In the latest edition of FoodNavigator-USA’s What do you do series, we talked with Mike Helser, who heads up General Mills’ Worldwide Innovation Network, on his transition from oceanographer to food scientist, the challenging job of bringing innovation to life in packaged food and the funky allure of the Shrimp Chip.
Tell us about your current role.
I lead the General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network (G-WIN), which is a key component of our Connected Innovation strategy within our Innovation, Technology and Quality organization. At General Mills, we believe that there is a great opportunity for us to enhance and accelerate our innovation efforts by teaming up with innovators from outside of our company. To deliver against this strategy, I lead G-WIN where I focus on connecting with external partners around the world who can help us deliver breakthrough innovation for our brands.
How did you get into the food and beverage industry?
A bit by chance. In college, I studied oceanography and then got a job working in the Gulf of Alaska as an oceanographer with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. While at NOAA, I met some food scientists and their research piqued my interest. I’m passionate about food and I have a deep love of science. It was a great discovery and I ended up pursuing my PhD in Food Chemistry at Cornell shortly thereafter. In the end, I was fortunate to join the General Mills team where I’ve had a great experience creating and launching food innovations ever since.
Is there such thing as a typical day for you? If so, what does it look like?
Fortunately not! What best suits me is having a dynamic portfolio of opportunities to create and lead every day. Simply said, I’m a dot-connector. Innovation opportunities present themselves to me every day and I’m focused on bringing them to life in ways that benefit both the entrepreneur or company from the outside, as well as for our businesses and scientists internally. I also spend a lot of time traveling around the world seeking out innovators with technologies and products that are a good fit for our brands and for the technical needs of our company. It is, no doubt, the best job in the company.
What is the most exciting part about your job?
Having been a co-founder of a food and nutrition start-up years ago, I understand the entrepreneur’s perspective when it comes to launching their innovation out into the world. In my current role, I have the privilege to interact with entrepreneurs all the time. It’s always invigorating to experience firsthand their passion and vision for their innovations. The most exciting part of my job is when an opportunity that I’m nurturing with an external innovator develops into a partnership that grows their business while also delivering breakthrough innovation for General Mills. That’s what G-WIN is all about.
If you could have one "do-over" in your career, what would that be?
It’s not really a do-over, but having had the entrepreneur’s experience once before, it’s often tempting to consider going for it again. Being an entrepreneur is definitely not easy, but there’s nothing quite like it either. But in all honesty, my current role gives me the best of both worlds. In General Mills, I have the diversity of initiatives that I lead as well as the unique and talented individuals that I collaborate with every day. And through G-WIN, I have the privilege of connecting with entrepreneurs where I continue to experience their world, albeit vicariously, as well. I’m very fortunate.
What's the most interesting/memorable snack food that didn't get commercialized by Gen Mills?
Two words…Shrimp Chips. I buy them every time I travel in Asia. I’m crazy about them. It’s a good thing I can’t buy them in our company store.
Has working in the food industry changed the way you eat at home?
Definitely. Knowing that consumers are looking for convenient meal solutions based on simple ingredients, I’m constantly experimenting with recipes, ingredients and techniques that can deliver against that need. Because the entrepreneur in me knows that there’s a great business opportunity in it for General Mills, and a great meal for me as well.
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