Building Networked Innovation


For those competing in the rapid-paced food and beverage industry, whether delivering consumer packaged goods (CPGs), agricultural solutions, or ingredients, you may find that it is time to embark on expanding your innovation ecosystem. Exploring networked innovation can help your food R&D team by accessing additional partner and research assets to generate new, breakthrough ideas and solutions.

There are three major resources to consider when broadening your innovation ecosystem through networked innovation.

  1. Internal Expertise: At smaller companies with limited resources, it may be obvious who the experts are. However, in larger organizations or organizations with high turnover or geographical dispersion, this can be more of a challenge. It can be especially hard to reference expertise from even just a few years ago. When we at CJB and Associates, a boutique food and beverage innovation firm, are working with clients, we’ll too often be referred to previous work only to find there is no written record or it is difficult to locate. The institutional memory of the organization is often too vague to be of specific help with poorly kept, or non-existent content archives. Nevertheless, internal expertise is the logical place to start.
  2. External Partners: If all your R&D has been done in-house so far, it may be as simple as looking to existing partners for some additional development or technology from outside the company. Every company we’ve worked with has some sort of network in place. Usually, it includes suppliers, a group of consultant experts, and possibly some universities and trade association groups. If a good solution can be found with an existing relationship it saves the time and risk of having to establish a new one. If you have exhausted your existing network of external partners, however, it may be time to expand that network to new research partners, including those in other fields, industries or geographies.
  3. Scientific Research: Thorough research of academic and medical journals can identify additional blind spots and potential areas where networked partners can help. If you have access to trade publications and academic journals from other fields, don’t rule anything out as a potential source of ideas and partners. You would be surprised at the breakthroughs that have come from complementary or even completely different industries. Most network partners will also have published papers and research interest that will clue you into whether they might be good fit, or at least worth exploring.

Once you have decided to move forward with networked innovation and identified your expanded research and team of partners, where do you begin?

Defining goals, objectives and strategy

It’s a good idea to start by spelling out what networked innovation means to your company. At CJB and Associates, we spend a lot of time on the upfront part of a project, sorting through the available research, assembling the right team, conducting an in-depth review of the innovation priorities, and determining where and how networked innovation can help. While seemingly trivial, setting a solid idea for what qualifies as “success” is a vital first step in any innovation-oriented project.

Because we’re focusing on the CPG world, any success criteria has to involve a benefit to the consumer. It could be better taste, a health benefit, a cost benefit or some combination. A tangible and measurable definition of success will make defining actionable objectives much easier. For example, if better taste is an objective, set a consumer test-win versus competition or an internal reference as success criteria. If health is an objective, you may need a clinical trial or at least very clear product nutritional guidance (e.g. no trans fat and less than 15% saturated fat; less than 100 calories per serving).

Building a cross-functional team

Setting the strategy should be done cross-functionally and with strong management support and involvement. In the CPG world, you have to have engagement from supply chain, marketing, sales, legal and R&D and possibly HR if there is a cultural hurdle to overcome. The R&D function may talk about breakthrough technology. The legal team will want solid intellectual property (IP) protection and little risk of infringing on others’ IP. The marketing team will think about a superior consumer proposition. Sales will want a great story to bring to customers and a cost basis they can work with. Supply chain will want to make sure the new technologies that emerge can be scaled up and planned for in their capacity and ingredient purchasing planning. Finally, senior management should be able to articulate expectations of what a successful increase in sales and profit would look like and over what timeframe.

Looking at non-conventional solutions

Keep an open mind towards non-conventional solutions to achieve your goal. We have found one of the hallmarks of successful networked innovation is when a solution comes from an unexpected source. For example, in a project that looked for a better way to refine healthy edible oils, we found a promising lead from a group working on fuel cell technologies. In this case the fuel cell team was working with novel separation technologies that, as it turned out, could work for edible oils as well.  In projects involving food ingredients, we have found many breakthrough solutions from the pharmaceuticals world. Pharmaceutical companies have spent years working on better drug delivery technologies. Many of those technologies are ideal for delivering flavors. The pharma groups are usually happy to find new applications for existing technologies and the food companies can take advantage of the years of development and safety testing without spending the many millions of dollars typical of a pharma R&D project.

The Role of Content Management in Networked Innovation

In addition to the discovery process, the management of content will be equally important throughout the networked innovation project. Test results and research content will often be exchanged both within and externally to your organization. This should be done in a way that minimizes duplication of effort and the risk of copyright infringement through unlicensed sharing.

A major key to successfully building networked innovation is having the right content workflow and collaboration tools in place from the start to allow R&D teams to:

  • Review existing research assets to identify internal experts, gaps and areas of opportunity.
  • Allow assessment of theories and collaborative research across all internal departments and functions to ensure quick buy-in and keep the project from bottlenecking.
  • Identify which of your existing partners are a best-fit through a review of published research.
  • Find off-industry experts and research leads more easily and efficiently. Identify research done on other industries’ consumers to help your team uncover new unarticulated wants and needs, and collaborate with the marketing and brand teams to gain valuable insight.
  • Save essential time and resources in the networked innovation process. The more eyes and minds that can be applied to sifting through leads and research, the better.

The challenges of building and running an innovation network are many, and the journey is long. But the rewards of new discoveries made from the collaborative effort are great. The right set of partners, tools, and an open mind will see you on your way in no time to the next big breakthrough.

More food for thought in these related blogs:

Food Companies in Crisis: What Happens and How to Prevent It

Populating Your Breakthrough Food Innovation Pipeline: 3 Types of Content You Might Be Missing

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Author: Carlos Barroso

Carlos Barroso is the founder and President of CJB and Associates, a boutique food and beverage R&D innovation firm offering Chef-to-Shelf® product development to startups through Fortune 100 companies. Prior to founding CJB, Carlos served as SVP of Global R&D and Quality for The Campbell Soup Company. Before that, he was SVP of R&D at PepsiCo, where he oversaw all R&D efforts for PepsiCo Foods, including Frito-Lay North America and Quaker Foods and Snacks, and worked in R&D at Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) paper and coffee divisions in the U.S., Italy, and France. Carlos earned his B.S. degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and has an MBA from Arizona State University. https://www.linkedin.com/in/cjbandassociates/
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