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    GROCERY: Center Store Innovation: Open season

    General Mills pushes the envelope on new product development with a new program to discover and exploit innovative technologies from around the globe.

    How does a consumer packaged goods company stay ahead of the competition? If that company is Minneapolis-based CPG powerhouse General Mills, one thing it does is to invite outside partners to join in it the quest to develop exciting new products.

    In April General Mills officially launched its Worldwide Innovation Network (WIN), a program designed to expand and accelerate innovation advances already underway at the company. The aim of the network is to seek out external partners with new products and technologies that will complement General Mills' brands and businesses.

    "We have formalized our open innovation initiative to ensure potential partners recognize that we are not only open to new products and technologies, we are actively seeking them," explains Peter Erickson, s.v.p. of innovation, technology, and quality. "A focus on open innovation has been a critical competitive advantage for General Mills. We believe the next big advance, which may reshape the food industry, has already been invented by someone outside the company, and our goal is to be the first to find it."

    Through WIN, the marketer is looking for patented or patent-pending products and technologies from inventors and small companies. To facilitate this search, General Mills has set up a Web portal at www.generalmills.com/win, or applicants can call (763) 764-4946 (GWIN).

    In search of partners

    General Mills evaluates the submissions according to such criteria as the fit for a particular brand or product line, uniqueness, and expansion or growth potential. Business categories of interest encompass the range of General Mills products, among them cereal; frozen vegetables, pastries, pizza, and snacks; shelf-stable meals, meal kits, soups, and side dishes; snack bars, fruit snacks, and salty snacks; organic soups, cereals, and snack bars; and yogurt.

    "Partners who help us achieve our innovation goals will benefit from General Mills' resources, scale, and credibility in the marketplace to advance their own business," notes director of external innovation Jeff Bellairs. "We believe that innovation, whether it is in our products, packaging, or processes, should deliver mutual benefit to the company, our partners, and the consumer."

    As Bellairs sees it, this kind of open approach to innovation is "something we've always dabbled in." The current program was hatched, however, when about two years ago Erickson charged him with taking the company's existing product development infrastructure "to the next level." Intrigued with the innovation programs in place at biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and electronics companies, Erickson wanted to similarly nurture and develop partnerships with outside inventors, universities, and entrepreneurs, thereby accelerating and enhancing the efforts already taking place within his own company.

    But WIN isn't a replacement for the General Mill's core innovation program. Instead, Bellairs says the initiative adds "a new level of capability," enabling General Mills to react more nimbly to changes in the marketplace and "really get a jump on the game."

    Since the rollout of the WIN portal online (it has been up for over a year) Bellairs says the company has been "pleasantly surprised" by the response. After the official debut of WIN in the spring and the resultant publicity, General Mills has seen an "exponential rise" in the number and quality of submissions, he says. The exec partly attributes the increase to the company's decision to spread the word at such prestigious food industry shows as Anuga in Cologne, Germany, and the Food Ingredient Show in Tokyo.

    More basically, publicizing the portal and phone number has allowed applicants a direct pipeline to General Mills. "People wanted to connect with the company, but didn't know how [before]," admits Bellairs.

    Further boosting its external innovation efforts, General Mills has joined forces with NineSigma's solution provider network to take advantage of the expertise of over 200,000 scientists and engineers in a variety of industries around the world to help solve challenging technical problems. The company has also teamed with YourEncore, a network of retirees with scientific and engineering expertise, to assist with new product development.

    In July General Mills and Indianapolis-based YourEncore revealed the advent of a new food science division within the network, with the express aim of recruiting additional scientists and engineers with focused expertise to augment YourEncore's existing base of technical experts. The new division will enable expert teams to be assembled swiftly, and potential projects and service offerings include new product commercialization, product innovation, and technical problem solving. YourEncore used a similar approach in creating its life science division to serve clients in the pharmaceutical and medical arenas.

    "Central to our ongoing strategy is the expansion of our network of external resources that can contribute to our innovation efforts, and tapping experienced food industry experts through YourEncore will certainly fulfill that objective," says Erickson.

    The expanded partnership calls for General Mills to provide senior technical leadership support and industry insight to YourEncore to help develop the new food science capabilities. General Mills has additionally made a financial investment in the network.

    Experience wanted

    One crucial function of YourEncore's retired General Mills experts is to screen the Web submissions that come in, according to Bellairs, who explains that retirees familiar with the company's needs and technologies convene once a week for the purpose. Telephone inquiries, meanwhile, go directly to Bellairs' team.

    Such a process allows the company to "respond to submissions in a timely fashion," notes Bellairs, adding that a further aim of the program is to build and maintain relationships, as a way of encouraging future innovation: "If we can't use your current process, maybe we can use the next one."

    Of course, innovation doesn't only cover products -- it also encompasses the processes by which those products are made. Bellairs describes the case of an operation issue reducing effectiveness at a plant, which was rectified through a source found by NineSigma in another industry. In fact, having the input of experts from various fields is a key component of WIN, as those experts are able to "supply different perspectives," he contends.

    Products that have arisen as a result of this focus on open innovation are at "varying points of development," but one in particular that has made it to store shelves is Yoplait Go-Gurt Fizzix, notes Bellairs. A carbonated yogurt snack using technology licensed from a university, Fizzix was developed with the help of consumer data provided by the institution, which had sold an early version of the product in an on-campus store. After work on the technical and conceptual aspects of the product as well, the item shipped nationally at the end of July and is now available in Blue Raspberry Rage/Strawberry Watermelon Rush, Wild Cherry Zing/Strawberry Lemonade Jolt, and Triple Berry Fusion/Fruit Punch Charge flavors.

    For another new product, a Nature Valley fruit bar, General Mills was able to collaborate with an outside company to arrange a market test in just six months, instead of the more typical year or two.

    When asked which types of products are proving most popular in terms of innovation, however, Bellairs notes that General Mills "competes across 25 different food categories, and we're seeing a wide variety of technology across all [of them]," with no particular skew.

    In all cases, he notes, "Working with external sources allows us speed to market and capital avoidance," both of which are understandably "a huge plus for us."

    As a further enhancement of its open innovation policy, General Mills is also working with its suppliers to build alliances and bring in technology, establishing additional long-term relationships with outside innovators.

    Such strategies could well place the company at the head of the pack when it comes to the eternal hunt for the new and different.

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