multifunctional and multi-disciplinary. In a food company, that means that food scientists, engineers, and marketing people, at a minimum, must work together and communicate. This is not a trivial challenge. In addition, operations, finance, quality, and human resources people may be more or less active members of the team, but they need to be informed and consulted at least. The team must have an executive sponsor who is capable of committing the firm financially.
It is common for leadership of the team to change during various phases, depending on the skills required, but it is essential that the team remain as intact as possible to preserve coherency and continuity. Every time a change of personnel is made, there is lost time and loss of experience. Because commercialization is almost always under time constraints, delays are harmful.
Timing has to be favorable for success. This can refer to a market being receptive, but it may also refer to the condition of the firm’s finances, to the availability of resources, and to the coincidence of discoveries. The duration of development efforts is often underestimated. There almost always are critical milestones that are unmovable, but critical decisions are often delayed. Schedules need to make allowances for these events. Finally, there is much to be learned from past failures, but it is rare that these are revisited.
Robust technology is appropriate for its location and compatible with existing operations. What is appropriate in Europe or North America may not survive long in a developing country where electricity is unreliable, skills are lacking, and logistics are challenging. Commercializing a new technology is easier if it is simple to explain and understand.
Examples and Lessons
Retort pouch foods were developed by the Natick Labs of the U.S. Dept. of Defense as a replacement for small metal cans in military rations. (The development received IFT’s Industrial Achievement Award in 1978.) The concept was to use a laminate of polymers and aluminum foil to make a flexible, hermetically sealed container that could withstand the rigor of high pressure and high temperature in thermally processing low acid foods.
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The container weighed less than an equivalent can and would not injure a soldier who fell on rations placed in his uniform pockets. In addition, the thin profile was believed to offer improved sensory quality by reducing overcooking. (Canned foods for military rations were notoriously overprocessed to provide long shelf lives at the expense of flavor and texture.)
ITT Continental Baking Company attempted to commercialize retort pouch foods for the civilian market. The company introduced simultaneously a new food category (shelf-stable entrees), a new package (the retort pouch), and a new brand (Continental Kitchens). Any one of these three efforts is difficult; to succeed with all three was doomed. Neither the market need,nor the timing was favorable.
Kraft Foods followed very quickly with similar products, but both ventures failed. Today, the package is popular in Europe and Japan, where shelf-stable foods, in general, are more common because of fewer refrigerated and frozen options and the use of smaller refrigerators is typical. In the United States, retort pouches are used for tuna, chicken, some pet foods, some baby foods, sauces, meal kits, and weight loss (portion-controlled) items.
Membrane concentration is successful for whey fractionation, water purification, and waste treatment. It is a robust technology with a range of membrane materials and porosity available. It was promoted early as a means of concentrating juices, but only recently has at least one firm actually commercialized that concept.
Reverse osmosis, in which only water permeates through the membrane, can give very high quality, clear concentrates from fruit and vegetable juices. The highest solids content attainable with membranes is generally lower than that achieved with thermal evaporation. However, thermal evaporation, even under vacuum, removes volatile flavors and aromas. In some applications, this may be desirable, as when a neutral flavored concentrate is used as a sweetener, such as white grape juice or sweet potato concentrates.
Thermal vacuum evaporation can be applied to membrane concentrate as a finishing step to produce high solids products that are superior in flavor and nutrient content to those made entirely by evaporation. This is a case of a good team finding favorable timing for a relatively older technology and an innovative private firm making a courageous investment.
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Cold extraction refers to pulping raw fruits and vegetables and then cooking the resulting puree before finally finishing to the desired particle size. This contrasts with the traditional approach of cooking whole fruits and vegetables for long times before finishing the softened materials. The result of the newer process is improved flavor and nutrient retention. The concept was developed by a combination of equipment vendors and a baby food manufacturer. However, despite a considerable investment, the original implementation did not work well.
It is not unusual for novel technologies to be refined once in use. In this case, it was recognized that each commodity represented a unique process. Often, the initial step was specific to the particular fruit or vegetable. For instance, peaches were pitted, squash needed to be chopped, and green beans needed special conveyors because of how they entangle. In addition, it was observed that it is generally better to process most commodities when they are ripe to improve yield of pulp. (Juice yields, on the other hand, may benefit from processing earlier.) Heat exchange area and configuration was analyzed and optimized to reduce pressure drop through the equipment, allowing the replacement of pumps that were failing with others that were more reliable. In this situation, a real market need for better quality was satisfied by making a process more robust.
Cold acidification relies on low pH and, sometimes, use of approved preservatives safely to protect fruit and vegetable purees and juices with little or no thermal processing. Some artificially flavored beverages are processed in similar ways. The process has been practiced for many years but only recently have some manufacturers come to the attention of regulators. There was a perception that thermal processing was required for acidified foods. However, that is not what the law says. In this case, an existing technology, widely practiced, was supported by carefully planned experiments and reference to published literature.
Successful commercialization requires understanding the market and meeting a real need, executing well with a good team, and, often, adapting existing technologies. Context matters, both corporate and cultural: Is it affordable and does it fit?
J. Peter Clark,
Consultant to the Process Industries, Oak Park, Ill.