Companies must not ‘switch off’ to good R&D, says Nestlé chief

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

The head of global research and development also warned that striving for a 100% success rates in R&D activities 'automatically reduces risk taking'.
The head of global research and development also warned that striving for a 100% success rates in R&D activities 'automatically reduces risk taking'.

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Great innovations require a long-term roadmap and commitment from the industry in order to succeed, says Nestlé’s head of global R&D.

Food and drink companies must have solid short term and long term visions of their research and development (R&D) and new product development (NPD) activities, even if there is no concrete pipeline of projects, said Dr Johannes Baensch, global head of R&D at Nestlé, speaking at the Global Food Technology & Innovation Summit in London.

According to Baensch, firms must provide a commitment to not ‘switch off’ research and development activities, suggesting that even if there are no concrete details of what R&D activities will be done tomorrow, “everybody needs a roadmap of what to aim for.”

“If people are complaining that nothing is available today, what does this mean? … We have not done our job in the past,”​ he told delegates. “You cannot switch on and off R&D activities. You cannot switch on and off different parts of the industry.”

“It takes time. It takes a vision. It takes a commitment. And this is what we need to do as an industry.”

‘Building blocks’ to innovation

According to Baensch, the industry should work to a long term roadmap that is then supplemented with science and technology building blocks.

“They work a little bit like Lego blocks,”​ he said. “They fit together as you master them, and then these technologies provide a base for your brand and your framework.”

“I think it is very important to understand this … It’s not always that you innovate something completely new, it’s a combinatorial effect,”​ he said. “Take your smartphone, it is not a completely new innovation, it is a combination of other building blocks.”

“You need to have the technology and scientific building blocks in place and also you need to have a process in place.”

Right to left thinking

Baensch also warned that it is vital to not simply assume that you already know what the consumer wants.

“We want to understand the feedback of the consumer,”​ he said. “It is very important that we apply right to left thinking.”

The head of R&D explained that very often in development a company will start with a raw ingredient and try to do something with it – adding that as scientists or engineers, often you will want to sell what you have created to the consumer.

“It is of ultimate importance that you start with the consumer and really understand what is of benefit and what is valued by the consumer … and then apply a backward integration,” ​he said. “This offers you the possibility of more efficient solutions.”

The key to success is to not focus on ‘success’

Nestlé’s R&D system currently handles more than 10,000 projects globally, including around 8,000 locally driven projects from different application groups and approximately 2,000 centrally driven projects that are aimed at driving future growth for the company.

According to Baensch, around 50% to 60% of this R&D activity is successful, however, he noted that a focus on greater R&D ‘success’ can block good innovation.

“I think that it’s not right to force an organisation in to 100% success rates,” ​he said.

“Are we failing at R&D? I’m not so sure. At the end of the day, in R&D you have a problem and you need to solve it. If you solve the problem you learn, and when you learn you create knowledge.”

“Even when you fail at a particular project … that is still knowledge creation.”

Baensch warned that by forcing an organisation to strive for 100% success rates in R&D you automatically reduce risk taking.

“You play only safe, and that is not what you want,”​ he said.

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