Phil Gerbaulet-Vanasse is the Sr. Director, Product Commercialization at Beyond Meat. Beyond Meat is a plant-based, vegan meat substitute producer that offers options in the beef, pork and poultry categories. As of March 2021, Beyond Meat products are available in approximately 118,000 retail and foodservice outlets in over 80 countries worldwide. Phil describes the role of commercialization and scale-up in food innovation, and shares a few management models to enable product success.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aoi: Phil, do you think we can start by talking a little bit about your background and your journey to Beyond Meat?
Phil: I've been in the food space for almost 30 years. Came through the traditional, big company, CPG background at Kraft Foods, for just about 20 years, mainly in engineering maintenance, and then in the manufacturing and supply chain side.
Over time, I was more and more in the commercialization area – new product development, new flavor-of-the-month, new and improved packaging, new formulation product improvements – the liaison between the operations world and the business side.
After a brief stint with Land O’ Frost, I ended up moving to Beyond Meat and getting into the alternative protein space, which is a fast-growing and highly innovative space and the future of food. My role with Beyond Meat was purely around new product launching, scale-up, and launching products that were already developed and trying to get them out in production.
Aoi: What's something that these managers might have to learn on the job once the company scales and they're working with a much larger team?
Phil: The commercialization space is a phase change. The innovation group is in that gaseous, nebulous white space where they're just coming up with Top Chef stuff and creating stuff that doesn’t exist. They're condensing those ideas into a liquid.
What we do in commercialization is take that liquid state and make it freezable so that you have specific written-down specs and process specs, packaging specs, product specs, quality, etc, so that operations can just run. Operations can't be tinkering and saying, “well, it needs to be a little more of this, a little more that.” It has to be defined.
The role of commercialization and scale-up is to take something from a liquid, “well it's sort of this, it’s sort of that,” and making it “this is the range, this is exactly this, this is the spec, and this is the plus and minus of what good is and what the product needs to be,” whether it's color, texture, flavor, salt, protein.
What the team needs to think about in innovation is “how is this going to become solid at the end of the day? What is the spec going to be?” And the way to approach it is with the end in mind. What are the must-have qualities that will be the success criteria for this product? And that has to come from a customer. It has to come from marketing, or your consumer, or some consumer-testing. Because if you don't have that well-defined, you'll get tripped up in the process.
Aoi: I've heard this echoed in different contexts as well, where if you’re largely on the R&D side, it's all about “Does the science work?” but then once the company scales and you're trying to commercialize a product, it's about, “Do people want the product and what are the challenges around scaling that process to a much larger scale?”
Is there any place where these processes tend to fail most frequently in your experience, going from R&D, nebulous, crazy stuff, to a commercialized, feasible, solid product?
Phil: There are three main areas that I always think you have to have defined in your stage-gate process. More mature companies usually have a well-defined innovation stage-gate process to govern how projects flow and how innovation projects flow.
A new product development process is generally defined as a stage-gate process. The first stage is innovation. Then, it transitions into pilot, plant testing and scale-up. Then product launch. Within those stage gates, you should keep three main areas of development checked off so that you're ready to move ahead, and your project still makes sense to go forward.
The product is one thing. It has to be something people want to buy.
But the package is also very important, and that sometimes is neglected. If you can keep the package development as high-priority, as close to high-priority as the product development, you'll be better off.
And the third is commercial readiness, which is often not the wheelhouse of the R&D people. They may know what the ingredients cost, but they may not know how much labor it's going to take to make, how much yield loss they're going to have, or the distribution and transportation and warehousing costs.
So the commercialization team needs to make sure someone's looking at every stage, “Do we still have a business case that makes sense?” You have to define what those parameters are, what the product costs have to be, so that you can make money on it at the end of the day.
Aoi: How would you recommend teams that are on the innovation side should be thinking about what it takes to get to product launch? What does the survival rate of their products have to be? How many launches should they have in mind? How long does it typically take? Are there any best practices that you might be able to share?
Phil: I think something that companies should keep in mind is that innovation is a high-risk space. When I was a kid, people would talk about how all these different cereals kept coming on the shelf. There's always some brand new cereal, but then six months later, you wouldn't hear about it. Just the standard Wheaties and Cheerios and Rice Krispies and everything else. But there was always a new thing coming out from General Mills or Post Cereal or something. And they would say 90% would fail, but the one that sticks would pay for all the development work on the other nine. So I think having a realistic expectation from your senior management on what the success rate realistically is, is important from a business perspective.
Aoi: It's almost like a portfolio theory mindset. On average, my portfolio will have a certain ROI.
What operational improvement models have you seen in the food industry, and are there any that you think make sense?
Phil: If you break the operational improvement models down and look at them, the real key to all of them is that you have data. You have to measure something to improve it. You have to come up with the metrics and the KPIs that are going to tell you if you're being successful or not. You have to have a system to collect the data and a method about which to go and analyze that, whether it be collaborative teams or pillars or different things that operations groups come up with. I don't particularly have a favorite, or I'm not biased toward one or the other.
The reason they fail is that they’re either unwieldy to get the data and to use the data, or there aren’t the resources in terms of time or manpower, or management support to make sure that there are actionable things going on. Some senior leadership and plant leadership has to be looking at the data, asking for the reports, and doing something with it.
Having just a shiny tool isn't going to get you there. You have to have a culture of continuous improvement, and if you have that culture, and that’s what everyone's working on as part of their job, then the actual tool you use doesn't matter as much.
Aoi: Is there anything that you think less experienced managers might not understand about product development when they come into the role? And something that was the biggest learning curve for you?
Phil: I think I would go back to something I talked about before: it's making sure that you're holistically thinking about product development in those three different buckets of the product; the packaging; and the process; the sweet spot is when all three of those are harmonious.
The issues downstream will come up when there's something that just doesn't work. Either you're trying to fit a product into a process where it's at the edge, or it's just having trouble staying in spec or coming up with a quality product because it's not the ideal process for what you're trying to do. And the same with a package, if the package isn't right. It's going to make the product less successful. So I think keeping all three of those things at the forefront of any product development is the key to being more successful in the end product launch.
Aoi: Do you have some examples of packaging failures that cause a product to fail at the end of the day when things seem to be going well?
Phil: Anytime you're developing a new product, you should have a product brief or a product charter. Something that's defining all the different aspects from, “What does the formula need to be? What are our guard rails?”
If it's in a food-service or retail channel, or going to a QSR customer, like McDonald's or one of these big companies, those customers have specific needs. And you don't want to find out six months, nine months, in, that we can't have gluten, or we can't have GMOs, or the sodium has to be less than 300 milligrams per serving because that's our commitment to our customers from Whole Foods or Taco Bell or whoever the customer is. So you have to make sure all those things are well-defined; otherwise, you could be developing a great product that doesn't meet the needs of your customer.
If you see the package, and it says TBD, or it's not listed at that point, that's a red flag. If the packaging ends up costing $1.50 a pound and your price target for your manufacturing total cost was $2 a pound, well, you're never going to get there if the formula has to come in under 50 cents a pound.
So getting back to your question on the packaging, a good one is shelf life. What does the shelf life need to be for a product to be successful? If you say, well, it's only going to last six days in a refrigerator at the store, but your team said that the product you're trying to compete with last six months, you need to do something. It could be the package, or it could be the product. Both of those things affect shelf life. You can do things on the packaging side to improve shelf-life, or you can do things on the formulation side to improve shelf life. You have to have both of those things in mind; you have to know at least what your shelf life target is and how you're going to get there. And that has to be done early in the development work of the product to be viable.
Aoi: Where did you learn your best practices around product development? And how would you recommend people hone their skills? Are there any resources that you might recommend, books that you read, or management programs that you took?
Phil: I learned more or less through experience. Being at Kraft Foods. They have a well-defined process, and any organization that's going to last and grow should be a learning organization. You don't just rely on Jane or John as the expert.
You document the best practices, and you build those into your process so that the process becomes more foolproof, more checklist-oriented, and if a new person comes in and just trains on the process and asks a bunch of questions and understands what the process is, hopefully, there's nothing in the process that isn’t needed. And anything that is needed is in the process.
And as you develop and grow and continue to improve your process, it should become more rigorous and closer to perfection. So, that process itself should be a learning tool, that if you just learn the process and understand it, that's one way to gain that expertise because everything is there for a reason. And ideally, if you go further over to the right, you'll see some notes on why the step is there. Why is this person the one who's supposed to do it and what they're supposed to think about, and what are the prerequisites, and what steps are counting on that step to be done and completed in that phase? Why are you doing it now versus later?
So the way the organization is going to develop that expertise is by feeding those things back in and not just winging it. When a company is brand new, that’s what they're going to do. But eventually, you start documenting it, writing it down. And as you scale up, you're not going to always have the same two or three people working in the lab. You're going to have 50 people, then a hundred people, and then people in different labs. Just to standardize and build on those best practices, you have to have some process of creating that internal knowledge and making sure everyone's doing things the same way as much as possible.
Aoi: That concludes all the questions that I have today. Thanks so much for your time, Phil.
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