For Abigail Stevenson, it’s all about the spark. It might be the glimmer of a better way to develop and deliver nutritious foods to people and their pets. It could be the gleam of a new idea to advance data-driven sustainability. Or it might be the flicker of a blue-sky concept that holds promise to create a more resilient supply chain. Whatever the endeavor, the moment that spark of scientific curiosity ignites, she’s there for it.
“When you get to spend time exploring science and co-creating or leading research and development of foods and systems that really make a difference or have the potential to transform outcomes, that gives me chills,” explains Stevenson, Mars chief science officer (CSO) and vice president of the Mars Advanced Research Institute (MARI). “What excites me is how we can apply precision science and technology solutions to food, nutrition, and the health of people, animals, and the planet.”
As Mars CSO, a role she accepted in 2022, Stevenson has access to a lot of scientific flint across the global enterprise. Not only does Stevenson champion the multinational food and pet nutrition manufacturer’s involvement in cutting-edge science discovery and application, she also helps drive external partnerships with academia, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and peers to advance science-based solutions while building the pipeline of science and technology talent at Mars. Simultaneously, Stevenson leads MARI, which connects Mars with emerging science and technology to spark discoveries with the potential to reinvent the future of its business. And she oversees the Mars Global Food Safety Center (GFSC), a state-of-the-art research and training facility that is the core of a global network of partners and collaborators tackling the world’s most significant food safety challenges.
Although she studied ecology as an undergraduate, her 30-year career with Mars has afforded her the opportunity to work in several of the company’s business units, including a 20-year stint in science communication at the Waltham Petcare Science Institute. Stevenson says that broad experience to explore food from many angles has given her valuable insight into food science and nutrition, the relationship between food and the environment, and how that relationship impacts the product through to how the finished product impacts health.
“I now have the opportunity to work end-to-end on supply chain resilience, sustainability, and health holistically,” Stevenson notes. “What excites me about food science is that it’s at the center of all those things. Increasingly, you see that multidisciplinary approach to science, where we bring fields that were in the past seen as distinctly different together to look holistically at how we leverage science for the future of food, our environment, and health.”
Food Technology chatted with Stevenson about the science that sparks her joy as she leads Mars’ efforts from blue sky to practical application to future-proof food innovation.
As CSO, one of my missions is to help share the great work that is going on in Mars today [across] many different areas of science and technology. In my role, I’m able to look across all those different parts of our organization and make connections that others don’t necessarily see, to really amplify and share the amazing work. I also bring together people from within our science community to foster those connections that enable us to spark ideas and leverage and learn from each other. Bringing together talented scientists to enable them to share and collaborate across different areas of science and to really amplify their work and spark new creative ideas together is what I love to do.
Within the Mars Advanced Science Research Institute, or MARI part of my role, it’s about sparking new ideas with the potential to transform the way we do things in the future. It’s about having the freedom to explore ideas that may spark something transformational and to work with inspirational scientists who can think beyond the constraints of today. Together with other brilliant scientists across our businesses and beyond, we remove the barriers to thinking and the constraints around that, to explore the ‘What if?’ and ‘What if we could?’ questions. In other words, exploring and making those things that today are impossible, potentially possible.
The mission of the Mars Global Food Safety Center is very much about safe food for all. And that is done through driving research in areas that present some of the biggest challenges in food safety facing both Mars and the food industry more broadly. And here we’re working in three areas. We’re working on mycotoxin risk management, microbial risk management, and food integrity, which includes food authenticity. We’re looking for new methods, new insights, and new knowledge to help us and the wider industry raise the bar in food safety. Food safety is the foundation of food security as well as the foundation of sustainable food systems more broadly, I think. Because if your food isn’t safe, it’s not food.
It is vital because science and technology helps shape the future. And in Mars, as a family-owned business, we’re able to think in generations, rather than just financial years. We invest in long-term solutions. This approach means we can really take a very long-term view to our science programs. So, we can think about how science transforms our businesses, the industry, and how we can take responsibility for helping shape the future. I think there’s never been a more important time for us to think about the future that we want, that the planet needs, and the solutions that are going to be required to build sustainable food systems for the future. Science and technology is at the core of that for both our business and for the planet beyond our business.
Last year, Mars made a commitment to be net zero by 2050. Research and development have a central role to play in helping achieve that target. To develop the solutions that are required to meet the 2050 deadline, we must start [those projects] today. Today we are implementing science and technology that started 10 years ago. Solutions that are being implemented today took more than 10 years to get to the point of application. So, between now and 2030, we will be implementing science that already exists.
Beyond 2030, we need new science and technology to continue to drive down our environmental footprint, to take responsibility for improving the state of the planet, the health of people and pets, and to strengthen supply chain resilience. The science that we’re doing today will take another 10 years to come through into application, especially the more exploratory science that’s done in the likes of MARI. We must start research today if we are going to be ready to bring applications through in the next five to 10 years. So, cutting-edge science is critical to the future, not only for our business, but for the future of the planet, too.
Thankfully, the culture of Mars has always been one that is driven [and] deeply focused on science. And we use science, whether it’s our own science or the science of others, to guide the decisions that we make across our businesses. The 2050 target that we’ve set for net zero is based on science and scientific evidence. On top of that, we have made science investments within our segments, and then focused on the nearer-term applications of the strategy within each of the segments. The Cocoa Science Center is a good example of a Mars segment-specific science center.
At Mars, a culture of science and technology is at the heart of who we are. We take short-, medium- and long-term views as a continuum. So, the flow of science and technology initiatives is supported from the long-term science discovery to nearer term solutions and then into segment-specific application in key strategic areas of importance such as sustainability, pet and human health and nutrition, supply chain resilience, and food safety.
We also look at how we build science capabilities that can be applied in very specific business use cases. For example, in 2018, we set up the Mars Advanced Research Virtual Environment Lab, a dedicated high-performance computing cluster in the United States at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We’ve worked [at the lab] to establish this supercomputing capability, and together with the University of Tennessee’s National Institute for Computational Sciences, to bring in advanced modeling and data analytics capabilities for all our segments to use in a centralized capacity that could enable many different applications. We’ve already done some very interesting internal simulation models for kibble coating and sugar crystallization models on Skittles and M&Ms. So, these capabilities, once we have them at the center of our business, can be applied to different problems across the segments based on a centralized capability that all our scientists can tap into.
A very exciting challenge for us, especially in the emerging science area, is how fast everything is moving in the computational science space. In the data modeling, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and bioinformatics space, specifically, and how this is transforming the way we do science today. These tools are enabling us to leverage data at a scale and pace that we’ve never been able to do before. Orchestrating all that data and having robust data strategies to support these emerging science capabilities is a challenge.
While computational science is an opportunity to unlock innovation at [great] pace and scale, it also creates challenges around data architecture, how we build the right mechanisms for interpreting that data, and the responsibilities that come alongside that data as well. About 15 or 20 years ago, it was about generating enough data to be able to validate a hypothesis or test a hypothesis in science. Today, it’s more about now having the capacity to store and interpret all the data that we have access to. Data is no longer the bottleneck in the process. It’s now more about memory and the cost of storing all that data, and then adequate capability to interpret that data. We need to apply robust, rigorous scientific principles to the way we interpret data, and ensure that it makes sense. As scientists, critical thinking is more important than ever as we utilize AI-driven technologies to fuel our discoveries.
Certainly, collaboration and partnerships are at the heart of how we do science in Mars right across the organization. While we have talented scientists within Mars, we know we can’t possibly know everything and we know that collaboration brings additional perspective and diversity of thought. We have several academic, NGO, technology company, supplier, and startup collaborations around the world.
Among them is a 40-year relationship with University of California, Davis, where together we’ve made discoveries like a new bright blue color from a red cabbage pigment and work together on cacao crop research. Another example is our cocoa flavanol research program, which goes back more than two decades, and this has enabled us to support the Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS) through investigator-initiated unrestricted grants, along with providing the cocoa flavanol and placebo test materials used in the trial. COSMOS was initiated and conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School. Additionally, we’re now collaborating with a startup called PIPA to use artificial intelligence that leverages biomedical databases and innovation pipelines to provide Mars with unique capabilities for designing new products to address growing consumer demand for health benefits from foods, beverages, and dietary supplements. That’s just a few examples.
These collaborations, particularly with universities, also provide a great opportunity to help develop the next generation of scientists. We bring together the academic science training with an industry-relevant problem [to which] they can apply the science, which really helps build great scientists with a passion for [solving] real world problems.
One of the amazing achievements we’ve had started with an idea between the Waltham Petcare Science Institute and MARI, [which aimed to] answer the question, ‘Is it possible to leverage veterinary health data to predict risk of disease or health outcomes for pets and pet health?’ We started this work in 2017, around the time data analytics was beginning to emerge as a science in its own right. Many people told us it was absolutely impossible to do, but Mars Petcare now has a product called RenalTech, a predictive diagnostic tool that enables veterinarians to predict feline renal disease earlier than when using normal clinical measures of health and health outcomes in pets. The method is based on a huge amount of data from our Banfield Pet Hospital veterinary business and data analytics.
As soon as that spark came alive during early-stage discovery, as soon as we were able to see this is actually possible, then that work really moved into the business. But the work that happens right at the beginning, with the science and technology teams, is just the exploration. What if we could? What will enable us to do that?
There is so much that excites me about what’s possible. I think there are so many things emerging in science and technology with the potential to transform our approach to food. If you take technologies like fermentation, precision fermentation, even biomass for production of larger volumes of specific plant proteins [and] different ways to produce ingredients, I think we’re at the tipping point for a transformation within the food supply chain in terms of how food ingredients are produced [and] the products that they’re going to enable us to formulate and produce.
We’re at the cusp of a transformation with opportunities to personalize foods, to tailor foods to lifestyles, cultures, [and] genetic predispositions, and that’s what excites me. I think we’re going to be able to bring together that data-driven approach that I talked about. With our ability to leverage different ways to analyze data with new technologies and capabilities, science is going to transform the future for food. And it is incredibly exciting to be at the heart of that through the work that we do across the Mars ecosystem.
As Abigail Stevenson expressed, "Science and technology is at the core of that for both our business and for the planet beyond our business." A prime example of Mars' long-term science investment is the cocoa research being conducted at the University of California, Davis, and around the world. Read more about the Cocoa for Generations program in the digital exclusive article.
Company: Mars Inc., U.S.-based multinational manufacturer of confectionery, pet food, and other food products and a provider of animal care services. Ranked the fourth largest privately held company in the United States by Forbes, with $45 billion in annual sales in 2022
Experience: Chief Science Officer, Mars; Vice President, The Mars Advanced Institute (MARI); Director, Mars Global Food Safety Center; Director of Stakeholder Relations and Science Communications, Mars Petcare; Head of Science Communications, Waltham Petcare Science Institute
Education: BS, ecology, University of Stirling; PhD, cat nutrition and urinary health, University College London
Noteworthy: Leadership supporting initiatives, including COSMOS, the largest clinical dietary intervention trial, investigating the impact of flavanols on health; founding partnership in the African Orphan Crops Consortium, which enabled the genome sequencing of 101 traditional African food crops traditionally neglected by science; discovery of a natural alternative to artificial blue food colorants in cabbage
Favorite Quote: “Everything is theoretically impossible until it’s done.” (Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer)