In today’s competitive marketplace, innovation is vital for maintaining growth, and the key to innovation is creativity. With that in mind, General Mills has launched an initiative aimed at tapping into expertise and original thinking from outside the company. Katy Humphries spoke with Jeff Bellairs, General Mills’ director of external innovation, to find out more.

Innovation is a prerequisite for success in the food industry and when executed effectively improves business efficiencies, manufacturing processes and customer communications, providing unique competitive advantages.

As one would expect from a major food corporation, General Mills takes innovation seriously. Indeed, in January the company revealed plans to increase spending on new product development to counter slowing sales, and the launch of more than 80 products in its third quarter helped lift sales by an expectation-beating 6%.

With that commitment to innovation in mind, the Minneapolis-based company recently launched its Worldwide Innovation Network (WIN), an initiative aimed at tapping into product development expertise from outside the company and seeking out new products and technologies that will complement its existing brands and businesses.

One imagines that simply keeping up with the pace of product development set in the third quarter might require a certain amount of contracting out. But WIN is about much more than that.

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“When we look at our research capabilities we have about 1,200 people in our technology organisation,” says Jeff Bellairs, General Mills’ director of external innovation who heads up the WIN programme. “But we know that there are tens of thousands of very talented scientists and engineers around the world. So we want to go beyond the boundaries of General Mills and start relationships with those great minds.

“General Mills is very focused on innovation. It is one of the key planks in our strategy to build growth. We are really focused on driving our current businesses forward, so we are looking for things that we could plug into the existing pipeline of products and use to leverage existing brands.”

Casting its net wide also offers the chance of discovering an entirely new product or earning stream. “Of course, we are always open to a serendipitous find that might help us create a new offering and potentially a new business,” Bellairs adds.

Business categories of interest include baking products, cereal, frozen vegetables, pastries, pizzas and snacks, refrigerated and frozen dough, shelf-stable meals, meal kits, soups, snack bars, fruit snacks, yoghurts and soy beverages.

Key to the thinking behind WIN is an open mind, so there is no template for the type of technology or innovation that General Mills is seeking. “We have seen people approach us with ingredients – perhaps new ingredients that offer health benefits,” says Bellairs. “We’ve seen people approach us with new food process technology so that we are able to develop food products that are healthier, or more convenient, or more fun. The types of technology would fall into several buckets: ingredients, processes and packaging.”

Neither is there a model for the type of partner General Mills is looking for: it could be anyone from a lone entrepreneur with a vision to a multinational company operating in a different industry. “We are working with one company right now that brought in a technology from the pet food industry. We’ve had conversations with other companies in aerospace and defence.

“We definitely want to attract people who are familiar with the food business and may have some technologies that we can leverage. But we also want to extend the invitation to people in other industries and in other parts of the world who may have some very different insights and technologies that can be used in consumer food products.”

General Mills also hopes to build relationships with smaller companies who have a product which is already fully developed and has reached the market in some form. In such instances, General Mills brings its manufacturing, distribution, marketing and sales muscle to bear in a mutually beneficial partnership.

A prime example of how this scenario can work, Bellairs suggests, can be seen in the growth of Nature’s Valley fruit bars, launched in January. Having initially identified the potential of the product at a natural products show, General Mills assessed how it could work with the company that developed the concept. “We put a relationship together with that company to source the fruit bars from them and we have paired them up with our snacks business team,” Bellairs explains. ”That product now appears in club stores as the Nature Valley fruit bar. They are selling extremely well.”

Such cooperation enables General Mills to accelerate its product development process. From its experience with Nature’s Valley, the company says it can take as little as seven months from the formation of an initial partnership to delivering the new product to consumers.

“It’s a very rapid timescale compared to the normal process of doing consumer focus groups, having the R&D labs do prototypes, doing scale-up, and buying equipment,” Bellairs observes. “Often that traditional process can take a year, 18 months, two years, or longer. So we think seven months is a great example of how we can leverage people with these products, these capabilities, and bring innovations to the market in a more rapid timeframe.”

Another advantage offered by the formation of external partnerships is the access to intellectual property it affords. “In the US, General Mills owns about 2% of food-related patents,” says Bellairs. “This is great for a company of our size and we are very proud of that. But it still means there is 98% of intellectual property out there that is protected by patents we don’t have access to unless we get creative and start relationships with people outside General Mills.”

With NPD viewed as key to future growth at General Mills the company has shown its willingness to get innovative about innovation. Although WIN is still a relatively new project, the programme is already chalking up some significant successes, swiftly bringing new products and brands to market.