In the latest installment of our What do you do series, we caught up with Paul Niemann, who has been leading product development at quinoa snack firm eatKeenwa, on why new product development is more like problem solving, how many hats the EVP of a startup actually has to wear and how to get the ‘bird seed’ taste out of quinoa (or what he calls the king of plant protein).
Tell us about your work at eatKeenwa.
My main focuses have been directed toward leading new product development and innovation of the brand along with the business and manufacturing operations. When it comes to NPD and innovation, the company handles our entire R&D in house—from initial ideation, concept and design to formulation, prototyping and optimization, all the way to commercialization. I put a good deal of time in researching the market, studying trends, looking for untapped opportunities, and searching for new/innovative functional ingredients that we could have pivoted on to improve our current line as well as develop new extensions. On the operations and manufacturing side, I oversaw, planned, designed and controlled the processes of production, ensuring that we were constantly improving on efficiencies and effectiveness.
What's your background and how did you get into product development for the food and beverage industry?
Academically, I hold a B.S. in business economics with a minor focus in organizational leadership. Thinking back on it, it probably started during my younger years of college. I was just getting into exercise, resistance training and dieting. When I started to see physical results from my efforts, it fueled an interest and inevitably a passion for food science, chemistry, nutrition and even human anatomy—all of which were self-taught. When I look for a relationship between my academic career and NPD, there are many commonalities between the two. Both have a multitude of variables, both require heavy analysis, and both require high-level attention to detail and problem-solving skills to achieve the solution. I look at new product development more like problem solving. And your problem is to find the optimal product solution for your target market.
What's the most exciting and scariest part of launching a food business?
Creating something from the bottom-up, a product that people really love, seeing it on the shelf at retail banners I looked up to as a kid and hearing the feedback from our fans. To me, those are the things that get me really amped up.
We also knew the associated risk and hard work a startup required in order to get our brand to where we envisioned it. Every day at eatKeenwa was full steam ahead, so being scared kinda took a backseat. It could be stressful though. Over the last eight months, I’d say supply-chain issues (quinoa) topped the list.
Tell us something we might not know about working with plant proteins, and quinoa in particular.
Quinoa is king. When it comes to plant proteins, quinoa is undoubtedly the most nutritional dense plant on planet Earth. The protein found in quinoa seed makes up 16 to 20% of its entire weight. That is incredible! What is even more remarkable is the quality of these proteins. It is the only plant in the entire world that has sufficient levels of all nine essential amino acids or what many call a ‘complete protein’. That is significant for many reasons but most importantly; it provides an avenue to those who do not have access to high quality proteins sources. It also gives vegans, vegetarians, or for those who are disenfranchised with what they have seen, heard or experienced with animal-based proteins.
Another common trend I see and read about when working with quinoa is that it has a bitter taste. Many don’t know this but, quinoa has a naturally occurring chemical called saponin that is contained around the pericarp of the seed. It is easily removed by washing the seed off before use. Many suppliers cut corners with regard to this step to save time and money. That’s when you see someone blogging about their first experience with quinoa and noting that it taste like bird seed. Quinoa cooks up in 15 minutes start to finished, with minimal effort: two parts water to one part raw quinoa is usually the ratio depending on the seed variety.
Overall, what I see is that plant proteins have a huge future in the F&B industry. There is a ton of untapped opportunity all over the place and you’re already seeing brands large and small getting skin in the game, reformulating their existing lines, and launching new lines as well. I think it’s only a matter of time until you see plant-based proteins take over as the main drivers in functional ingredients. (Minus soy. That can be another topic of discussion.)
Editor's note: Since the article was reported, Niemann left eatKeenwa to pursue other opportunities.