In the first of a new series of exclusive interviews, Professor Peter van Bladeren, Nestlé's director of science and research, tells Stephen Daniells how collaboration is key to innovation at the Nestlé Research Center.
Nestlé is in the midst of transforming from a general food company into a health, nutrition and wellness company. Such a transformation is heavily reliant on R&D and, with an annual spend of almost €1bn, the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland has the challenge of translating scientific innovations into consumer benefits.
So can the R&D brain centre of the world's biggest food company really carry the full weight of this challenge on its shoulders?
No, says Professor van Bladeren, head of the Nestlé Research Center since 2002, which is exactly why so much emphasis is placed on external collaborations.
"We love working with the outside," said Prof. van Bladeren, and such an approach has seen the centre's scientists evolve from "inventors into translators."
Prof. van Bladeren, also chairman of the European Technology Platform 'Food for Life', sees collaboration as key to Nestlé's success. Nestlé has three types of collaboration: simple contract work carrying out clinical trials or analytical work; a large number of small collaborations with universities and research institutes; and a limited number of big alliances. Altogether, these collaborations extend to 140 universities, research institutes and medical centres worldwide.
One such alliance, and Nestlé's largest collaboration with a university or research institute, was signed in November of last year with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to investigate the role of nutrition in cognitive function. The company will contribute up to CHF 5 million (€ 3.1 million) every year for five years.
The possibility of controlling intellectual property makes the alliances more attractive, said Prof. van Bladeren, and with so much investment the objective at the end of the road is to obtain proprietary ingredients and benefits. The key to making these alliances work, however, is to have a proper 'translator' in-house.
"We try to bring the best of nature out," said Prof. van Bladeren, highlighting work with improving bioavailability of nutrients as one example of this.
Research by Nestlé's Gary Williamson used enzyme modification of the citrus flavonoid hesperidin to alter the area of absorption in the intestine and therefore improve the bioavailability of the polyphenol (Journal of Nutrition, 2006, Vol. 136, pp. 404-408).
To improve bioavailability of lycopene, Nestlé researchers produced a form of lacto-lycopene, giving the company a patentable form of an existing nutrient. This resulted is Nestlé's innéov lycopene supplement for skin health and beauty - the company's first and only move into dietary supplements, produced in collaboration with L'Oreal.
Collaboration with Coca-Cola has already seen the launch of the weight management green tea product Enviga to the US market, with the European debut set for next month.
Collaborations with universities have the added advantage of giving the company a first-look at new talent, helping Nestlé stay ahead of its competitors with recruitment.
The seven avenues of nutritional research
Nestlé Research Center is active in seven health benefit areas: protection, weight management, skin health and beauty, growth and development, healthy ageing, performance, and digestive comfort.
In particular, Prof. van Bladeren said: "Healthy ageing has been and will be a critical area."
With Western populations becoming increasingly 'top heavy' with respect to age, critics have argued that a significant gap now exists between 'life expectancy' and 'healthy life expectancy'. This gap is putting increasing strain on a country's health care system.
"Early prevention by food can alleviate the huge expenses by health care," he said, pointing out that healthy ageing is a natural progression from infant nutrition, through growth and development. This area focuses on mobility - physical, mental and gastro-intestinal.
Another burden, and one of the main issues for the food industry in general, is expanding waistlines, especially amongst children.
"First of all, there is no magic pill for weight management, no single weight loss solution," he said. The Enviga launch is proof that such products are not years away, but are already hitting the shelves.
Big projects are underway focusing on diabetes, a major result of obesity, and satiety.
Evolution of a way of thinking
The evolution to nutrition, health and wellness has also seen a transformation in Nestlé's long-term planning approach, with its research centre "taking on more and more of the approach of the pharmaceutical industry, focusing on specific 'pipelines' of research."
Indeed, Prof. van Bladeren said that three pipelines exist - a project pipeline for each business category; an ingredients pipeline looking at the macronutrients lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, and phytonutrients; and the defined health benefits pipeline. Of course, these pipelines are inter-dependent, he said.
Others in the food industry are following this change of approach, said van Bladeren, but Nestlé remains "further along than many others."
It would be nice to work like pharmaceutical companies, he added, with yearly investor meetings reporting phase I, II, and III progress from projects and innovations, but the nature of the food industry does not (yet) allow such proclamations since the type of innovation remains different for the moment: while the pharmaceutical industry can be relatively open about its projects due to the unique, and therefore patented, nature of molecules, the food industry has to work with what nature has provided.
Into the future
For the future, Prof. van Bladeren sees the big consumer trends already set, with natural, healthy, nutritional and fresh products driving the industry.
But such trends only account for the 2.5 billion consumers around the world who earn more than US$ 1,500 (€1,100) per year. What about the other four billion people who earn less than this?
Nestlé and its research centre are already addressing this, said Prof. van Bladeren, with the launch of the PPP programme (Popularly Positioned Products) to provide cheap but nutritious products. The programme is already operating in northeast Brazil, and the challenge now is to expand this and increase industry awareness.
Nestlé is taking this very seriously, with Prof. van Bladeren admitting that these products are consuming "quite a bit of R&D."
To succeed in making healthy food available to all, no matter the depth of their pockets, requires a profound understanding of the local situation and conditions, and that means collaboration. Given Nestlé Research Center's expertise in managing collaborations for the benefit of all parties - not least the eventual consumer - there is plenty to indicate that this should not be a problem.
Stephen Daniells is the food science reporter for NutraIngredients.com and FoodNavigator.com. He has a PhD in chemistry from Queen's University Belfast and has worked in research in the Netherlands and France.