Innovation under lockdown: ‘I kind of turned my kitchen at home into a laboratory…’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Dr. Dilek Uzunalioglu: "The bench-scale work I can do here is providing directional information that will inform lab scale and pilot scale work.”
Dr. Dilek Uzunalioglu: "The bench-scale work I can do here is providing directional information that will inform lab scale and pilot scale work.”

Related tags: COVID-19, coronavirus, lockdown, Motif Foodworks, Innovation, R&D

While some food & beverage companies have hit the ‘pause’ button on innovation projects as priorities shift during this pandemic, others are finding creative ways to keep projects on track, which in some cases has involving transforming home kitchens into R&D labs.

At Boston-based Motif FoodWorks​, which is developing ‘high-impact’ ingredients via synthetic biology that could improve the texture and eating experience of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, head of food applications Dr. Dilek Uzunalioglu says the company remains on course to bring its first wave of ingredients to market in 2021.

My responsibility is developing food formulations and prototypes showcasing our high impact ingredients in a variety of formulations, particularly plant-based meat and dairy alternatives.

“I don’t have texture analyzers and the equipment to explore the physics of how food behaves in the mouth in my kitchen, but the bench-scale work I can do here is providing directional information that will inform lab scale and pilot scale work.”

She added: “After we started working from home, I kind of turned my kitchen at home into a laboratory so I can test our ingredients, and many of the processes and procedures that I use from the lab and pilot plants I have scaled down to work in my home kitchen.

“For example, one of the pieces of equipment I use is the Thermomix​, which allows me to precisely measure any ingredient and run formulations such as yogurt or cheese.”

‘It’s a simple test. You make the plant-based burger, weigh it, cook it, and then weigh it again’

For meat alternatives, one of the key things Motif is measuring is cook loss – how much water and fat is lost during cooking – which affects the juiciness, succulence, mouthfeel and flavor of plant-based burgers. “And you can do that in your home kitchen pretty easily,” ​said Dr Uzunalioglu.

“It’s a simple test. You make the burger, weigh it, cook it, and then weigh it again.”

Stretchability and meltability

As for the stretchability of plant-based cheese, another key metric players in the category are interested in, she said, “You can measure the stretchability of cheese in your kitchen, really the same way you would in a lab.

“You can also do a meltability test. You take a slice of plant-based cheese of a certain thickness and diameter, heat it up, and see how the diameter changes.”

‘I’ve set up a small sensory team [comprising] my husband and my son!’

As for sensory testing, this is less of an exact science, she jokes: “I’ve set up a small sensory team ​[comprising] my husband and my son! I have to say that my son is awesome, he knows all the descriptors like it’s smooth, or powdery, or grainy or creamy.”

When it comes to collaboration, video conferencing platforms enable the team to share pictures and reports, and keep each other updated, said Dr Uzunalioglu.

As for feedback from external partners the company works with at labs and pilot facilities, it’s a mixed bag, she said. “Some of our contacts are holding off some of their projects while moving forward with others; some are carrying on but restricting the number of people allowed in the lab at one time, or moving to a shift system so they can still make progress.”

‘We are actually accelerating other aspects of our business’

CTO Dr Mike Leonard added: “Motif is laser-focused on the safety and health of our team and our partners, and are advancing our programs in that context.

“In some cases our partners have needed to suspend their work during this difficult time; others have been able to safely reduce operating schedules, allowing projects to continue.

“In addition to ensuring all employees who are able can continue their work from a home environment, we are actually accelerating other aspects of our business, like the exploration of new partnerships and technology scouting.

“We expect to be able to hold to our timelines of bringing product to market in 2021.”

  • Read our recent interview with Dr Leonard HERE​.

ryan pandya cropped

At Perfect Day​, an Emeryville, CA-based synthetic biology pioneer producing milk proteins via microbial fermentation (minus the cows), co-founder Ryan Pandya says conducting R&D work under lockdown is a challenge, but that desk work can still be done.

"We instituted a company-wide work-from-home policy one week before the shelter in place order from the County, so it’s been five weeks now. Unfortunately, when it comes to R&D, there's not much that can be done from home, but because we closed our offices a week earlier we were able to plan for it and respond rather than react.

"The team is mostly focused on desk work like data analysis, catching up on literature reading, filing IP, and of course, planning for the future."

SURVEY: How is coronavirus impacting food innovation and R&D?

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How is coronavirus impacting R&D and innovation at food & beverage companies? Is new product development on pause, or is your company going full steam ahead?

Read more and fill in a new survey from Mattson HERE.

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1 comment

food science at home!

Posted by Rachel,

As a food scientist who used to work at home before I found an affordable lab space, doing R&D at home is very do-able if you have a big enough space. You just need a scale, a portable pH meter and refractometer- and a whole bunch of ingredients from your favorite suppliers. A computer with a spreadsheet program and lots of food science knowledge in your mind!

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