General Mills senior director of connected innovation Jeff Bellairs was speaking to FoodNavigator-USA.com after a two-day supplier summit held at the firm’s Minneapolis HQ.
He said: “The process will continue to evolve. We’re good at one-to-one collaborations where we work with a partner to solve a problem, but in future we will be looking at many-to-many collaborations where we work with a consortia and plug into a network of solution providers.
“We’re already looking at this in sustainability and food safety areas.”
Tools of the trade
General Mills has a central team of six people working on connected innovation tools and processes, a group of 12 full-time ‘innovation entrepreneurs’ based within its business divisions and a suite of web-based tools to facilitate internal and external collaboration, said Bellairs.
“I think a lot of companies dabble in open innovation, but you can’t do this with part-time staff. You have to have full-time people dedicated to it and the tools to make it work. You also need people that understand how to structure deals with multiple partners.
“We realized this early on – we had great groups of scientists working together, but we were not well versed in structuring deals, and through our external partners development group, we have now got the business models right to ensure that everyone ends up with a slice of the pie.”
Bosses had also become more disciplined and systematic in their approach, rather than getting diverted by ideas pitched by third parties that might be exciting, but did not address problems General Mills was trying to solve, he said.
“We are focused on identifying our consumer and business needs and then seeking partners with the capabilities needed to meet them.”
How much information should you share?
Striking a balance between publishing innovation briefs detailed enough to prompt meaningful responses and giving away your plans to the competition was a constant challenge, admitted Bellairs.
“But we’ve learned that more specific the brief, the higher quality the submission. Our chief technology officer has really encouraged us to lean into the risk, as we’ve found that a lot of our competitors are trying to solve very similar challenges, so the problem is not a secret. What matters is the solution.”
More detailed information could in any case be revealed further along the process after potential collaborators had met and confidentiality agreements had been signed, he said.
Face to face events
While posting detailed technical briefs on the G-WIN website had attracted a lot of publicity, it was only one strand of the firm’s connection innovation program, stressed Bellairs.
There was also an ‘internal version of Facebook’ where General Mills’ employees could collaborate with each other, and annual internal conferences in which staff from across all of its business units were invited to share ideas, he said.
“We also run events for key suppliers - in fact we’ve just held a two-day conference in Minneapolis – where we share what we are looking at with them. Although sometimes direct competitors will be sitting in the same room, we’ve found that just getting our suppliers talking together has led to some great collaborations.
“We also do town-hall meetings all over the world where we invite in start-ups, entrepreneurs, academics to engage with us.”
While open innovation was billed as a means of engaging with external partners to get more exciting products to market more quickly, General Mills had also learned a great deal from sharing expertise within its own four walls, said Bellairs.
Indeed, some of its most exciting products had been developed through breaking down the barriers within its own organisation and employing technology from one part of the business in a completely different area, he said.
“We’re operating in more than 25 different categories, so we can cross-pollinate. One of my favorite collaborations was where we used technology from GreenGiant at Yoplait [a brand associated with refrigerated foods] to create a new product: Yoplait Frozen Fruit and Yogurt Smoothies [which combine frozen fruit and individually quick frozen yogurt pellet. Consumers then add milk and blend to make a smoothie].”